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Viewer Guide: “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Sweet Thing”

April 12, 2023 | Richard Peña


Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

This week’s double feature begins with Sweet Smell of Success, the classic 1957 film noir drama directed by Alexander Mackendrick. 

Adapted from Ernest Lehman’s novelette with a screenplay by Lehman and Clifford Odets, Sweet Smell of Success stars Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, a ruthlessly ambitious smalltime New York City press agent with a problem; for five days, there have been no mentions of his clients in the nationally syndicated column of J.J. Hunsecker, an all-powerful, Walter Winchell-style gossip writer and radio commentator played by Burt Lancaster. But Sidney also knows why: he has failed to succeed in accomplishing J.J.’s request to derail the romantic relationship between J.J.’s unstable younger sister Susie, played by Susan Harrison, and a high-minded jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas, played by Martin Milner. And Sidney well knows that without staying in J.J.’s good graces, his career is over before it’s begun. Increasingly desperate, Sidney decides to take a page from the master, and adopts some of J.J.’s cutthroat tactics in maneuvering behind-the-scenes to do J.J.’s bidding. But in the process, Sidney finds himself in danger of becoming the hunter captured by the game, with Susie proving to be more her brother’s sister than he ever imagined. 

With Sidney and J.J.’s tawdry late-night world beautifully rendered by James Wong Howe’s stark black & white cinematography, Elmer Bernstein’s evocative score is complemented by the music of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the jazz club sequences. 

Director Alexander Mackendrick’s career at London’s famed Ealing Studios had resulted in classics like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers. But after the sale of Ealing to the BBC in 1955, Mackendrick decided to give Hollywood a try, and signed with Burt Lancaster’s production company to direct an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play The Devil’s Disciple. When that project stalled, Mackendrick found himself assigned to Sweet Smell of Success, with Ernest Lehman adapting his own novelette inspired by Lehman’s early career as a press agent. When a new screenwriter was needed after Lehman fell ill, Mackendrick suggested Clifford Odets, the crusading wunderkind of 1930s Broadway whose career had suffered following his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Odets proceeded with a complete script overhaul and continued writing into the start of New York City location shooting, with some scenes going directly from Odets’ typewriter to the set for filming on the same day. Tony Curtis vigorously campaigned for the role of Sidney Falco, eager to escape his matinee idol image. Orson Welles was initially considered to play J.J. Hunsecker, but Lancaster took on the role himself as a stronger box office draw. Mackendrick and Lancaster clashed throughout production, with Mackendrick getting fired once principal photography was completed. Yet Mackendrick had shrewdly shot the final scene with minimal coverage, forcing Lancaster to re-hire him when the star-producer realized there was no other way to re-edit the ending. Although Sweet Smell of Success garnered positive reviews, audiences of the day didn’t know what to make of its searingly dark story, and the film was a box office flop. Happily, over the years the film’s critical estimation has only continued to grow, and it is now regarded as one of the era’s major film noir classics. 


Sweet Thing (2020).

Tonight’s double feature continues with Sweet Thing, a 2020 drama directed by Alexandre Rockwell.   

Featuring director Alexandre Rockwell’s children Lana and Nico Rockwell in the lead roles, Sweet Thing offers a gritty slice of life on the plight of underprivileged children struggling to make their way while trying to experience the fleeting joy of childhood. The Rockwells play “Billy” and “Nico,” siblings who take on sometimes illicit odd jobs to help with the meager Christmas celebration provided by their single father Adam, played by Will Patton. As the older child, Billy tries to manage Adam’s rapidly worsening alcoholism, taking strength and comfort with imaginary visitations from her namesake, jazz great Billie Holiday. But when Adam hits bottom and is sent to rehab, Billy and Nico find themselves relocated with their mother Eve, played by Karyn Parsons, who sadly must contend with an abusive boyfriend. Finding themselves in need of escape once again, Billy and Nico join forces with another wayward boy named Malik, played by Jabari Watkins, and together the trio embarks on an outlaw odyssey that provides a measure of happiness before an inevitable reality intrudes. 

Sweet Thing’s writer-director Alexandre Rockwell won critical notice in the New York indie film scene in 1992 with In the Soup, which won that year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Rockwell’s subsequent films include Somebody to Love, Louis & Frank and Pete Smalls is Dead. After taking a break from directing to join the NYU film school where he is now head of the Graduate Film Directing Program, Rockwell returned to filmmaking in 2017 with Little Feet, which also featured his children Lana and Nico Rockwell. Filmed on locations in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Sweet Thing was a complete family affair, with Rockwell’s wife Karyn Parsons—mother of Lana and Nico—joining the cast as Eve. With a production crew mostly consisting of Rockwell’s NYU students, Sweet Thing was chosen for screening as a “Generation Selection” at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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