Sweet Smell of Success
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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