Tonight, Brooklyn Bridge Park is screening what is arguably the greatest film set (and shot) in New York City, Sweet Smell of Success. Released in 1957, it stars Tony Curtis—at the time a matinee idol hungry for a substantial role with meat on its bones. He found it in Sidney Falco, the desperate, unctuous publicist running a shady boutique company out of his one bedroom apartment off Times Square. Falco sees the key to success personified in J.J. Hunsecker, the feared gossip columnist inspired by real-life columnist and radio host Walter Winchell, who wielded immense power in the middle of the 20th century. Burt Lancaster is riveting and terrifying as the effusively cynical Hunsecker, who manipulates Falco into breaking up a relationship between his delicate sister and a—gasp— jazz musician.
If you've never seen Sweet Smell of Success, can you really consider yourself a New Yorker? It's the quintessential NYC movie, reveling in this "dirty" town's clash of ambition and lust, mendacity and callousness, innocence and cynicism. Aside from Hunsecker's secretary, there's really not an admirable character in the bunch (even the undermined lovers are droopy saps—you'd rather be at 21 with J.J. and Sidney than at that depressing diner with them), and everyone is a self-serving weasel. But even if you've rented it or caught a crappy old print in repertory, you'll still want to bring a blanket to the park tomorrow night—here's why:
- The Print: For decades, fans of this masterpiece have had to endure insufferably poor DVD releases, which do a murky disgrace to James Wong Howe's smooth yet kinetic cinematography. But earlier this year, the Criterion Collection at last released a new digital transfer. This is what they'll be screening tomorrow night—we know this because it's our copy.
- The Story: The first draft of the script was written by Ernest Lehman, who adapted it from his 1952 novella of the same name. Lehman was initially supposed to direct, but Lancaster's nascent production company pushed him aside and brought in Alexander Mackendrick, who really nailed it. (Lehman withdrew to Tahiti with extreme pain in his colon.)
- The Score: Elmer Bernstein's cacophonous, reeling, horn-forward score palpably evokes the hustle and glamor and filth of 1950s NYC, or at least how we imagine it to be.
- The Script: After Lehman was forced out, Clifford Odets was hired to rewrite the screenplay, and his draft is masterful. Fall in love with Sweet Smell of Success, and you'll find yourself quoting, to the bafflement of your friends, such inimitable one-liners as, "The cat's in the bag and bag's in the river!" Or, "You're dead son. Get yourself buried." And, "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
- The City: Mackendrick was the first director to shoot exterior scenes on the streets of NYC featuring stars of the caliber of Curtis and Lancaster—as you watch them parry outside 21, you can't help but realize how other films of the era photographed so much on sound stages, and how visceral "Sweet Smell" is by comparison. (The two pivotal scenes set inside 21, by the way, were shot in Hollywood on enlarged replicas of the famous club, to accommodate the film crews. But they feel no less authentic.)
- The Performances: It's not just Curtis and Lancaster who dazzle. True to Odets's Group Theatre roots, the film is a rich ensemble enterprise, with a host of classic New York character actors crowding the screen, from smooth jazz musician Chico Hamilton (playing himself), to Barbara Nichols as the desperate cigarette girl, to Emile Meyer as the corrupt cop Harry Kello, it's one nuanced performance after another. Pay particular attention to Joe Frisco as Herbie Temple—some cineastes have noted the script's Great Gatsby parallels, and Frisco is in fact the very same stuttering vaudevillian whom Fitzgerald name-checks at Gatsby's party, when a dancer "seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform." Frisco died a year after the film was released.
- The Location: Have you caught a free movie at Brooklyn Bridge Park yet? It's hard to think of a better location to take in Sweet Smell of Success, with the whole ambitious island of Manhattan rolling north from behind the screen. The movie screens at sunset (N.B.: No chairs allowed on the lawn, but they do rent soft "stadium seats" for $5 a pop. You can set up a chair on the concrete around the permiter). These screenings tend to get crowded, so you may want to proceed there directly after work. There are a number of food stands as you enter the park if you need dinner. And there are real bathrooms, too! And we'll be there early rolling out a red carpet!