Sweet Smell of Success – why Clifford Odets’ script is loaded with drama-led conflict?

en:Clifford Odets photographed by en:Carl Van ...

en:Clifford Odets photographed by en:Carl Van Vechten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The script for the film Sweet Smell of Success is loaded with high-level intelligent drama because the writer Clifford Odets‘ spent a lot of time creating surprising and crucially unforgettable scenes loaded with conflict. The script is adapted from a novella by another great screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

Here is a brief summary of why the scene with the Senator is loaded with character-led conflict –

Hunsucker apologises to the Senator so he can regain his composure when Sidney bursts in without his consent using a message from Hunsucker’s sister as his defence. We the audience are rewarded if we have been paying attention. How? Hunsucker is not a man known to say sorry given his rudeness towards Sidney and the fact that he has interrupted the Senator telling a story on an elevated topic such as the Supreme Court. We know the cause for the sudden apology may be related to the fact that Sidney has unsettled Hunsucker by mentioning his sister and we know Hunsucker has a strange obsession with his sister.

Just incase we missed the thuggish unapologetic nature of Hunsucker, he goes on to embarrass the Senator by inferring the story he was telling is already known. Sidney who is not invited to sit with the others confirms this. The Senator clearly embarrassed concedes. His attempt to use humour as a distraction causes Hunsucker to rap him on the knuckles a second time. The Senator then changes the subject to finding out the name of Sidney, the cause of Hunsucker’s discomfort earlier.

Sidney’s unwanted presence in the room and his constant interruptions lead to introductions which are even more telling. We the audience are part of the getting to know you all. Sidney introduces himself to the admired Senator Walker who introduces a young lady, who in turn looks admiringly at Sidney, who acknowledges the agent but not the girl – telling us Sidney considers her unimportant. She is a wannabee. Hunsucker’s comment suggests the agent is neither reputable or faithful and yet is with the Senator. This tells the audience the Senator’s judgment is impaired and he is at the mercy of the powerful Hunsucker. All the while Sidney is humiliated by Hunsucker.

The writer Odets’ uses drama to show us a ruthless world where everyone has to be somebody to avoid being humiliated or belittled let alone treated with respect. Here are some short examples of why the character motivations mean the scene is loaded with conflict –

  1. Hunsucker wants Sidney taken out but is forced to wait until Sidney gives him the information about his sister
  2. Sidney needs Hunsucker to do what he promised but needs to deliver the obsessive Hunsucker control of his sister
  3. The Senator wants Hunsucker to help him but knows Hunsucker is unimpressed with his entourage
  4. The girl clearly needs the old Senator to help her career but overtly shows she likes the young and handsome Sidney

This scene plays out different aspects of characters to create high-level theme led conflicts – all of which remain true to the story. These include status, age, love, infatuation, esteem, power, abuse, exploitation, innocence etc

Screenwrites intends to breakdown the script for Sweet Smell of Success regularly to see if scenes are as rich and more importantly powerful.

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