Alexander Mackendrick on Sweet Smell of Success
To mark the 60th anniversary of the release of Sweet Smell of Success, we visit the Faber archives for its director's recollections of the film.
Alexander Mackendrick effectively retired from film directing in the late 1960s and, with a brilliant body of work behind him, went on to forge a further reputation for himself as one of the great teachers of cinema. On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director is an edited compendium of Mackendrick's lectures and writings: these were edited for publication by Paul Cronin and published by Faber and Faber in 2004. In this extract from a chapter of the book entitled 'Density and Subplots in Sweet Smell of Success', Mackendrick describes how that classic movie's screenplay was re-worked stunningly by Clifford Odets from a first draft by Ernest Lehman.
Ernie Lehman and I had become friends during a period when we were both under contract to Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. I had been preparing a project that was cancelled because of casting problems, while Ernie had been assigned as not only the writer of Sweet Smell of Success but also as director. He began, however, to have second thoughts about choosing it as his first directing assignment and decided he would be safer if he remained as writer/producer. He asked me if I would like to direct it.
I liked the material for several reasons. One was that I had always hankered to make a melodrama, a film noir as it has been called, and felt this was a chance to get out of a reputation I had for small, cute British comedies. Another was that, though it was in England, I'd had some experience of the world of tabloid journalism and was both repelled and fascinated by some of its grubbier aspects. A third was that I liked the idea of trying to capture on screen the atmosphere of Manhattan. (It has been done many times since, of course, but Sweet Smell of Success was actually one of the first attempts to shoot night scenes on location in the city.) I also appreciated the themes of the story and felt I could work well with Ernie Lehman, though did explain to him and the producers that there were certain things about the first draft that worried me a good deal, not least that it wasn't very cinematic. Just about every scene consisted of an exchange of dialogue between two people sitting at a table in a restaurant, at a bar, or in a nightclub. The screenplay was nothing but talk, with little consideration given to physical surroundings and visual atmosphere…
At this point came a major disaster: Ernie Lehman fell ill. With only a month or so before shooting was due to start, a date that could not be postponed because of contracts to the principal actors, we were faced with the task of finding a new screenwriter to solve a number of the problems we had identified in the script. By enormous good fortune Hecht-Hill-Lancaster had just put Clifford Odets under contract to work on another project and we were able to persuade him to do what, at that juncture, seemed a relatively simple job of story doctoring: polishing the dialogue and making some minor adjustments to the scene structure. We could not have been more wrong…
It is not easy to explain Clifford's process. It took place mostly in story conferences, daily meetings between three people: Odets, producer Jim Hill and myself. Much of the discussion was lively, aggressive argument in which it seemed that we ripped every scene to shreds to the point where I was growing increasingly nervous that nothing would be left. But what I slowly began to recognize was that I was being given the privilege of watching the processes of a dramatic intelligence working out the intricacies of character interaction. There was an interesting pattern to Clifford's work on the successive drafts of a scene. During a story conference he would improvise in the way an actor does, sometimes using a tape recorder, more often just talking and making notes. Then he would go off on his own to sketch out a scene that he would come back and read (perform, in fact) for our benefit. His acting, to my mind, was atrocious. Moreover, the scene would usually be horrendously overwritten and much too long. Then he would set about cutting it down quite ruthlessly. Clifford was, in fact, much more drastic in the editing of his own first drafts than any other writer I have working with. In effect, during this process he would reduce the scene to a bare bones of the essential moves of the dramatic action. All that would be left were the key lines that triggered a shift in the story, a peripety of some kind.
In the first story conference between Odets, myself and the producer, Jim Hill, I presented some of the ideas I had already been working on with Ernest Lehman… Clifford promised to work on these ideas. Then he began to focus on the scene he felt needed most work: the introduction, in the Twenty-One Club, of the figure central to the whole subject, J.J. Hunsecker. Lehman's original version contained three characters sitting at the newspaper columnist's table, but very little use was made of them. They were merely extras to the scene, while in Odets' version each of the five characters are continuously in play throughout. For purposes of exposition, Odets had considerably expanded their parts, making them foil figures and effectively providing a compact subplot for them. Like Odets, I felt the scene was not really as powerful as it ought to be, but having no positive suggestions, I had made no complaint. Odets proceeded to give us a demonstration of the way a practiced dramaturge, a man with long experience of such difficulties, explores for ideas to solve them.
"I don't understand!" he declared with force. "This man Hunsecker is a newspaper columnist. I know what that means. What I don't understand is why everybody seems so terrified of him. Why?" Jim Hill protested to Odets, "Oh, come on, Clifford, he's not just any columnist. Everybody knows how he behaves." "No they don't" said Clifford. "Some people might know. Maybe you and I know, but most people have no idea. This is a man who treats one of his associates as if he were dirt. But Sidney just sits there and takes it. Why does he need it? Why doesn't he just get up and walk away?" Jim protested again: "He can't walk away. It's his living." "How?" asked Clifford. "How? Because a Press Agent has to get his clients' names into the paper. That's what they pay him for. And besides that…" Jim, in some exasperation, went on to elaborate on the relationship between Sidney and Hunsecker. While he was doing so Odets scribbled notes on his memo pad, then switched his attack. "But why is everybody else so much in awe of this creature? He insults everybody but nobody talks back to him. I just don't believe in this man." Once more Hill insisted, "Don't you understand! This guy Hunsecker is a man who can tell Presidents what to do!" Scribbling again, Clifford said more quietly, "Oh, sure. But where does it say that? And even if somebody says it, I don't believe it. You've got to show me."
During all of this I made no comment, as I saw Odets' point clearly. But what had begun to worry me was that, if he was correct (and I felt he was), then there would need to be a lot more expository talk, a lot more of the kind of verbiage I felt was already bogging down the momentum of the story. More exposition, I felt, was bound to weaken the scenes rather than strengthen them. What Clifford had been scribbling down as he talked were Jim Hill's answers that were later worked into the dialogue of the script. Clifford was actually using Jim as a foil, or rather was playing the role of foil himself so that Jim was provoked into improvising the answers to the questions that had not been properly addressed in the first draft script. As for myself, I was indeed correct in my fear that the Twenty-One Club scene would have to be longer and more elaborate. But Clifford's skill meant that as it was transformed from primarily a two-hander into a five-cornered exchange of considerable complexity, the scene became brilliantly tense.