Sweet Smell of Success
And Mackendrick's style is instantly identifiable both before and after this movie. No one who appreciates film direction could miss his presence in The Man in the White Suit or A High Wind in Jamaica.
I certainly don't believe that a director's best films are always the ones in which he or she is the most dominant. But, I dunno, the issue should be raised at least.
Here are a few of the aspects of Mackendrick's style that I can pick up in Sweet Smell:
- An interest in the external qualities of the performer, especially as these external features create a sense of the uncanny or incongruous. I feel this more in the supporting cast (and the supporting cast often seems unusually important in Mackendrick films for this reason), but I pick it up also in his regard for Burt Lancaster's genteel monster, a quiet, hulking man who holds a teacup delicately in his massive hands, his expression obscured by low-rimmed glasses. (Mackendrick often suppresses facial expression in his actors.)
- The use of obvious dubbing, which has the effect of lifting passages of dialogue out of the warp and woof of the action, and turning them into a floating, radio-like commentary. Sometimes this effect is enhanced by having the dubbed dialogue bridge a cut.
- A pleasure in creating an elaborate background environment (with attention to both decor and supporting players), and then inconspicuously shifting our attention back and forth between the lead performers and the background, sometimes with routine cutting, sometimes with gentle camera movements.
And still, Mackendrick's personality is rather ethereal here, like a watermark on paper that can be seen only by holding it up to the light.
The screenwriters' presence is not ethereal. The crazy, inspired stunt dialogue, the quotable lines, nearly all go to Curtis and Lancaster, the villains who rule the film and create and control its melodramatic plot. The embodiments of decent living, especially young lovers Martin Milner and Susan Harrison, seem quite bland in comparison: probably no one watches the film for them. And yet the script's sincere preaching against the evil of unrestrained conservative power and amoral opportunism comes out of the mouths of these non-entities. One concludes that the film is governed by a fascination with the evil that it is condemning, and does not realize that it is bored by the kind of world that it advocates.
This is not a quality I associate with Mackendrick's other films. Yet neither do I detect that Mackendrick is trying to undermine this quality. He knows full well the nature of the project, and he executes it with enthusiasm.
And so I consider Sweet Smell of Success a very interesting failure....