Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success - Introducing J.J.

Orson Welles coined the phrase "the Mr. Wu device" to describe a dramatic situation where a character is talked about but never seen until well into a play or film. This has the effect of ratcheting up an audience's expectations and increasing the drama when the mysterious character finally makes his appearance. Welles himself played one of the most famous Mr. Wu roles in film history -- Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). Literary examples include Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. You can probably think of others.

The Mr. Wu device is also used effectively in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster as god-like gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (inspired by Walter Winchell) and Tony Curtis as the sycophantic press agent Sidney Falco. It's a brilliant film on every level. Sweet Smell is one of those happy Hollywood accidents where everything came together -- direction, dialogue, acting, cinematography, music and subtext -- to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

J.J. is cleverly introduced during the jazzy opening credits sequence by showing the top half of his face on the side of trucks delivering the fictional New York Globe newspaper. "Go with the Globe. . . Read J.J. Hunsecker" they advertise in bold letters. However, we must wait until the second reel for J.J. in the flesh. It's a doozy of a scene that showcases the strengths of this film, particularly writer Clifford Odets' quotable dialogue. Lancaster is terrific here, but I think Curtis is even better. Director Alexander Mackendrick placed him behind Lancaster's right shoulder so we get to see J.J.'s verbal daggers register on Sidney's face. This scene should be rated R for violence, though there's never a punch thrown or a drop of blood shed. Enjoy. . .

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