A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for Elwell printing a blind item linking Dallas with marijuana use, not to mention being a card-carrying Commie! Of course, none of it’s true, and Dallas confronts Hunsecker and Falco. For daring to stand up to him, Hunsecker goes for the jugular, and gets Falco to plant some weed on the musician, siccing his psycho-cop friend Kello on him. Falco’s reward will be to take over Hunsecker’s column while he and Susie take an ocean cruise. But as in any good film noir, the best laid plans of rats and men go horribly awry…

Burt Lancaster made his name in 40’s film noir (THE KILLERS,  BRUTE FORCE CRISS CROSS ), but nothing tops his turn as the malicious J.J. Hunsecker. He’s got ice water in his veins and a razor-sharp tongue (when Falco first fails to breakup the romance, Hunsecker tells him: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried”). Cold, cruel, and callous, J.J will do anything to save his twisted relationship with his sister. Wrapping himself in the American flag and wound tighter than a coiled spring, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is said to be based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.  Whether this is completely true or not, J.J. Hunsecker stands tall in the noir pantheon of heels.

Good as Lancaster is, Tony Curtis runs away with the film as the self-loathing publicist Sidney Falco. Sidney will do whatever it takes to get in J.J.’s good graces (and get his clients in J.J.’s column). Sid’s a real shit, a sniveling sycophant with the morals of… no, below an alley cat. The duplicitous, brownnosing Falco is a far cry from Curtis’ 50’s good-guy roles, and his best screen performance by far. Though nominated for an Oscar the next year in THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis should’ve won for this (Red Buttons took supporting honors that year for SAYONARA). The film wasn’t even nominated; apparently, even Oscar was repulsed by these characters!

“Match me, Sidney”

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is dense and filled with some quotable poison-pen dialog. Besides the famous “cookie laced with arsenic” line, here are a few venomous samples:

Sidney to J.J. about Dallas: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”

Sidney to Elwell after hooking him up with Rita: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That leaves a lot of leeway”

Rita, upon finding out Sidney’s set her up: “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”

J.J., on New York City: “I love this dirty little town”

Barbara Nichols as Rita

The supporting cast is equally good. SWET SMELL OF SUCCESS is also Martin Milner’s  finest hour on the big screen as earnest young Steve Dallas; he of course went on to smell success with TV’s ROUTE 66 and ADAM-12. Susan Harrison (Susie) didn’t; she’s best remembered as the ballerina in the TWILGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Barbara Nichols shines as not-so-naïve Rita, a small but standout role. Barbara’s other credits include THE KING & 4 QUEENS, PAL JOEY, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and the cult sci-fi flick THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS. Another small part cast David White as the lascivious Elwell; he’s known to TV viewers as BEWITCHED’s Larry Tate. Other Familiar Faces among the denizens of this dirty little town are Sam Levene , Edith Atwater, Jeff Donnell, Lawrence Dobkin, John Fiedler, Bess Flowers Emile Meyer , Queenie Smith, Lurene Tuttle, and Phillip Van Zandt . Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton plays himself, and vaudeville veteran Joe Frisco plays a comedian.

“I love this dirty little town”

The choice of director was an unusual one. This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, after helming such Ealing Studios comedies as THE MAN IN THE WHTE SUIT and THE LADYKILLERS. It turned out to be a good one; the British director, aided and abetted by the great James Wong Howe as DP, perfectly capture the grittiness of Times Square nightlife in the 50’s, making the area a character itself. Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score (along with some  Chico Hamilton Quintet bebop numbers) add to the flavor of the film. SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS did not do well at the box office upon release, as audiences were undoubtably turned off by it’s repulsive main characters. Only later has it become a classic, one of the best in the noir canon, certainly one of the decade’s best movies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower!

