A Cookie Filled With Arsenic

Sweet Smell of Success is a classic movie with one of the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema. The Duellists is… not. I don’t understand why The Castro decided to run them together.

Sweet smell of success
Sunday night, the Castro Theater ran a double feature of the classic Sweet Smell of Success with The Duellists, Ridley Scott’s first feature release.

The first time I saw Sweet Smell of Success, it was in a double feature with Ace in the Hole, and it was such a perfect pairing it became one of those transformative movie-going experiences for me. Both are dark, nasty movies with big performances and some of the best dialogue ever delivered in a movie. One of Ace in the Hole‘s standout lines: “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you… you’re twenty minutes!”

(Both Sweet Smell of Success and Ace in the Hole have Criterion editions that are highly recommended).

I spent the first half of The Duellists looking for anything it could have in common, thematically, cinematically, contextually, or otherwise, before I just gave up. Then I started trying to think of all the ways the two movies are the opposite of each other, and gave up because there are too many to list.

Apart from “both run at 24 frames per second” and “both have music,” the most charitable thread of connection I could come up with was that both are very much movies of their time. (I do actually know the real reason they ran together: they showed Sweet Smell of Success because it’s a classic to lead into the upcoming Noir City run, and they got a 35 mm print of Ridley Scott’s first film and they really wanted to show it off. But I’m trying to make a point here).

I wouldn’t say that The Duellists is a bad movie; it actually has its moments, and to an extent I can appreciate its attempts at authenticity. But it is overwhelmingly a 70s movie. It’s packed full of 70s cinema tics and cliches; it proclaims itself as a product of its time as loudly as David Fincher’s movies scream “1990s movie.” (Or more accurately, say “1990s movie” in text scratched onto magnetic tape with Nine Inch Nails music playing and bugs crawling over it).

It’s especially remarkable how much The Duellists conveys the 1970s when you consider that it’s a period piece, set in Europe and Russia in the early 1800s. The color of the film, the languid pacing, the scenes that have two lines of dialogue before ending abruptly, the smoke and fog piped in from just off screen, the presence of Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine and Tom Conti, the “realistic” lighting — all of it date the movie squarely in a narrow window between about 1973 and 1982. No one who’s ever seen a movie or television show from the 1970s would believe that The Duellists was in the era of Napoleon and not the era of Jimmy Carter.

That’s probably my most useful takeaway from the movie — finally I can identify what it is that’s always bugged me about movies from the 1970s, why I find them all (except Star Wars and Annie Hall) creepy, unsettling, and unpleasant. So many of them try for a kind of neo-realism, making a point to reject the glamor and over-production of pre-60s Hollywood and the experimentation of the 60s, and instead just be straightforward and tell it like it is. But it resulted in its own language of mannerisms and flourishes that today seem even more artificial than the most conventional Hollywood movie. For all of its effort to stay true to the costumes, hair styles, historical accuracy, and locations of 19th-century Europe, it’s telling that all of the stylistic flourishes of The Duellists end up being even more dated and distracting than casting Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as French military men.

There’s no question that Sweet Smell of Success was made in 1955: it’s in grainy black and white, newspapers not only exist but are important, jazz quintets play in nightclubs, and the plot’s biggest scandal involves marijuana and allegations of communist sympathies. And yet once the bombastic opening music dies down, it never once feels dated. Instead, much like His Girl Friday, it feels as if it’s been pulled from an alternate universe where time doesn’t exist, everything happens in a perpetual now, and everything everyone says is really cool.

The first time I saw Sweet Smell of Success was much like my first time seeing Miller’s Crossing; I was so swept up in the dialogue that I was barely able to process anything else. (“Hey Falco, come down here so I can chastise ya.”) Each time I’ve seen it since then, I’ve noticed something new. This time:

  • There’s more subtlety to Tony Curtis’s performance than I ever gave him credit for. (And I already thought it was a great performance just for being able to deliver all those lines and make them sound natural). It’s made explicit that he’s an unscrupulous social climber who’ll do anything to get back into J.J.’s good graces. It’s even made explicit that he’s so duplicitous that even the people who know he’s lying to them can’t tell when he’s lying. But what I’d never noticed is how quickly and subtly Curtis had to shift gears from scene to scene and often within the same scene.

    Whenever one of Falco’s schemes goes awry, you can see the flashes of expression change on his face: a moment of panic, a recalculation, and then he snaps back into character. Sometimes, when it’s crucial to the plot (like when he’s trying to blackmail a columnist, or when he’s trying to trick a hack comedian into becoming a client), the change in expression is almost silent-movie obvious. But he’s doing it constantly — trying one tack, panicking, reconsidering, and then popping into a new character. One of the best is when Falco’s confronted by Steve in his office, and Falco is simultaneously posturing and trying to play all of the characters against each other.

