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Almost from the beginning, Tony Curtis was seen as the ideal choice for Sidney Falco. Lancaster had worked with the younger actor in Trapeze (1956) and enjoyed their give-and-take on the set. But Curtis had to fight hard for the role because his studio, Universal, believed (quite rightly, it turned out) that the role would destroy the matinee idol image they had created for their popular star. Curtis wanted out of the grind of costume adventure epics the studio pushed on him, and he knew he was far better suited to gritty, contemporary urban dramas. He believed in Sweet Smell of Success so strongly, he even co-produced the picture through Curtleigh, the company he had formed with his wife at the time, Janet Leigh.
Casting Hunsecker was a bigger problem. The description of the character in Lehman's story suggests someone with the physical characteristics of Charles Laughton. For a time, Orson Welles was considered. If United Artists hadn't pressed for a big name in the role of Hunsecker, Lehman would have preferred character actor Hume Cronyn, a small man who would have captured Hunsecker's dominating presence through a sheer force of malice. (To get an idea of Cronyn's ability to play a complex villain, see him in Brute Force (1947), Jules Dassin's bleak prison melodrama). That intriguing possibility was discarded though once Lancaster decided he would have more boxoffice clout in the role and cast himself as Hunsecker; HHL was his production company, after all.
Lancaster made a wise choice in hiring legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, who had lensed two of the actor's earlier films, Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) and The Rose Tattoo (1955). While Howe and Mackendrick were in New York to scout locations, they formulated the idea of starting scenes in exteriors then following the characters indoors. They also took multiple still shots from various fixed points so Mackendrick could learn "the image of New York." Back in Hollywood, the director taped the shots as panoramas on his office wall. After living with the stills for a time, Mackendrick hit upon the idea of conveying the claustrophobic atmosphere of the city's canyoned streets by shooting low, with the buildings looming over the characters. This technique also gave the threatening, unsettling effect of showing the characters knifing upward into the air. Later filmmakers, such as Sydney Pollack, were heavily influenced by this unconventional use of lenses and their framing. "They reversed the normal shooting concept. They shot almost every master shot with long-focus lenses, from very far away, in order to pack the buildings in tightly behind the people," Pollack explained. "Then they shot their close-ups with wide-angle lenses, to keep the background in focus and, again, an awareness of the buildings. These techniques create an overall effect, in which lay moviegoers feel oppressed by the city, without necessarily understanding why."
With temperatures well below freezing, the exteriors were shot at night from late December 1956 into January 1957. The interiors were shot, with a couple of exceptions, in February and March at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. Art Director Edward Carrere, who later won an Oscar for his work on Camelot (1968), re-created in great detail the "21" Club and Toots Shor's nightspot. He and Howe seized on the idea of building the sets a couple feet off the floor to make room for spewing smoke pots that gave the clubs their cigarette-heavy feel. They also had the walls and ceilings smeared with oil to give the sets a slimy sheen and carry the look of the dirty, rain-soaked streets indoors. Howe also decided to fit Lancaster with thick glasses, often smudged with oil, that when lit closely from a high angle, would deepen his eye sockets and produce a strange mask-like effect.
The careful preparation of the film's look gave the actors an evocative space in which to build their performances, and heightened the sense of betrayal, danger and sleaziness that permeates Odets's script. Curtis immediately threw himself into the role of Falco, acting so keyed up on the first take, Mackendrick had to devise obstacles and moves to slow him down. Lancaster and Curtis meshed well together, and drew inspiration - at Mackendrick's suggestion - from the predatory dance in Ben Jonson's play Volpone. But Lancaster was a demanding actor, not always easy to work with, and his tendency to try to wrest the directing reins from Mackendrick, combined with difficult location shooting on a film without a completed script, caused a lot of tension on the set. Mackendrick didn't ease the situation with his own fears and suspicions, based on what he knew of HHL's cutthroat methods and Lehman's parting warning: "They chew directors alive." Tipped off by the movie╒s editor, Alan Crosland, that HHL would fire him after principal photography and recut the movie to their liking, Mackendrick shot the much disputed final scene in a manner which would be difficult to edit (It was a moving camera shot). He wanted to favor a female character's point of view over Lancaster's insistence that he and Curtis be given the final shot. The ploy worked because after he was fired, Lancaster delivered a final cut of the film and soon realized his mistake, eventually calling MacKendrick back in to fix the ending. But even armed with his own tricks, the director admitted to being "scared stiff" during the entire production. During a heated, alcohol-fueled argument over the disputed scene, Mackendrick said Lancaster began shouting, then "came at me across the room with that coiled-spring animal energy, like a panther, and vaulted over a sofa in one of the most graceful movements I've ever seen."
