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That Fighting Spirit

Revisiting 'Sweet Smell of Success'

By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 22, 2010

That Fighting Spirit

A Cookie Full of Arsenic

"I love this dirty town," declares J.J. Hunsecker, the all-powerful New York gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster in the 1957 film classic Sweet Smell of Success. The remark, made to no one in particular, is a sentiment no doubt shared by Sidney Falco, the unctuous, conniving, blackmailing press agent played by hot matinee idol of the day Tony Curtis. The two characters intersect at the top of the corrupt apex where publicity and journalism commingle and unscrupulously scratch each other's backs. Though the film is a thinly veiled attack on then-contemporary columnist Walter Winchell, we still watch Sweet Smell today for its compellingly dark portrait of the underbelly of show business, the stellar performances, the rich tones of James Wong Howe's crisp black-and-white cinematography, and the crackling dialogue by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. The Austin Film Festival and the Harry Ransom Center will screen Sweet Smell of Success on Friday, Oct. 22, at noon at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz, where it will be presented by Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio's Morning Edition. By phone from Los Angeles, Turan says, "Especially if you're in the business we're in, it's a film that is as relevant today as when it came out."

The Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus is the repository of the Ernest Lehman archive. Sweet Smell of Success is based on a novella written by Lehman, who was one of Hollywood's most skillful, successful, and admired screenwriters and later became a producer and served as the president of the Writers Guild of America. Some of Lehman's best-known screenplays include Sabrina, The King and I, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Sound of Music, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Black Sunday. Lehman's collection forms one of the seminal foundations of the HRC's impressive film holdings. Turan selected this film to showcase from a list of all the screenwriters' materials that are in the HRC collection. Feeling it to be especially appropriate for this particular festival, Turan says: "This is one of the great written films, especially for screenwriters. This is a film that people should be looking at again and again, because it shows how much you can do with fine writing and how much difference a really great script makes."

In fact, the caliber of Sweet Smell of Success' screenplay is one of the most commented-on aspects of the movie. It revels in street vernacular and coy turns of phrase, as when Hunsecker says to Falco: "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." Lehman wrote the first drafts of the screenplay before illness interrupted his work and left the great playwright and screenwriter Odets to write the final drafts. Says Roger Ebert in his series on "The Great Movies": "Odets and Lehman pull off the neat trick of making the film seem hard-boiled and realistic while slipping in dialogue as quotable as it is unlikely. 'You're dead, son,' Hunsecker tells Falco. 'Get yourself buried.' And in a moment of introspection: 'My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in 30 years.'" Film historian David Thomson writes: "As years pass, nothing dates in Sweet Smell of Success: the vision of ordinary corruption is still as fresh as a warm corpse. ... It is a terrific and important movie, with fabulous dialogue."

Also adding interest to this weekend's screening of the film is the recent passing of Tony Curtis, who delivers one of his finest performances here, according to most film scholars, including Turan. "I think this is one of his best roles," Turan says. "I think partly because it's not that dissimilar from whom he was. He was a scrambling, hustling kid from New York," who understood this character. "I think it helps his performance." At the time of the film's release, the audience may not have wanted to see the handsome movie star Curtis as a cold and calculating conniver, and it fared poorly at the box office. Fortunately, we can return to it again with renewed vision.

Kenneth Turan & 'Sweet Smell of Success'

Austin Film Festival Presents

Friday, Oct. 22, noon, Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz

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