Remedial Film School: A Conversation about Sweet Smell of Success with Sam Fragoso

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Sam Fragoso, host of Talk Easy and founder of Movie Mezzanine is our guest critic, and he chose Sweet Smell of Success from 1957 (currently available on iTunes and other platforms). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Fragoso explains: It’s been said before but I’ll say it again: the sign of a truly great film is one that feels singular upon each repeated viewing. There’s a whiff of familiarity to these movies, and yet they continue to illuminate in different ways each time you re-enter their space. Watching director Alexander Mackendrick’s masterpiece now, I see it dangling in the distance, jazzy and undulating, simultaneously satirizing and exploring the pursuit of success.

The deceptively simple story follows Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a calculating publicist who will stop at nothing to make a name for himself (and his dwindling clientele). He’s conniving and duplicitous, as morally bankrupt as his idol, Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). But their relationship is purely transactional: J.J. needs Sidney to undue his sister’s love affair with a jazz player, and Sidney needs J.J. to give his talent space in the nationally read column.

Sweet Smell of Success is essentially an unsavory, quick-witted game of cat and mouse. Upward mobility – recognition, fame, etc – is the objective. Everything else, and everyone else, is rendered a hindrance. There are plenty of film noirs that are essential viewing, but few manage to unearth the bottom of the barrel like this one. In this bustling New York City, a moral compass is absent, and there’s nothing we can do about it, except for maybe getting lost in the film’s unscrupulous shuffle.

“You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.”

Bayer watches: Fine, if Fragoso wants me to watch a musical, I’ll watch a musical. Though I have to admit I’m a bit surprised, I thought he would have picked something a little more powerful … That was my first thought. Turns out, the surprise is that Sweet Smell of Success is not a musical. Well, this film isn’t. It was adapted into a musical about 40 years later, with John Lithgow eventually winning a Tony. Speaking of Tonys, my that Mr. Curtis is pretty.

The first thing I noticed was that this film was a Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Production. Do you know how often actors were actually part of production companies back then? I feel like this was rare. Also, after Lancaster and Curtis, we get “Introducing Susan Harrison,” which for studios means, “We’re trying to make this girl a star!” While she definitely went on to be a working actress, “star” never happened.

A film about a powerful newspaper columnist seems far-fetched now seeing how print is dying or already dead depending on who you ask. That doesn’t mean this movie feels false. It absolutely was the way things were, and seeing this world through the eyes of a publicist is wonderful. Sidney Falco is slimy. Heck this whole world is covered in a layer of muck. It takes a little while to see how and why Sidney fits in to the main plot. That’s not a knock on the film. It’s because you eventually realize, while he’s the lead, he’s just trying to find his place within J.J.’s schemes. In the beginning, Sidney just sees the break up of Susan (Harrison) and her jazz-playing boyfriend, Steve (Martin Milner) as a way to keep his life moving. J.J. on the other hand simply doesn’t want anyone to know his fingers are all over the break up, even though everyone can see it’s so.

It’s an infinitely quotable film. Most of the time I struggle to find usable quotes from the film to put in the different sections of this column. This time, there were far too many. It’s a movie you could have running in the background while you do your work, just to soak up the juicy one-liners, mainly from Sidney and J.J.

There is a flaw in the film, and that’s time. Not the running time. It’s the treatment of women, and that’s nothing unusual for a movie almost 60 years old. Sally (Jeff Donnell) is Sidney’s secretary, and she’s desperate for his attention and seems like she’d be willing to kill for him. That would have made this movie even better, but instead she just grows disappointed in the man. She’s probably the strongest women in the film. Susan is a 19-year-old who consistently crumbles at J.J.’s authority. There’s even a moment when she considers something drastic, and of course passes out because of the emotional toll it took on her to think about it. Because, you know, that’s what women did in the ’50s. There’s also Rita (Barbara Nichols). There are hints about her past, and Sidney has no problem telling her that her only choice to maintain a job is to sleep with a guy.

None of these moments are necessarily enjoyable to sit through, but at least J.J. and Sidney are part of the problem with the way these women are treated. That, along with the fact that we are slowly moving toward getting rid of female characters being helpless as a standard, make Sweet Smell of Success acceptable in this department.

The overall cast is great, with every side character nailing their part. Otis (David White) was the only one I recognized, but I had to look up why. It was Bewitched. He was Darrin’s boss, Larry. Yes, I did watch a lot of reruns as a kid.

Because of the dialogue, following Sidney, the power of J.J., and look of the film, this movie has immediately launched to the Top 20 films from the 1950s. Not everything is sunshine and lollipops. I like that I can hate everyone.