Lancaster began directing the other actors, particularly relative newcomer Martin Milner (who said he "never quite connected" with Mackendrick), and constantly challenged Mackendrick's interpretation of how the film should look and feel. For Curtis, Lancaster's behavior was an inevitable bleed-over between actor and character, both powerful, confident men who got to their positions by manipulating and controlling others. But despite the tremendous problems during production and the initial failure of the film at the box office, Mackendrick looked back on it years later as a valuable experience. "The moments of your greatest fear are also the moments you look back on as your greatest thrill," he said. "The danger is an aphrodisiac. It must be."
by Rob Nixon
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Alexander Mackendrick was best known as a director of British comedies (The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers, 1955) when he was chosen to replace Ernest Lehman as director on Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The result was a visually stunning and hard-edged film noir melodrama which was actually a little too strong for mass audience acceptance in its time. It told the story of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a powerful and dangerous national columnist, and his obsequious assistant, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Hunsecker, who has the power to make and break reputations in his daily newspaper column, was said to be modeled on Walter Winchell who had made his share of enemies during his peak years.
The screenplay was inspired by an original story from Ernest Lehman who worked for celebrity press agent Irving Hoffman in Manhattan in the late 1930s. Lehman had ample opportunity to observe the treacherous world of celebrity gossip he was working in and he even supplied Walter Winchell with column "items" on occasion.
Due to heath reasons, Lehman, who was serving as director and screenwriter, had to abandon the film production of Sweet Smell of Success in the early stages and MacKendrick took over direction. Clifford Odets was brought in to give the dialogue more punch with street slang and New Yorker vernacular.
Lancaster, whose production company had optioned Sweet Smell of Success, was considering Orson Welles for the role of Hunsecker when he decided to play the character himself. Compromising himself further, he also began to challenge Alexander MacKendrick's directorial decisions once filming began, a possible result of identitying too closely with the overly manipulative Hunsecker character. Although Lancaster delivered a final cut of the film without Mackendrick's involvement, he soon realized his mistake and called the director back in to fix the ending. The result is without a doubt MacKendrick's most accomplished film and a testiment to his careful rehearsal and elaborate storyboard preparation for the film.
What's most surprising is the fact that Sweet Smell of Success was totally ignored during the 1957 Oscar race. Not only was Tony Curtis's breakthrough performance as the self-loathing Sidney Falco ignored but even Elmer Bernstein's dynamic, jazz-influenced score failed to garner an Academy Award nomination. The latter featured notable contributions from Chico Hamilton's Quintet and such fine musicians as Frank Rosolino, Curtis Counce, Paul Horn, and Buddy Clark.
Director: Alexander MacKendrick
Producer: James Hill
Screenplay: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Editing: Alan Crosland Jr.
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Cast: Burt Lancaster (J. J. Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsecker), Martin Milner (Steve), Sam Levene (Frank D'Angelo), Barbara Nichols (Rita).
by Jeff Stafford
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Burt Lancaster was certainly a bonafide super star of the highest order; he scaled the highest of heights possible in the Hollywood of his day. But what truly distinguished him from all of the other superstars of his generation was the body of work he left behind as an independent producer, including groundbreaking films he either appeared in or simply produced. He, in fact, was among the very first mainstream artists to utilize his well earned leverage to promote what turns out to be the very first smaller art-house films this nation had ever experienced.
But of all the films that got made under the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster banner the most emblematic of Burt's unique and highly evolved aesthetic is The Sweet Smell of Success, a film that was daring, to say the least, when it first appeared in 1957, but has grown in stature in the eye of the true film devotee over the course of time. It currently appears on more best film lists than can be expressed. It boasts what this viewer considers the greatest dialog ever to be filmed, emanating from a stunning collaboration of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, making one of his rare forays into screenwriting. Then there are the performances, led by the mind blowing characterizations of Tony Curtis as the smarmy public relations agent Sidney Falco, and Burt himself as the inimitable columnist JJ Hunsecker, a characterization consisting of biting cruelty, turning a phrase as if turning a knife, and without resembling in any way any other character that Burt ever played. Under the watchful eye of director Alexander Mackendrick and with stunning black and white photography provided by the brilliant James Wong Howe, The Sweet Smell of Success represents everything that is mind-blowing about cinema.
While I was working on post production on The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), I noticed John Frankenheimer, rather than presiding over the session, had his head buried in what appeared to be rather compelling book. When I questioned him about it he said that his obsession with reading was something he learned from Burt Lancaster, with whom he made five films. Burt, he told me, liked to read almost a book a day. That's when the light bulb went on for me; it explained Burt's keenly evolved love of smart literature. Not bad for a self educated kid that grew up on the mean streets of New York.
by Ron Perlman