  • The scene in which J.J. is finally introduced, at a dinner table with a senator and Falco trying to get back into J.J.’s good graces, is one of the movie’s most famous. And with good reason: there’s a ton of nasty dialogue showing just how ruthless Hunsecker is, and it’s Burt Lancaster’s chance to establish just how dominant his character is. But Curtis is still doing his whole range of Falco’s dramatic shifts in mood, desperately looking for an opportunity in anything that’s been said, trying to measure how much he can get away with, and scavenging like a hyena for any information he could possibly use to his advantage.

    And he has to do it all from his carefully-staged lap dog position behind Lancaster’s right shoulder, and all without taking any of the attention away from Lancaster. For all of its good points, Sweet Smell of Success is not a movie you go away from thinking, “Man, that was subtle!” But Curtis’s performance in that scene does so much, while seated, in the background.

  • The still above, taken from that scene, is a great example of what I’m talking about. Curtis has that expression through most of his interaction with Lancaster’s character: Falco absolutely despises Hunsecker, but at the same time worships him as an example of someone who’s achieved everything that Falco wants for himself. That expression combined with his body language are a perfect combination of hatred mixed with admiration and fealty.

    The best illustration of that dynamic, however, isn’t subtle at all. It’s a fantastic moment from later in the movie, when Hunsecker tells Susie and Steve that he wouldn’t hesitate to take a baseball bat and break it over Falco’s head. He then raises a cigarette, and Falco immediately jumps up with a lighter to light it for him.

  • Curtis also gave Sidney Falco a tic to show that he’s in a perpetual panic for fear of losing everything: in the moments where he’s most desperate, he bites his fingernails. He doesn’t do it constantly, and he doesn’t make a big show of it, but it’s a clear signal that everything is about to fall apart unless he thinks quickly.
  • To really appreciate what a balancing act it is to pull off subtlety in a movie whose style and dialogue require such broad performances, contrast Tony Curtis’s performance with Gabriel Byrne’s in Miller’s Crossing. Both are playing characters who are playing both ends against the middle, and both are having to deliver fantastic dialogue in a way that makes it sound, if not natural, then at least plausible. But the character of Tommy in Miller’s Crossing has to be not just cool, but completely impenetrable. We can’t ever know what he’s really thinking, or else the entire movie falls apart into nothing more than snappy dialogue, cinematic flourishes, and a really cool gunfight in a burning building. The only indication we ever get that Tommy is anything other than cool and composed is when he loses his hat.

    Curtis, on the other hand, has to play a despicable, obsequious, and ruthless character and make him sympathetic. Otherwise, his crisis of conscience makes no sense. And the only dialogue he gets to convey that with is his speech to his secretary at the beginning of the movie (and even then, he’s having to posture as a world-weary tough guy). So we need to see his expression changing throughout, for it to read as desperation instead of cold-bloodedness.

  • I wouldn’t call the movie a noir, exactly, but the high contrast and the lighting sure do make a solid case for it. In particular, the shadows from Burt Lancaster’s glasses frames perfectly complement his I’m-boring-deep-into-your-soul squint, making him look more evil and intimidating than any stage makeup would have.
  • It’s easy to believe that everybody in Sweet Smell of Success speaks in the same otherworldly, impossibly hip banter. But there’s a clear class divide separating the “normals” from the people who’ve immersed themselves in the world of newspaper columns and press agents. Even the older couple that Falco tries to blackmail use the same expressions, as if they’ve been in that world too long to stop talking like that. But Steve and Susie are the couple we’re supposed to root for, the ones who are free of all that corruption, so they talk more or less like normal people. (Even though Steve’s the leader of the jazz quintet, he’s supposed to be the least hip).

    Contrast that with His Girl Friday, where Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s banter establishes them not only as a couple, but as a couple fully immersed in the news world. Ralph Bellamy’s more straightforward dialogue makes him not just a dullard, but an outsider.

    And again, contrast it with Miller’s Crossing, where everyone speaks in deliberate Coen-ese. In that movie, the dialogue isn’t supposed to establish character so much as build a fantastic world where everybody’s corrupt. (And still, Garbriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden’s characters get the best lines because they’re the smartest).

  • All that said, I do wish the character of Susie in Sweet Smell of Success had been given more to work with. You can’t fault the actress, since it’s clear she was portraying a character who’d been all-but-broken by her creepy relationship with her domineering brother. She just wasn’t given enough dialogue other than “Steve…” to be able to make her character seem anything but insipid. Every time I see the movie, I forget how it ends, because I can never read what exactly her character is thinking during the final scenes. That’s partly because as in the rest of the movie, she has almost nothing interesting to say during her final scenes.

After going into cinema studies student mode for that long, I’ve realized that Sweet Smell of Success and Miller’s Crossing would be another excellent double feature. Look into your heart, Castro Theater!