Halloween TV Havoc!: LIZARD’S LEG AND OWLET’S WING (“ROUTE 66”, 1962)

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The TV series ROUTE 66 followed the adventures of two young men (Martin Milner, George Maharis) as they cruised the fabled highway in their spiffy Corvette. The 1962 Halloween episode featured a special treat for horror fans, with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney Jr. guesting as themselves. The three screen ghouls are debating the value of their old Gothic-style chillers vs the modern, “adult” horrors like PSYCHO. Karloff makes his final appearance in his Frankenstein makeup, while Lon dons the Wolf Man and Mummy makeups once again (and his dad’s Hunchback, too!). If you’re a classic horror lover, you’re absolutely gonna LOVE watching this Trio of Terror Titans (especially Chaney!) in “LIZARD’S LEG AND OWLET’S WING”:

(Also in the cast are Betsy Jones-Mooreland (Corman’s THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH), Martita Hunt (GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Hammer’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA), veteran Conrad Nagel (whose nephew Don co-starred in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER), and rumor has it that’s Lon’s real-life grandson Ron in the opening scene.)

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Kitty Litter: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (Allied Artists 1960)

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Let’s get it out of the way right now- SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE is bad. Real bad. Like mind-numbingly bad. Despite the presence of sex kittens Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld, this movie is a smelly litter box in desperate need of cleaning. It’s an Albert Zugsmith extravaganza, so you know right off the bat it’s gonna be a stinker. Zugsmith had once been a producer at Universal, overseeing prestige films like WRITTEN ON THE WIND and TOUCH OF EVIL. But when he went into independent productions, Zugsmith chose to go the low-budget exploitation route and even though he managed to attract some well-known names, his little epics usually stunk to high heaven.

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The movie revolves around the talents of Mamie Van Doren, a beautiful creature whose best assets weren’t her acting. She plays Dr. Mathilda West, a genius hired to take over the science department at Collins College. Thinko, a supercomputer/robot type thing, recommended her without realizing she was once Tassels Montclair, a stripper known as the Tallahassee Tassel Tosser. Yuk yuk. All the men on campus go gaga over her because she has blonde hair and big hooters. Yuk yuk yuk.

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There’s really not a lot of plot to describe. Tuesday Weld’s boyfriend, the inimitable Norman “Woo Woo” Grabowski, is the captain of the football team who’s afraid of women. Yuk yuk. Mickey Shaughnessy and Allan Drake are two gangsters hunting down “Sam Thinko”, who’s bleeding their boss dry by winning all his bets, not realizing it’s the computer/robot thing. Yuk yuk. Brigitte Bardot wasn’t available, so they got her little sister Mijanou to play an exchange student doing “research” on American men. Yuk yuk yuk. Louis Nye makes an inauspicious film debut as Thinko’s creator Dr. Zorch, and his assistant is none other than Vampira (not in costume, though)! Pamela Mason is dean of students who’s hot for rich Texas school benefactor Jackie Coogan. Martin Milner (billed as Marty) is on hand as an administrator; he’s also credited as associate producer so he should’ve known better. John Carradine is a horny professor; he and Mamie dancing the Charleston and Tango together is probably the film’s highlight.

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Conway Twitty is here to sing one unmemorable song. There’s some monkeyshines with Mamie’s per chimp Voltaire. And for some reason, Charlie Chaplin Jr and Harold Lloyd Jr were hired to do bit parts as a fireman and policeman, respectively. Why? Who knows? All I know is that the thing plays like an extended burlesque skit, and a pretty lousy one at that. The only interesting tidbit I dug up while researching this mess is that Drake was a stand-up comic whose claim to fame was that his wife was having an affair with Mafioso Anthony “Little Augie” Carfano, and both were found executed in Little Augie’s Cadillac a year before Drake made this bomb.

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You can probably tell I really don’t have much to say about this piece of crap except to tell you to avoid it, unless all the above nonsense appeals to you in some kind of perverse way. Don’t torture yourselves the way I did by sitting through this turkey. It’s my job to view schlock like this; you have other options!