With its bitter dialogue and characterizations in the nasty story of an all-powerful big-city newspaper gossip columnist, the 1957 film noir Sweet Smell of Success is a difficult movie to cuddle up with, but there’s still plenty to admire — the acting of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in the lead parts, the gorgeous B&W cinematography of James Wong Howe, and perhaps most pleasing to jazz fans, Elmer Bernstein’s score and the incidental music by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, running through a set at a New York nightspot.
Michael Shepler, a published poet and editor from Pleasant Hill who works a day job at UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library, has combined two of his off-duty passions — film noir and jazz music — in a series of three informal “workshops” at the Jazzschool in Berkeley that pick up on the special relationship between noir-ish moviemaking and cool-school ’50s jazz. His prime examples are Sweet Smell of Success and two other noirs from the same era, I Want to Live! and Odds Against Tomorrow, both by director Robert Wise. Shepler’s workshops, intended not just for jazz aficionados but for film noir fans as well, will demonstrate how the shadowy mood and also the plot movement of the films is furthered by the music. “All these films came at the end of the classical film noir period, and in two of them, jazz musicians play themselves as performers,” Shepler explains. “Jazz becomes part of the plot mechanism.” The lead character of I Want to Live!, an unfairly accused murderer named Barbara Graham (played by Susan Hayward), digs the West Coast jazz of Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, and Art Farmer. In the case of Odds Against Tomorrow, the music by pianist John Lewis even takes the place of dialogue in a few key scenes.
The Sweet Smell workshop takes place Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Jazzschool, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley. I Want to Live! is covered May 15, and Odds Against Tomorrow on May 22. All three films will be shown in their entirety, followed by a discussion with clips. Admission for each session is $15. Info: Jazzschool.com or 510-845-5373.