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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success is pretty much universally regarded as one of director Alexander Mackendrick's best films - in fact, it's usually regarded as the best. And yet Mackendrick's contribution is hard to detect. The overpowering creative presence here is the powerful dialogue by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman; and it's almost as easy to attribute the film to James Wong Howe's stunning night photography or Elmer Bernstein's signature score. So Mackendrick's is actually the fourth most palpable crew contribution.

And Mackendrick's style is instantly identifiable both before and after this movie. No one who appreciates film direction could miss his presence in The Man in the White Suit or A High Wind in Jamaica.

I certainly don't believe that a director's best films are always the ones in which he or she is the most dominant. But, I dunno, the issue should be raised at least.

Here are a few of the aspects of Mackendrick's style that I can pick up in Sweet Smell:
  • An interest in the external qualities of the performer, especially as these external features create a sense of the uncanny or incongruous. I feel this more in the supporting cast (and the supporting cast often seems unusually important in Mackendrick films for this reason), but I pick it up also in his regard for Burt Lancaster's genteel monster, a quiet, hulking man who holds a teacup delicately in his massive hands, his expression obscured by low-rimmed glasses. (Mackendrick often suppresses facial expression in his actors.)
  • The use of obvious dubbing, which has the effect of lifting passages of dialogue out of the warp and woof of the action, and turning them into a floating, radio-like commentary. Sometimes this effect is enhanced by having the dubbed dialogue bridge a cut.
  • A pleasure in creating an elaborate background environment (with attention to both decor and supporting players), and then inconspicuously shifting our attention back and forth between the lead performers and the background, sometimes with routine cutting, sometimes with gentle camera movements.

And still, Mackendrick's personality is rather ethereal here, like a watermark on paper that can be seen only by holding it up to the light.

The screenwriters' presence is not ethereal. The crazy, inspired stunt dialogue, the quotable lines, nearly all go to Curtis and Lancaster, the villains who rule the film and create and control its melodramatic plot. The embodiments of decent living, especially young lovers Martin Milner and Susan Harrison, seem quite bland in comparison: probably no one watches the film for them. And yet the script's sincere preaching against the evil of unrestrained conservative power and amoral opportunism comes out of the mouths of these non-entities. One concludes that the film is governed by a fascination with the evil that it is condemning, and does not realize that it is bored by the kind of world that it advocates.

This is not a quality I associate with Mackendrick's other films. Yet neither do I detect that Mackendrick is trying to undermine this quality. He knows full well the nature of the project, and he executes it with enthusiasm.

And so I consider Sweet Smell of Success a very interesting failure....



Blogger David said...

The book LETHAL INNOCENCE does a good job of identifying a central theme of Mackendrick's work, right there in the title. TSSOS fits right in, with the innocent characters triumphing over the sinister ones without even really understanding the struggle. TSWOS is an exception in that the young lovers are rather boring (Mackendrick more or less admits this in interviews in the book) and in that Suzie does actually use deceit to win in the end. Arguably it's her reputation for simple honesty established previously that allows her to get away with it.
I think "failure" is too strong a word for me to accept, but the jazz musician is undeniably a weakness, and Suzie slightly less so. We could compare the film to TOUCH OF EVIL, where again the innocent characters are a lots less interesting than the corrupt, even though they're played by big movie stars.
DON'T MAKE WAVES is the real failure of Mackendrick's career, but perversely it can be used to tie TSSOS more cloesly into AM's oevre.

August 2, 2007 7:03 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David - I wasn't so much thinking about Mackendrick's themes, if any: the thematic approach always feels to me as if it's primarily about information contained in the script. I was more interested in how Mackendrick's directorial style seems somewhat submerged in this project.

I've never loved Touch of Evil, so maybe you're exposing a peculiarity of my taste. But preaching against the evil of police corruption is not what's on Welles' mind at all, and in fact Welles acknowledges openly that the world is poorer for losing Quinlan's grandeur. I don't think he has left himself open to the charges that I level against Odets and Lehman.

August 2, 2007 5:14 PM  
Blogger David said...

Well, as a director Mackendrick was always quite involved in preparing the script, so a thematic analysis of his films has some uses. But this would be less so in the case of TSSOS, since Odets was still writing during the shoot. Some of the overdubbed dialogue seems to be an attempt to clarify plot points bodged during ths scuffle, similar in intent to the Harvey Weinstein Moments we see so many of today, though often with Harvey the inserted line is aimed at clearing up confusion where none existed.
WHITE SUIT and HIGH WIND were both shot by the mighty Douglas Slocombe, so maybe they resemble each other more, despite one being in colour and widescreen, for that reason. Superb as Howe's work is, I'd hesitate to ascribe all TSOSS's visual power to him: the expressionist influence is clearly apparent in all Mackendrick's work, and there's no question that Howe's photography was part of a smooth collaboration with the director.
I agree that the style of dialogue is radically different in TSOSS: though Mackendrick's films are often celebrated for the quality of their talk, we're in a whole different world here. And the dialogue foregrounds itself against every other element in the film.
Agree that the "good guys" are weak, as played. And I guess the writers couldn't allow them to use words as weapons the way Hunsecker and Falco do. One honourable character DOES get some great dialogue: Hunsecker's secretary. "You're an amusing boy, but there isn't a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You're too immersed in the theology of making a fast buck."
The great strength of Mackendrick's other innocents are their specific and often unattractive qualities: the callous children, the stubbornly proper Mrs Wilberforce, the blinkered and unfeeling Stratton. And I don't get the sense in the other films that Mackendrick is advocating a kind of world based around the values of these characters -- maybe what would have helped the young lovers in TSSOS would have been some specific vices.

