Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

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This is the second in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


This classic American film noir was directed by a Scotsman best known for his comedy masterpieces made at the Ealing Studios – THE LADYKILLERS (1955), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), and WHISKY GALORE (1949). The darker tones discernible in Alexander Mackendrick’s British films became the dominant motifs of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). The sharply observed portrayal of a megalomaniac newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and the press agent with precious few principles, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), proved too dark for contemporary audiences but is now regarded as one of the great films of the genre and one that is still relevant today.

Gary Giddens, in his Criterion Collection essay, says:

Audiences in 1957 did not go to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis movies to find the characters they played steeped in a disdain that also defiled venerable commonplaces of American life, from brotherly love to dogged ambition, not to mention newspaper columnists, cigarette girls, senators, the police, and all that glittered along the Great White Way. So they stayed away; this was the year of the hits The Bridge on the River Kwai, Peyton Place, and Sayonara—big, colorful productions with heroes, or at least guiding lights, and Aesopian morals. Their loss is posterity’s gain. Sweet Smell of Success is a true classic. The passing of half a century has deepened its manifold pleasures.

The pairing of Curtis and Lancaster turned out to be a masterstroke. Cinephilia and Beyond piece says:

Tony Curtis had to fight really hard to get the role… The problem was that Universal Studios didn’t want to lose its star, an actor the audiences have known and loved from costume adventure epics. Sweet Smell of Success is a far more serious film—an urban drama, with unscrupulous, deeply ambitious characters scheming to make a living in the unforgiving world of showbusiness. What Universal feared ultimately came true: Curtis was sensational in Mackendrick’s film, forever shattering the image Universal so pedantically polished over the years. Paired on screen with the domineering presence of Burt Lancaster and an impressive role from Susan Harrison, Curtis brought Ernest Lehman’s novelette to life with dazzling fortitude.

Michael Brooke, in a piece printed in the superb new Arrow Academy blu-ray release, sums up the film well:

…A masterpiece, one of the most ferociously clear-eyed studies of the seamier side of American journalism and the cult of celebrity attempted either at the time or since, and the most cinematically flamboyant quasi-portrait of a major media figure since Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941)…

The atmosphere of the film is shaped by James Wong Howe’s remarkable black and white photography and enhanced by Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score and the inclusion of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Gary Giddens again:

 The film’s music is another source of enchantment… The period from 1957 to 1965 was the golden age of jazz, or jazz-influenced, movie and TV scores. Suddenly, music directors with a background in jazz and even true jazz composers were taken on by the studios: John Mandel, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Van Alexander, Eddie Sauter, Benny Carter, Andre Previn, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, and others, plus great jazz improvisers, who appeared in nightclub scenes or soloed invisibly on soundtracks. The composer and conductor on Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Bernstein, though not a jazz composer, figured prominently in this movement. Raised in Manhattan’s upper class and taken on by Aaron Copland as his protégé, Bernstein began scoring films in 1951…

 

In this picture, instead of using a big central theme…, he employed a series of short, expressive cues that complement the on-screen music performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Hamilton’s group was known for combining a laid-back West Coast jazz style (he had initially come to prominence as the drummer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet) with advanced harmonies, assertive rhythms, and the highly unusual instrumentation of cello (Fred Katz), flute (Paul Horn), and guitar (John Pisano). Bernstein preferred massed brasses and shuffle rhythms, which contrasted agreeably with Hamilton’s lightly astringent approach.

Included in Sight and Sound’s ‘Greatest Films of all Time’ poll of 2012, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is as fresh and hard hitting today as when it was released.


SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS will open the Herts Jazz FILM Festival on 16 September 2016. Details of the screening can be found here.

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