If it’s light out, you can’t watch SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.
New York City is a trusted muse for nearly every significant filmmaker. Woody Allen, for example, based many films in his beloved hometown. Every studio used to have their version of New York City – a set equipped with stereotypical, stylistic trappings, ready to be employed in any quintessential crime and noir film.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was a pioneering film because it deviated from this romantic version of New York City. Shooting the film on location was the first step to unmasking this glorified vision. Although the film is based on lies and deception, Time Square is presented accurately as Time Square. It is not an illusionistic mural. This documentary style realism allowed the film to deviate from the typical Hollywood formula.
Shooting on location paved the way for new film techniques that were previously impossible to achieve in studios. The film’s director, Alexander Mackendrick, born in New York’s rival city Boston, attempted to mimic New York’s claustrophobia by ensconcing his office with panoramic photographs taken during pre-production. With cinematographer James Wong Howe, hired by Lancaster, Mackendrick devised an unconventional filming scheme. To create a heightened sense of claustrophobia, the duo filmed long shots using a long focus lens. This effect allowed the looming buildings to appear packed together like a box of sardines. Similarly, close-up shots used a wide-angle lens to include an overwhelming number of buildings in the distance. Legendary filmmaker Sydney Pollack noticed this effect observing, “These techniques create an overall effect, in which lay moviegoers feel oppressed by the city, without necessarily understanding why.”
Bob Dylan’s line “ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet” from his song “Visions of Johanna”, parallels the role of darkness in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. Nighttime is so essential in this film it should be given a line in the opening credits. In almost every shot, darkness dominates the screen. The only source of light comes from garish neon signs or the tops of taxicabs that zip by in the background. Moreover, Tony Curtis’ oil slicked hair and Burt Lancaster’s ultra thick fashion frames mask their otherwise good looks. Cinematographer Howe added Vaseline to Lancaster’s frames in order to cast his eyes in shadow, giving off a menacing aura.
Lancaster’s character is seemingly delighted by New York’s gritty underside. When a drunken bum gets kicked out into the streets and knocks over a trash barrel, Lancaster replies, “I love this dirty town.” Other films in the noir and gangster genres that attempted to show humanity’s dark side were impeded by a romanticized vision of New York – a vision ingrained in the audience’s mind since the early days of film. Perhaps the film’s true mark of success was its banning in twelve overseas countries. The U.S. Information Agency deemed the film an inaccurate representation of the United States (Reported by the New York Times, May 1959).
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS plays with the familiar, turns it upside down and shakes it in front of an unsuspecting audience. Even Tony Curtis’ smooth talking voice sounds like a devious rip-off of Cary Grant’s, tricking the audience into thinking they’ve sat down to watch a classic Hollywood leading man.
This film paved the way for Martin Scorsese’s raw portrayal of New York in his film TAXI DRIVER. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS dared to be unpleasant. Up until that time, films were predominantly an escape from reality, particularly in the depression era with films like WIZARD OF OZ. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS removed audiences from reality but then forced them to view it through a medium that is typically used to alter reality in favor of fantasy. There is no hero, no convenient wrap up of moral wrongdoing. Drugs, communism, blackmail. It’s all there, and there ain’t no hiding it. As Sidney Falco said, “the cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river”.