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Smell of Success
John Guare/Marvin Hamlisch/Craig Carnelia
It's a paradoxical
truism that oftentimes a stranger sees a place with greater clarity than its natives. Of
the myriad films set in "the city that never sleeps," none have pinned the
butterfly with greater precision than the corrosive image of New York captured in 1957 by
British director Alexander Mackendrick with the collaboration of screenwriters Ernest
Lehman and Clifford Odets, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and actors Burt Lancaster and
Tony Curtis: Sweet Smell of Success. The death of the old studio system due to
the ascent of television had given rise to independent producers, one of whom was the star
actor who had founded his own production company: Hecht, Hill, and Lancaster.
It was now possible for film subject matter to enter riskier
terrain--such as taking aim at perhaps the most powerful journalist in America, the
columnist/guru Walter Winchell, who commanded an audience of millions through his steamy
amalgam of political insider and celebrity gossip and scandal, both in print and on the
radio. Although Winchell's power had eroded, it was still formidable, fuelled by his
embrace of the decade's McCarthyism, also, then, on the wane. Ernest Lehman, who had put
in time in the frenetic world of press agency, had written a devastating novella exposing
the symbiosis of political reaction, scurrilous gossip, and the sheer rage for power
quintessentially revealed in the fulminations of an all-powerful columnist he named J.J.
Hunsecker. There was absolutely no doubt on whom he was based.
The liberal, risk-taking Lancaster decided to film the novella, and to
assist Lehman in writing the script he added the erstwhile golden boy of Depression drama,
Clifford Odets, renowned for his pungent dialogue, who had reluctantly made peace with
Hollywood screenwriting; Cinematographer Wong Howe was a natural choice, since he was
known for his gritty, noir photography, but director "Sandy"Mackendrick was a
shot in the dark: because he had made his name not with "serious" drama, but as
the creator of clever British comedies such as Whiskey Galore, The Man in the White Suit, and The
Lady Killers. Odets and Lehman produced a script of acerbic cleverness couched in the
vernacular of the world it exposed: "J.J.'s gonna hit the roof." "J.J.'s
ceiling needs a new plaster job every six weeks." "I'd hate to take a bite out
of you--you're a cookie full of arsenic." The directorial gamble paid off
artistically: with a cool outsider's eye Mackendrick pulled everything together, caught
the essence of the insular universe that revolved around the Stork Club and
"21," and extracted performances from Lancaster as Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as
his flunky Sidney Falco that stand at the summit of their accomplishments.
The 96-minute film--not a wasted frame--moves like a house on fire (the
narrative covers less than two days) to its inevitable, devastating conclusion. Too
"down" for audiences of the time, Sweet Smell found little success at
the box office but survives as one of the great films of its time and surely hastened
Winchell's professional demise.
Now, almost a half century later, another dream team has been assembled
to turn this brittle masterpiece into a Broadway musical and again a Brit is in charge.
Nicholas Hytner (who soon shall take the reins of the Royal National Theatre) has
distinguished himself with American material, e.g., his film of The Crucible, and, with particular relevance here, his
renovatory, color-blind production (which played both sides of the Atlantic) of Rodgers
and Hammerstein's Carousel. His distinguished collaborators include playwright
John Guare as author of the book and Marvin Hamlisch of Chorus Line fame as
But the problem with dream teams is that if they don't win the
championship they're a flop, which is what many critics have labeled the musical Sweet
Smell of Success. In this critic's judgment, these death sentences are excessive, the
residue of over-anticipation. There is much here that works. First. there is a narrative
that retains much of the energy of the original. Guare has opened the plot at either end
to show Hunsecker's initial embrace of Sidney as disciple and his definitive closing of
accounts. But the escalating confrontations that result in Sidney's downfall are
essentially faithful to Odets/Lehman's engrossing sequence of incidents.
The show's problems lie elsewhere. Obviously, the musical adaptation of
a play or screenplay must sacrifice language to open space for song and dance. And there's
the rub. In a parallel example, Arthur Laurents' book for another non-comic musical,
West Side Story was tight
and effective, but Leonard Bernstein's music and Jerome Robbins's choreography soared.
That is not the case here. Both Hamlisch's music and the choreography of Christopher
Wheeldon (of the New York City Ballet) are merely serviceable. Hamlisch provides an
effective running recitative based on jazz riffs, but only in one or two cases offers
songs that linger at all in memory ("One Track Mind," "Dirt").
Wheeldon's chorus of bystanders, hangers-on, and Broadway denizens never finds (like the
West Side gangs) a lyrical identity in movement. Ironically, the film score by Elmer
Bernstein, with jazz songs by Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz, catches a more genuine musical
moment--the brief dominance of West Coast "cool" jazz in the mid-1950s--than the
unrooted pastiche that Hamlisch provides.
Still, there are virtues here beyond Guare's effective book. With the
help of designers Bob Crowley (set) and Natasha Katz (lights), director Hytner stylishly
creates the breeding ground of Sweet Smell's denizens: a neon kaleidoscope of now
defunct New York nightlife against an ominous skyline. The musical's thematic spine
asserts that although the midtown club world has passed, it has not really disappeared; it
has been merely subsumed by a larger world of sleaze abetted by new technology. So while
the film delays Hunsecker's initial appearance and leaves him alone and deserted at the
end, the musical begins and ends with Hunsecker triumphant, dictating his dirt to his
secretary. The beat drudges on.
Performances are uniformly excellent. Less coiled steel trap than the
character created by Lancaster, John Lithgow as J.J. uses his height and voice, even his
charm (which can precipitately disappear) to create a genuinely dominant and fearful
presence. Although not really a singer, Lithgow handles his musical assignments (one based
on Winchell's vaudeville roots) professionally. His co-star, Brian d'Arcy James, does sing
very well, even if he cannot match Tony Curtis's oily charm. An attempt has been made to
render Sidney more sympathetic by making him less compliant with Hunsecker's
destructiveness. But performance trumps character and we care more about what happens to
Curtis's pretty-boy Falco even if he is more consistently morally repellent than d'Arcy
James's. As the lovers Hunsecker has assigned Sidney to sunder, Kelli O'Hara (as the
half-sister Hunsecker wants to possess with near-incestuous passion) and Jack Noseworthy
(as her musician-lover with a near-fatal case of integrity) also sing and act well, even
if their love ballad, "Don't Know Where You Leave Off," is no
Come to Sweet Smell of Success without great expectations and
much of the classic parable of the fearful price of fame still makes you sit up. Perhaps
not the musical championship, but at least the Sweet Sixteen..
New York, March 23, 2002
- Gerald Rabkin