Sunday, October 28, 2007

GREAT FILMS: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."- J.J. Hunsecker

Sidney Falco is a hustling press agent, who finds himself in a bind, when J.J. Hunsecker has cut him off from his paper. Hunsecker is the most powerful, influential newspaper columnist in the city, and Falco makes his living on putting his clients in that column. So, why does Hunsecker cut him off? Because Falco had made him a promise that he didn't keep, and Hunsecker doesn't appreciate people who don't keep their promises.

Thus, the stage is set for the greatest story of sacrificed integrity in the history of motion picture. The promise made by Falco (Tony Curtis) was that he'd end a relationship between a girl and a jazz guitarist. The girl is Hunsecker's sister, and she is "the only thing I got left" he claims. So Falco is told to foil the relationship, and when he doesn't, Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) cuts him off, sending Falco into a whirlpool of deceit in order to make a living.

Burt Lancaster's portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker is one of the most villainous characters that was ever on the screen. He turns people inside out. With his power, and public opinion at his grasp he could turn the most innocent person topsy-turvy. Lancaster makes his presence large, and brooding. The character is based on Walter Winchell, an equally powerful and erratic columnist, who broke the taboo of being able to expose the private lives of public figures. Hunsecker takes that logic one step further: he doesn't want to expose, he wants to destroy.

What makes this film a masterpiece is the way it delves in to see into the souls of the characters, only to find there isn't any soul left. No one is safe from the power and corruption, and those who think they can fight it, end up in bad situations.

Falco's elaborate scheme to dismember the young relationship is sleazy if not impressive. Hunsecker wants him to break up the marriage, because if he were to do it himself--and with his power he could easily--that would only fracture his relationship with Susan (Susan Harrison), his sister. Falco can see that Hunsecker's unhealthy connection with Susan is partly deranged, but that is not his business. His business is getting his clients in Hunsecker's column, and if he has to break up a young, fleeting romance to do it, so be it.

Now, Falco is the most disreputable character in the film, the way he slithers around to get things done. Many note that he could get what he wanted if he just asked, instead of acting like such a snoop. We see him to get his stories in the papers by making a helpless woman sleep with one of the newspapermen. The scene is painful, but we also note Falco's desperation. Falco doesn't earn our full contempt because he does his work at the behest of Hunsecker. In a way, his hands are tied. He doesn't know how else to make money, because the only other example he has is Hunsecker.

In the end, Hunsecker is able to end the relationship, but he's become so blind to the situation at that point that he doesn't realize that he his left himself without an ounce of decency. He's spent a career ruining reputations and sometimes entire lives, and as the old adage says, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely". When the people he goes after are people of his own family and friends, he finds himself alone and pitiful.

Sweet Smell of Success is probably the greatest film ever made about corruption and what it does to the human soul. It is frank for it's time. Shatters taboos. More importantly, it doesn't let go to the characters and their mentalities, and no one is left unscathed.

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