I suspect that an audience of its day was supposed to look at The Sweet Smell of Success as a portrait of society’s most gilded scum in the way that, were it re-made today, the scheming and duplicitious press agent (Tony Curtis) and the power-drunk writer with a syndicated column that makes and breaks reputations (Burt Lancaster) would be given the role of social media influencers, desperate for coverage, shares, comments, Likes, sponsorships.
These people are fucked up, ruthless, almost sociopathic at times.
And yet there’s a gloss of nostalgia to its slickness, the portrait of a New York City nightlife on the cusp of the 1960s, the popping and scampering jazz soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein (who also gave so much character to Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm), and even, for me, the idea of a cultural moment where a syndicated newspaper colmnist wielded so much influence as to have politicians coming up and kissing his ass at a restaurant (it’s a loathesome sight, for sure, but I get kinda whimsical at any depiction of a writer being respected).
One of the names that pops up in almost everything I read about Hollywood in this era is that of Louella Parsons, a gossip columnist and radio personality who was noticed by the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (who was himself a partial inspiration for the subject of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane) and whose voice was considered by some twenty million readers and listeners to be one of insight and honesty but, gossip being gossip, is said now to’ve been pretty often either wrong or flat-out dishonest. Vengeful.
And that, of course, is why it’s a good thing that we’re no longer relegated to the wrigins of just a handful of journalists for whatever it is we wanna know about—journalists beholden to this or that advertiser or mogul, journalists with their various grudges, journalists with agendas. Journalists who transcend the role of anoynomous reporter and become Personalities. We still have them, of course, but it’s not like in the 1950s where there are three or four channels and they’re the only ones from whom you’re gonna get your news. And yes, newspaper columnists held an insane amount of sway, but the newspaper business was also way more robust sixty years ago, with each major city having maybe six or seven major papers putting out two editions a day. So, again, there were options, and if you were to hoover it all up, if you were to get your news from six or seven different sources, you’d see lots of bias in the reporting but, when you layered all of those accounts over one another, you’d also see some consistency—and those consistencies might be called The Facts.
But it’s clear in The Sweet Smell of Success that the late 1950s was a period where news was (or could more easily be) manufactured. Those who wanted to shape their public image a certain way knew where to go, and who to talk to—which makes a lot of sense, and probably came as no surprised to audiences, but it seems like a curiously dark or subversive storyline for this period. Something along the lines of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, an indictment of the military’s self-serving gamesmanship and dishonesty and bureaucracy.
Paths of Glory says we can’t trust the military, Sweet Smell of Success says we can’t trust the press.
Both are true then and they’re true now and they’ve always been true, in some way or other, but t’ve been saying this kinda thin in the 1950s, when Hollywood personalities are being blacklisted left and right, shows a remarkable bit of chutzpah from everybody involved.
What’s prompting this criticism? McCarthyism, maybe. Paranoia about communist insurrection and nuclear war were ubiquitous in ‘50s America, so much so that they become defining elements of its art, and the two agents that might be considered most responsible for fostering that paranoia are the military and the press.
We’ve so far talked about several movies that embody the era’s paranoia: High Noon, Johnny Guitar, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—but those movies all end on a note of optimism.
Paths of Glory and Sweet Smell of Success are narratives about men being destroyed by systems (the military and the press, respectively) and knowing that they’re powerless against the flagrant injustice of these systems. And what we’re left to understand, when the credits roll, is that the story of these men’s ruination are micronarratives, portraits of single skeletons in the catacomb-like closets of military and journalistic wrongdoings.
Sweet Smell of Success has some resonance with today’s cancel culture. Burt Lancaster’s ability to jot something that’ll appear in tomorrow’s newspapers and end a person’s career, their marriage, their ability to make a living is visible today on Twitter where a public figure’s singular indiscretions are championed in the social spotlight over their life’s achievements, their kindnesses, and made into their defining deed.
Look: Tony Curtis here is a pompadoured young hotheard in a suit, a prototype for what we come to see in Wall Street, and he’ll go on to do The Defiant Ones, a confrontational story about race relations, and then Some Like it Hot a few years after that, an edgy crossdressing comedy in which Marilyn Monroe breathes an airy sexuality over everything and adds a bit of nuance to the comedic chops we saw her display in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Maybe Curtis is a model for the actors of the next generation who, by acting in edgy movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, became figures of rebellion, of a philosophically blasé New Cool (I’m thinking of Jane Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Donald Sutherland, Jack Nicholson…).
I dug the mood of this movie, the milieu, but apart from not really enjoying it as it unfolded, I had trouble following the story (in which Curtis, a press agent, tries to sabotage the relationship Lancaster’s sister has cultivated with a jazz musician). I enjoy it in retrospect, and when I look at A.O. Scott’s retrospective it looks like just good enough a sampling to enjoy a movie that I think is trying to beabout something greatier than its milieu; the milieu, however, is so captivating that the story ends up getting in the way of it.
It’s like trying to follow a mildly interesting conversation at a bar while your favorite song is playing.