"You didn't even pay attention to the movie. All you saw were a pair of talking browlines."
That was my wife's assessment of my response to Sweet Smell of Success, the classic 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. It wasn't entirely apt: I did pay attention to the film, sitting in rapt awe of the dark tale of J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), a corrupt newspaper columnist with the readership and power to make or break anyone he pleases, and his conniving toady Sidney Falco (Curtis), who agrees to do Hunsecker's bidding—no matter how loathsome—in exchange for his own guaranteed financial success. I did pay attention to the fantastic cinematography, eclectic and borderline psychedelic jazz score, the fantastic performances by Curtis and Lancaster. My wife was, however, right about one thing: I especially paid attention to the browlines.
I have to admit that the film first came to my attention when I learned that 1) The American Film institute had declared Hunsecker one of the greatest villains in cinematic history; that 2) He was a villain who wore glasses; and 3) Those glasses were browlines. I doubt I'm alone in my assessment that villains tend to be the most interesting characters in fiction (think Star Wars and I bet Darth Vader comes to mind first, not Luke Skywalker; ditto for Hannibal Lecter and Silence of the Lambs). It's rare that we visually challenged get to see ourselves run amok on the silver screen, and when we do, it's often in the form of someone much less charismatic than Tony Soprano or that shark from Jaws (let's be honest: mechanical or not, he had presence). So it was with great fascination that I decided to check out ...Success, not just to see a bespectacled villain, but one who wasn't a cowardly milquetoast or simpering creep. I'm glad I did; it's an incredible movie, but it's especially fascinating for anyone with hyper-awareness of eyewear. Though my wife was being somewhat sarcastic, there was some truth in her assessment: Alexander Mackendrick's direction and James Wong Howe's cinematography work together in such a way that Hunsecker's eyewear actually become a character unto themselves, to great visual and narrative effect. It's a cinematic crash course in the power of a carefully selected pair of spectacles.
First things first: The glasses themselves. The frames are browlines, and, based upon some colorized stills, had a silver chassis with black caps. I've struggled, with no success, to identify the manufacturer over the course of repeated viewings. I was initially certain they were Art Crafts based on the bridge and rivet covers, but, I've recently seen some photos of Shurons from the same period the film was made that indicate the two companies used such similar rivet covers during the period that it's hard to say what Lancaster is wearing, even on the Blu-Ray.
The frames actually belonged to Lancaster, and it's easy to tell that they were fitted especially for his face by an expert optician: The fit of the bridge, especially, makes them appear almost custom made. It was, in fact, after Mackendrick spotted Lancaster donning the specs that he decided to incorporate them into the film: The character, based on newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, had initially been written for a much older man, intended to be fearful in spite of a slight presence and physical weakness. By having the physically powerful Lancaster wear glasses for his performance, Mackendrick was able to tap into audience stigmas against the bespectacled and still achieve the desired effect: The glasses create the appearance of someone scholarly and intellectual, an effective contrast to his ruthlessness and the brute power with which Lancaster infuses the role.
As a part of the logo of Hunsecker's column—fittingly titled "The Eyes of JJ Hunsecker"—his spectacles are one of the first images to appear in the film, gracing the sides of delivery vans and the front pages of the myriad newspapers they toss out onto crowded Broadway and 42nd Street sidewalks. Although Hunsecker himself won't appear in the movie for nearly the first third of the running time, his glasses appear constantly, not only indicating that the man of many connections has metaphorical eyes and ears everywhere, but immediately creating a link between the viewer and the frames as an indicator of Hunsecker himself. After all, pictures of his face don't appear plastered all over New York, simply pictures of his glasses, so that by the time the audience finally does get a glimpse of Hunsecker, they haven't been prepped to see just any man, but rather the man behind those glasses—before we know anything else about JJ, we know he is inextricably linked to those frames. As the film came out during the height of browlines' popularity, the message is simple but in keeping with Hunsecker's persona as a standard bearer for the American Identity, circa 1957: Coupled with his plain ties and conservative suits, they paint a picture of quiet, comfortable conformity. (In a subtle but attentive touch, a brief scene in Hunsecker's office features an old advertisement for his column from, presumably, the 1930s, featuring him wearing round tortoiseshell frames).
Even stronger than the connotations of the glasses, though, is the way that cinematographer James Wong Howe utilizes them when shooting Lancaster. When Hunsecker finally does appear on camera, it's in the exclusive 21 Club, a Manhattan hotspot for socialites to rub elbows with politicians and gossip about the affairs of the day. While Howe shoots Curtis in stark lighting that illuminates his entire face and body, he instead chooses to film Lancaster—wearing a much darker suit—in such a way that his glasses cast shadows around his eyes while his body blends into the shadows. The effect is that of Hunsecker's frames turning his face into a floating skull: A disembodied death's head speaking destruction out of the dark. It's a powerful, startling image, one which Howe continues to use to great effect throughout the remainder of the film. In sequences where a non-bespectacled Lancaster's face would normally be in full view, Howe exploits the lighting so that his glasses almost become a mask, obscuring his eyes and transforming him into a menacing spectre.
When shadows weren't an option, though, Mackendrick and Howe had another trick up their sleeve, one just as jarringly effective. There are several sequences in which Hunsecker is seen in broad daylight or well-lit rooms; for these sequences, Howe had the makeup department spread a thin film of Vaseline over the back of Lancaster's lenses. Though it doesn't show up on film, the trick had the effect of blurring Lancaster's vision. The result was an eternally vacant gaze, creating the illusion that rather than looking at anyone or anything in his immediate vicinity, Hunsecker is constantly looking straight through people-- seeing what makes them tick, what weaknesses can be used against them to his own advantage. To the viewer, it also enhances the intensity of Lancaster' performance: It's a creepy visual when close shots show those giant, empty eyes peering out at you from behind those thick-framed glasses.
Rarely has so much attention been paid to the role of glasses in film; even rarer have they been so inextricably linked to a character, to the point that they actually become a part of that character (tellingly, Hunsecker only removes his glasses once in the film, a scene that features another neat trick in Mackendrick and Howe's behalf which underscores the specs' importance to his character. It occurs during a conversation with Falco on a soundstage, and when the frames come off, Lancaster is blocked and filmed in such a way that his face completely disappears into the shadows. Implying that without the glasses, there is no J.J. Hunsecker. Rather than work with audience expectation, Hunsecker's frames subvert convention in becoming an icon of omnipotence, power, and fear. It's all in how they're utilized-- an effective and striking reminder of the kind of power that opticians and glasses wearers really wield in how they are able to present a particular image to the world. It really is all in how someone wears their frames that dictates the way they're perceived.
It's something to think about. While you do, I'm going to go take another look at those talking browlines.
Preston Fassel was born in Houston, Texas and grew up between St. Charles, Missouri and Broken Arrow, Okla.
In 2009, Preston graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Liberal Arts. In 2011, he graduated Cum Laude from Sam Houston State University with a Bachelor's of Science.
Preston currently works as an Optician in the Houston area. His interest in the history of eyewear goes back to his time in high school, when he developed an interest in all things vintage.
In addition to his writing for The 20/20 Opticians Handbook and 20/20 Magazine, Preston is a featured writer for Rue Morgue Magazine, where he reviews of horror and science-fiction DVDs. His fiction writing has been featured three times in Swirl magazine, the literary arts journal of Lone Star College and Montgomery County. He is the author of the definitive work on the life of British horror actress Vanessa Howard, Remembering Vanessa, which appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Screem Magazine.