Now for some random thoughts and questions …

When did you first see this film? Did other movies lead you to it (binging Lancaster movies, etc.)? How many times have you seen it? Do you have a favorite line? Besides its treatment of women, do any flaws stand out?

My favorite scene is when Best scene is J.J. and Sidney out on 52nd Street, with Sidney attempting to wheel and deal, and J.J. wondering if he can actually pull off the promise of breaking Susan and Steven up. It’s complete with a pull-out shot at the end. What is yours?

Did you notice there was an actress named Jeff? Wikipedia tells us she was born Jean Marie Donnell, but got the nickname Jeff from the comic strip Mutt and Jeff. She’s the first Jeff I’ve heard of.

OK, let’s remake this film. Normally I get yelled at for this, so feel free, but hey, it’s allowed. It was already turned into a musical. Let’s make it present day.

Two main things need to happen. One, the brother/sister relationship needs more meat on the bone. J.J. needs a better reason to act like he owns her, even if that means a little incest (thankfully, this is the first time I’m sought the addition of incest). Also, the focus needs to switch from newspapers to the internet/social media. It’s a different kind of power that a columnist or website can wield, but with the ugliness of internet rumors and foolishness of annoyed fan bases (Marvel vs. D.C., Ghostbusters pre-hate) there’s something there. Fragoso, your job is to cast the three main roles (Sidney, J.J. and Susan), and anyone else you want to. I’ll fill in the blanks.

There are Hitler and Picasso references. I’m simply a fan of that. Plus, it’s amazing a woman actually refers to Sidney as “pretty” in this film, because again, Curtis is just that.

I didn’t realize Mackendrick directed the original The Ladykillers, have you seen it? Worth our time?

Movie Score: 9/10

“Come back, Sidney… I wanna chastise you…”

Fragoso responds:I saw first the film because this wonderful blogger named Anna sent it to me (s/o to Anna for sending a Criterion via UPS). I didn’t see Lancaster dominate the screen till later (see: The Swimmer). Now, I’ve seen the film probably fix to six times. I recently programmed a “Mad Men” series at the Roxie Theater with Matt Seitz where Sweet Smell of Success screened. Watching the film on the big-screen was illuminating.

While I love the scene with J.J. and Sidney on 52nd, mine comes earlier on. Tony Curtis races into his office/apartment. Sally is on the phone, fielding calls for him. She continues to insist that people want to talk to him. He continues to insist that he is not there. Eventually he heads into his room. Lancaster is screwing him over, but his assistant can’t understand why. It’s needless sadism, she believes. Curtis explains the dog eat, dog world nature of New York City. Hustling and bustling. Selflessness is for the unambitious, unsuccessful, the good. Priests or elementary school teachers. In this one sequence (and throughout the movie, really) Sweet Smell of Success is horrifying to unlatch, unfurl. Those who live in this space are morally repugnant, devoid of all that is good and filled with all that is evil. And you know what the worst part is? Curtis’ character wants nothing more than to be part of it.

Jeff is becoming a gender ambiguous name! Progress!

How does this film make you feel about the world around you? Do you know anyone this horrible in real life?

“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”

Bayer concludes: How dare you not cast my remake of Sweet Smell of Success. But at the same token, very impressive to simply ignore my request. You’ve got gumption kid. In spades. Also, I’m thrilled that now I get to do it all by myself.

This film makes me feel like I’m playing a different game of life. I love watching what feels fictitious to me. Even though I’m part of “media” I’m definitely not swimming in the deep end, and definitely don’t feel like I’ve ever been in the same circles as someone as successfully evil and manipulative as J.J. I have a history of leaving annoying people behind. I have no problem with it. Who knows, it could have preventing some of that sweet smell coming my way. Thankfully, at this point in my life, I don’t care.

Even though this line is Sidney’s, it applies. “It’s a new wrinkle, to tell the truth… I never thought I’d make a killing on some guy’s ‘integrity.’” That’s evil. To see the good, and use it against someone.

As for the remake, it’s impossible not to think of Daisy Ridley when casting a young actress, but I’ll choose from the wealth of “Game of Thrones” and take Maisie Williams (she’s 19!) for the role of Susan. Jake Gyllenhaal would make an amazing J.J. since he’s willing to do anything for a quality performance. I don’t want to go down the pretty path in casting Sidney, because that would lead to someone like Ed Westwick or Ansel Elgort. I’ll take Michael B. Jordan as Sidney. He nails the desperate yearning in Creed that this role requires. Let’s toss in Louis C.K. as Lt. Harry Kello and get this thing in production.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Christopher Campbell (NonFics, Film School Rejects) selected the documentary Sherman’s March. It is available to purchase on iTunes or rent at your local video store. Your due date is June 30, 2016.