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Is Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success really a film noir? The Clifford Odets-Ernest Lehman scripted picture isn't a crime movie per se, although it does feature a supremely slimy corrupt cop, a very nasty frame-up, intimations of incestuous feelings, and a constant stream of back-and-forth recriminations and resentments and sublimations of guilt and obsessions that it can't really be anything BUT a noir, can it? As The Siren herself put it when I was hashing out with her whether I was gonna discuss this picture for her and Marilyn Ferdinand's very worthy blogathon, "you've got fate, dark deeds, twisted motives, great shadowy cinematography, what's not to noir?"
Right. Of course there's also the problem that Sweet Smell has already been written about pretty much to death, and if you're a fan of it (and good lord, if you're not a fan of it, what are you doing reading this blog?) basically all you want to know about it right now is how good the new Criterion discs of it (standard def and Blu-ray editions) are, and they are very damn good indeed, by my estimation. In any event, there really isn't, to my mind, all that much new to say about the picture...unless I bring things into the putatively actual, and possibly personal.
The picture establishes its snappy, practically breakneck, pace—and seedy/glamorous Manhattan milieu—in its credit sequence, which shows us a bustling Times Square as the latest editions of the Globe, the paper for which columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) acts as "The Eyes of Broadway," are loaded onto trucks that will deliver that edition far and wide...and, in one case, to a newsstand literally around the corner from these loading docks, before the feet of hungry press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who will be quite disappointed to see and mention of his clientele once again absent from Hunsecker's jottings. The avid amateur historian of New Amsterdam will know that newsstand is literally around the corner via a visual parsing of the locations captured by Mackendrick and James Wong Howe for their montage. By gum, those docks look very much like the ones that were on the ground floor of the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street between Broadway/7th Avenue and Eighth Avenue. There they are from street level facing west, behind Curtis' credit.
If we need any further confirmation of the location, it's provided within a couple of shots; the visual closer is hard to catch when watching the film in a theater, but easy to nail with the tech capabilities of DVD. The trucks of "The Globe" have big ads on their sides advertising Hunsecker's column; but the prop department didn't cover every truck at that loading dock. And as one of the trucks moves out, another truck is visible...
...and this truck bears a plaque with the New York Times' "All The News That's Fit To Print" motto, and an advertisement for that paper.
...and off the truck goes.
"I love this dirty town," Hunsecker famously intones a little later in the film, outside and a little down the block from the still-extant restaurant "21," over on 52nd Street. The town would get a lot dirtier in the coming years, and the trucks leaving the Times' loading dock would get a lot bigger. Across the street from the Times' building was a hotel first known as the Dixie, and then known as the Carter (and no, I'm not making that up); never exactly the Waldorf-Astoria, it was for a time the home of the frequently down-on-his-luck writer and race enthusiast known as Colonel Stingo, immortalized by A.J. Liebling in his wonderful book The Honest Rainmaker. By the early 1990s, what had been the hotel's ballroom, I presume, had become one of New York's truly great trannie dives, Sally's II, yclept Sally's Hideaway. It opened its doors at around five o'clock every afternoon, around the time the vast majority of the isle's transgendered population was just getting out of bed, really, save for a handful of stalwart gals whose circumstances necessitated a slight boost of spring to the step. Okay, I'm exaggerating/romanticizing a bit, but you get the idea. While a fair amount of business, that is, hustling, went on at Sally's from the late rush hour onward, its main function was as a place for the indigenous community, such as it was, to socialize. Which also kind of made it a great place for a non-transgendered heavy drinker and substance abuser to isolate, and watch life's rich and strange pageant go by. And so I did, on way too many nights than I sometimes care to recall.
For the trannie prostitute, Sally's was the prelude to Edelweiss, down the way west, next to the diner on 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, which was much more of a "real" nightclub, and had a more sex-tourist/regular-tourist friendly vibe to it. A friend of mine from the transgender world had strong connections to the larger demi-monde, and was frequently asked to act as docent to the celebrity class in their quasi-slumming activities; one night he was deputized with squiring Tim Burton, then-cohort Lisa Marie (this was 1996, around the time of Mars Attacks!), and Francis Ford Coppola to Edelweiss to see the gorgeous dancing Dominican not-girls. Lisa Marie went down a storm with the queens, as you might imagine; Coppola, apparently, walked around marveling at how "theatrical" it all was, and was frequently mistaken for a potential john by some of the working girls, on account of his having kept his overcoat on for the whole visit. Anyway. So on a particularly lucky night, any given girl working at Sally's could hook either a regular client or a new friend and get him to shell out consistent cash for blow, and drinks, and possibly some partying later. This entailed sticking around for the evening "show" at Sally's (lip-syncing in fabulous gowns, natch; my Southern belle pal Miss Gina Germaine really sold Reba McIntire's "Fancy," as you might imagine), waiting around for whoever was dealing the always badly stepped-on coke to show up, and, after that transaction was completed, skipping down to Edelweiss for several nightcaps or more blow or someone to bring to the party later or whatever. Except. (I bet you were wondering where the hell this was leading, right?) If you'd try to catch a cab from Sally's to Edelweiss between one and two-thirty or three in the morning, chances are you'd have to wait outside for some time, because taxi traffic was frequently halted by the fleet of now eighteen-wheeled trucks backing in and pulling out of the Times' loading docks. This activity led to considerable interludes of anxiety for both hunter and game, hustler and hustled; if the john started feeling pangs of conscience (I probably don't need to tell you that good number of these fellows were leading some form of a double life) or, you know, budgetary concerns, this break in the momentum of their, um, headlong rush into sybaritic degradation could conceivably provide them with an exit strategy, escape hatch, what have you. And the queen, left in a relative lurch, would have relatively short notice from then until closing time (which really just meant a dash to some after-hours joint in many cases) to find another sugar daddy for the evening.
Yeah, it sure was a dirty town, and it still is, but not that way, not anymore. I always thought it was not insignificant that Sally's was padlocked for good on November 13, 1997, the night of the official opening of The Lion King. The photographer Brian Lantelme has a reasonably fabulous website commemorating the joint here. Its contents are not thoroughly NSFW, but still...you might be the type who worries that your work cohorts will take you for a trannie-chaser. Some of the people pictured therein are still my friends; and too many of those pictured therein have died.