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Sweet Smell of Success

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As the years progressed in the 1950s, a growing number of movies began to feature jazz-flavored scores. Film music's shift to a more contemporary feel was being expressed in virtually all areas of art and design. Starting roughly mid-decade, sleek modernism took hold in architecture, car design, home furnishings and even office furniture as prefabrication, glass, non- hierarchical geometry and futurism replaced stone, claustrophobic interiors and pre-war stuffiness. In film, this trend was reflected with brassy jazz rather than heavy European-style classical orchestration that had dominated Hollywood since the 1930s.

Jazz-flavored scores were found in I Want to Live (1958, by Johnny Mandel), Man With the Golden Arm (1955, Elmer Bernstein), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, John Lewis), Elevator to the Gallows (1958, Miles Davis), Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Duke Ellington), Private Hell 36 (1954, Leith Stevens) and Touch of Evil (1958, Henry Mancini). The list is too long to go into, and I'm sure JazzWax readers have dozens of others that I've left out.

Tied for first place on my list of favorites is The Wild One (1953, Leith Stevens and Shorty Rogers) and Sweet Smell of Success (Elmer Bernstein, Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz). Last week, Verve re-issued Sweet Smell of Success on CD, with a bonus track and informative liner notes by Peter Bernstein, son of movie- music giant Elmer Bernstein. 

I've long loved Sweet Smell of Success for a range of reasons. The film's memorable lines are plentiful, the opening credits and theme remain one of Hollywood's great New York noir table-setters, and the film features the Chico Hamilton Quintet. I have a particular fondness for the film's opening because In my early newspaper days at The New York Times in the early 1980s, I worked the night shift and had to pick up the evening's three different editions as they came up the conveyor belts from the presses below. The film's opener was filmed in the Times's truck bays on West 43rd. The bell warning that the conveyor belt was rolling was the same ("hot off the press) but in the film, they seem to have built faux chutes from which bundles of papers slid down bound for the trucks.

But beyond my own nostalgia, the music is superb. Bernstein's elephantine theme perfectly reflects the menacing out-sized power of gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Eleven of the 21 tracks were recorded by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with the songs written and arranged by Chico and cellist Fred Katz.

The jazz musicians in Bernstein's full orchestra included Pete Candoli, Conte Candoli and Ray Linn (trumpets), George Roberts (bass trombone); Ted Nash and Herb Geller (alto saxophones), Bob Cooper and Bill Holman (tenor saxophones) and Dave Pell (baritone sax); Buddy Clark (bass) and Shelly Manne (drums). [Photo above of Elmer Bernstein]

The Chico Hamilton Quintet featured Chico on drums, Fred Katz (cello), Paul Horn (clarinet), John Pisano (guitar) and Carson Smith (bass).

As Peter Bernstein writes in the notes, “Ultimately, Sweet Smell of Success proved to be too dark for 1958, and it was a failure at the box office. Test audiences were reportedly disturbed by seeing their favorite actors portraying such unsavory characters, and the film was quickly forgotten."

Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz died in 2013; Elmer Bernstein died in 2004.

JazWax clips: Here are the opening credits with Elmer Bernstein's theme filmed at the old New York Times building on West 43rd St....



Here's one of the great scenes in any movie from the period...



And here's the Chico Hamilton Quintet...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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