Me with my Jersey City brains?

SweetPhoto:guardian.com

Classic movies like The Sweet Smell of Success. Can women enjoy them? Should men? Are they really classics at all?

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) begs this question because there isn’t a woman in it who is anything other than an object or a pawn. This is a world where women say things like “I said anything that popped into my sleepy head” and go home with a headache from “too much excitement.” A young woman, when asked if she studies politics, will say “politics? Me with my Jersey City brains?” A world where a man can tell a woman: “Start thinking with you head and not your hips.”

The dialogue is supposed to be great. Lines like “you’re dead son, you’re just not buried”; “I’d hate to take a bite out of you”; “he’s full of juice and vinegar” – this kind of thing.

The screenplay was written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, adapted from Lehman’s novelette. It’s a strange story – strange in its flimsiness. There are four characters. An all-powerful gossip columnist and his sister, the guitarist she loves and a press agent who is dependent on the gossip columnist. The columnist is in his early forties and his sister is nineteen. She’s all he has in the world, he tells her. He has a head-and-shoulders shot of her on his work desk. They live together. He wants her relationship with the guitarist broken up. So yes, you got it: he’s a bit of a creep. Hitchcock must have been raging he didn’t get to film it. How many times did brother-sister incest go up on the big screen in the Fifties?

He probably made Psycho just to up the ante.

So all this stuff happens – the men are bastards – the women are abused – and you find it hard to care. You just wonder: is Tony Curtis going to redeem himself?

It starts to feel, later on, like Lehman sat down and said: “I want to write a story about integrity”, and this was the result. But there’s no heart in it, no warm heart.

“O, I just wrote whatever popped into my sleepy head.”

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