Sweet Smell of Success (1957); And That Bad Taste it Leaves in Your Mouth
Our current social climate has bred us to do two things: fear one another and give in to our own greed. Somewhere in the mix of this inbreeding, we’ve bastardized empathy through cognitive dissonance that has allowed us to ignore unspeakable horrors we may cause as long it gets us ahead. American society was founded by men who justified the rape, abuse and enslavement of other human beings by simply lying to themselves and fawning it off as science or social order. Not every example of cognitive dissonance is as grim. For many Americans in our day to day lives, our lies to ourselves are ways to rationalize our compliance. We convince ourselves that it’s impossible and uncomfortable to fight against the system, so we ignore our own autonomy.
No film genre embodies these notions more than Film Noir during 40s and 50s, with its variety of films pitting characters into harsh situations that they can’t escape because they are prisoners to their environment. Sweet Smell of Success captures this gritty realism in ways I didn’t think possible. This is a film that affects you on a much deeper level forcing you to feel sorrow and pity for humanity, because some people are so lost in the illusion of being successful that they drown in their own deception. Unfortunately, upon their decent into the murky, crushing tides of despair they bring down everyone around them in an attempt to stay afloat.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent living a salacious existence selling secrets and gossip to equally trashy publications. He’s made a name for himself making friends and enemies from people completely recoiled and simultaneously drawn to his scuzzy lifestyle and quick thinking. In his hunt of making a buck, Falco proves himself willing to crawl through any shit-tainted sludge if it means he’ll come out on top. The gatekeeper of the cesspool Falco operates in is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a media personality and news man. Lancaster’s stalking physique paired with director Andrew Mackendrick’s heavy use of low angle shots equates to his character’s stature in this New York City swamp they inhabit. J.J.’s co-dependence on his younger sister causes him to meddle in her personal life using Falco as a key player to splitting her up with her current love. But soon their meddling spirals into a series of unfortunate events as they both lose touch of what little humanity they have left for the sake of gaining what is not obtainable.
Lancaster is utterly terrifying yet enigmatic as the manipulating, strong-minded media icon. His dastardly arrogance and brazen attitude is constantly fed by the equally selfish and fearful people he surrounds himself with; a senator hoping to become president, an abusive misogynist cop, and Falco. J.J. validates the right to meddle into the affairs of other people despite what effect it may have on their psychological selves because he has a duty to readers, his enterprise, both mere synonyms for himself. He finds in his henchman Falco a partner to who laps at his deeds. Tony Curtis owns his scenes as a hapless, careless worm who will jeopardize his own mother’s soul if a means controlling the press. James Wong Howe’s stunning and flawless cinematography shines some high-key lighting onto the dark ways these men use their privilege to abuse and manipulate others.
American values are reflected harshly from this film onto society baring some unwanted blemishes and gashes. These people have hardened themselves to the ethical norms of emotional security. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odet’s killer scripts allows them to feel embolden to speak freely and recklessly to other people, using their tongues to lacerate those around them. Yet these are cowards who are often on the defensive and react with overt emotion when they are forced to criticize themselves thanks either to the disapproving looks of another or the upfront insulting of another. Much like our current administration mind you…
I’d be remiss if I ignored the connections of these despicable characters with the idiocy of our current administration. Similar to our leaders, the people of this film manage to validate all of their wrong doings and meddling because to them it’s a dog eat dog world and life is simply a game to be played for material gain and selfishness. Never mind the harm that it does to real people. By the standards of the big wigs, the group that’s wining about equal rights and empathy just don’t see the bigger picture, like when Falco tries to convince a needy friend to sleep with a stranger for a byline in a paper. He completely ignores her tears and any concerns for her safety or dignity. Instead he convinces her that she is helping and would be ungrateful to refute the stranger’s advances because after all, she’s the one who needs help. The line of thinking these days is that the public is silly to not trust our administration and support their actions, because after all we’re the ones who need help from all the danger that surrounds us.