J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jazz Score: Sweet Smell of Success

Publicists have a difficult job. Getting press for clients is often a tough assignment. I have been able to cover some truly great artists and films here because of their assistance, and have real respect for those I have worked with. So it is important to remember Sidney Falco from The Sweet Smell of Success is far from representative (but in some cases he has provided a sort of tongue-in-cheek inspiration). His story also comes accompanied by a jazz soundtrack, which explains its inclusion in the MoMA’s Jazz Score series.

As a press agent, Falco played by Tony Curtis, is desperate to get his clients into the newspapers, particularly in the column of one J.J. Hunsecker. Clearly inspired by Walter Winchell, Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker is the tyrant of the tabloids. Oozing schmaltz for his readers and radio listeners, he is a Machiavellian figure, who also has a strange need to keep his young sister under his tight control. Unfortunately, she has taken up with the doggedly principled Steve Dallas, a jazz musician, which is unacceptable for obvious reasons. Now the obedient Sidney is charged with torpedoing the relationship. Until he does, he will be frozen out of Hunsecker’s column.

Co-written by notorious lefty Clifford Odets, Success seems like a naturalistic, almost muck-raking expose of the world of Broadway press agents, in which Falco is totally done over by the Hunseckers. However, after viewing it several times, the real villain who emerges is Falco himself. Hunsecker is indeed a moralizing hypocrite who abuses the power of the press, but Falco is a willing accomplice in his own debasement. There is nothing and nobody he will not voluntarily sacrifice, including whatever shreds of dignity or sense of self he might have left, simply to suck up to his press master. In cringe-worthy scenes, we see Falco obsequiously light Hunsecker’s cigarette after the columnist publicly humiliates him. At one point Hunsecker tells Falco: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” and he is not wrong.

Success is a great film, as is much of the music, particularly that of Chico Hamilton’s quintet. There is also a sort of crime-jazz influenced orchestral soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, which is not quite as swinging as his score for Man with the Golden Arm. The Hamilton Quintet does indeed get screen time the Dallas group. Portrayed by Martin Millner (no kidding), Dallas is seen as the leader and guitarist of the combo, whereas drummer Hamilton was the actual leader and cellist Fred Katz was the de-facto musical director. Hamilton’s guitarist at the time, John Pisano, is heard but not seen, dubbing Millner’s performances.

The dialogue of Success crackles and Hunsecker may well be Lancaster’s best film performance. Effectively directed by the British Alexander MacKendrick, Success is a film noir-ish time-capsule look at early 1950’s Times Square New York. It also represent one of the better troupes of jazz films—the association of jazz with integrity. It screens at MoMA May 24th and 25th.

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