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Sweet smell of skill

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 6, 2009

He gets amazing performances out of both Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success. It's amazing to contemplate that this now-beloved movie, which one of the young men in Barry Levinson's Diner can recite line for line, was a bomb in 1957 — but then, it's a most unconventional noir. The dupe protagonist is Curtis's Sidney Falco, a down-on-his-luck talent agent so desperate for the big time that he'll go to almost any lengths — and that includes pimping the puppy-eyed cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) with a huge crush on him to an influential columnist. In the entertainingly preposterous paranoid vision of the screenwriters, Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, gossip columnists are unimaginably powerful, and one of them, J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), has a sadistic cop and a wayward senator in his pocket. In the pattern of classic noirs — the James Cain variety, not the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler private-eye brand — the dupe falls under the spell of the femme fatale and is destroyed by her. Sweet Smell of Success pulls a gender switch: the femme fatale role is taken by the poisonous megalomaniac Hunsecker, with his buried sexuality. (He may be gay, though his gloved tyranny over his fragile kid sister, who's played by Susan Harrison, implies closeted incestuous desires.) What he tempts Falco with isn't sexual gratification, but Sidney cares more for success anyway. There's much less sex in this movie than in most noirs, but Lancaster and Curtis give the quality in the film's title an unmistakable erotic sting.

The HFA series includes two films that I was unable to preview: MANDY, a/k/a Crash of Silence (1962; January 11), and SAMMY GOING SOUTH, a/k/a A Boy Ten Feet Tall (1963; January 11), both about children forced to overcome the bad hands fate has dealt them. (Mandy is a deaf girl sent to a special school; Sammy is an orphan who hitchhikes from Port Said to Durban.) Mackendrick's final two films, A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA (January 11) and DON'T MAKE WAVES (January 10), are disappointments. The first is a lifeless adaptation of Richard Hughes's classic children's novel about the offspring of ûmigrû Brits in Jamaica whose voyage to England, where they're to attend school, is interrupted when their ship is overtaken by pirates. (The crew is helmed by Anthony Quinn, with James Coburn as his second in command.) It's odd that Mackendrick, who shows so much affinity for marine settings in Whisky Galore! and The Maggie, can't manage to transfer it to the shipboard scenes here, but he doesn't appear comfortable with the high-seas adventure, and none of his usual virtues — for staging, ambiance, coaching actors — is in evidence.

Don't Make Waves reunites him with Tony Curtis but not to much purpose. It's a lame Malibu-set farce with a hyperactive Claudia Cardinale as a flaky painter attached to a married man (Robert Webber) and Sharon Tate, in her debut, as an athletic hottie whose blond muscled boyfriend (David Draper) looks as if he'd stepped out of a comic strip. Perhaps it was these experiences that encouraged Mackendrick to leave movies for a prestigious academic position. When you see how he handles the various terrains — narrative and landscape — in Sweet Smell of Success and the Ealing comedies, you realize that he had plenty of knowledge to share with generations of film students.

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