August 3, 2007 12:41 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David - I definitely see those odd, unattractive qualities in Mackendrick's gallery. And the unattractiveness is often combined with a blankness of affect, a stolid, almost animal-like quality of doing for doing's sake. It creates an interesting tone: the amoral innocents are somewhat comic because of their expressionlessness, almost cute; we can enjoy the humor that they provide; but there's an edge of discomfort because of their antisocial motivations, and Mackendrick hangs back far enough to give us space to play with the mixed feelings.

But those films tend not to be advocating anything very hard, even if the characters advocate (as in The Man in the White Suit). And the strong advocacy of Sweet Smell would probably annihilate that mixed tone. Mackendrick probably knew that the script needed Milner and Harrison to act out parts in a morality play, and didn't want to impair that function.

(Actually, I think Mackendrick tries to make these characters over a bit. There were moments when Milner's big, goofy quality came out, and he reminded me a little of the bodybuilder in Don't Make Waves, who is the most obviously Mackendrick-like character in that movie. But the preachy qualities of the film work against our viewing the characters from a distance.)

One of the lines I remember being dubbed into radio-like commentary was "Come back here, Sidney - I want to chastise you." It's a good line, and in general I think Mackendrick had fun with the Emile Meyer character, playing up his jolliness until it was hard to see into him.

I don't know the story behind the script: did Odets did a lot of the work? Lehman wrote the source material, I guess.

August 4, 2007 12:09 PM  
Blogger David said...

The backstory to the script is fun. Lehman wrote the story based on his experiences working as a press agent for Winchell - so Falco is in a sense, himself. He was hired to write the movie but at his first meeting with Lancaster, Burt walked in doing up his fly and remarking "Well, she swallowed it!" Lehman jumped ship, faking an illness. When Lancaster later realised he'd been had, he threatened to punch Lehman out. "Go ahead," said Lehman, "I could use the money."
Odets came on board and basically did the script, falling behind so that he was writing as they filmed, and the pages would be 30% too long, necessitating swift cutting on the floor.
Odets advised Mackendrick, "My stuff may seem overwritten, but if he you just do it HARD and FAST, it'll work."
I do love that bodybuilder in DON'T MAKE WAVES. I guess Sharon Tate is another lethal innocent in that, and Curtis is another Mackendrickian sophisticate undone by his own scheming. The movie's kind of awful, but it exerts a strange attraction for me. Well, maybe that's Claudia Cardinale.

August 4, 2007 5:42 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Just an off-topic comment here: I don't think Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil is 'lots less interesting' than Quinlan, I think he was perfectly used for a specific purpose, as foil and patsy for Welles' Quinlan.

The comedy of it is that Heston's crusading lawyer is a self-righteous prig and more than a little clueless, and Quinlan scores endless jokes against his virile and unsmiling facade; the tragedy of it is that Heston's character is left standing in the end, even proven right.

August 11, 2007 4:40 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I've never even had the feeling that Touch of Evil was trying to present Heston as a prig or as unattractive. When he leaves his wife in a tight spot, I don't take that as a criticism of the guy so much as a dramatic irony: I think we're supposed to admire the dedication to work that leads him to the marital neglect. And Heston gets the most authoritative political line in the film, the one about how a policeman's job is easy only in a police state.

But the romance and mythology of Quinlan is still closer to the heart of the film, no?

Noel, I wish you'd ordered your 100 favorite Filipino films by preference!

August 11, 2007 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mackendricks influence is everywhere as a director, Though he regarded himself as a professional more than an artist. the performances were great, he got career best out of his two stars. the blocking and compositions of his shots are exquisite and meaningful, his use of eyelines and physical triangulations of scenes adds to the menace and enjoyment. The way he sets up Falcos everpresent dog like servant,allways in the background is both satisfying and funny. Touches like Lancaster taking off his glasses in the shadows when discussing Integrity are weirdly compelling and suggestive. All these are th domain of the director, but primarily the performances. The book On filmaking from his notes to his students gives a great outline of Alexander Mackendrick's tireless and timeless working methods.


March 6, 2009 11:49 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Danny - on rereading what I wrote, I'm not happy with my statement that Mackendrick's direction is somehow less prominent than the contributions of the writers, cinematographer and composer. It seems more sensible to say that multiple artists can express their sensibilities at the same time in a movie, and that we tune into each "layer" of sensibility depending on our abilities, preferences and prejudices. So my feeling that Mackendrick is a bit submerged in Sweet Smell probably has less to do with anything recessive about his style then it does with my inclination to put more weight this time around on some of the other contributions. I think that whatever problem I have with the film's mode of expression is powerful enough in my mind to block my receptiveness to the direction.

March 9, 2009 3:21 PM  

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