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Scent of Mystery

Scent of Mystery(1960)

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teaser Scent of Mystery (1960)

In 1939, then-Broadway producer Mike Todd saw a demonstration at the New York World's Fair of a technical process by which specialized odors could be released into a movie theater during a screening. It was invented by a Swiss scientist named Hans Laube. Fifteen years later, Todd told his son, Michael Todd, Jr., about the invention as he (Todd, Sr.) considered incorporating it into a new movie he was producing: Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). That film would end up winning the Oscar for Best Picture of 1956, but without the use of odors. After Todd, Sr. died in a 1958 plane crash, Todd, Jr. embarked on his own producing debut, and this time, he decided to use Laube's process after all. Laube by now had honed it to release odors from little tubes attached to the backs of theater seats. The tubes ran to a giant dispenser under the cinema floor which stored dozens of liquid chemicals.

Todd's idea was to incorporate the sense of smell into the actual storytelling process: the thirty designated scents (including roses, pipe tobacco, wine, peppermint, gunpowder, shoe polish, coffee, gasoline, and "the dusty cement odor of rubble") wouldn't just be there to capture the settings--they would actually be intrinsic to the story and provide clues to its solution. The resulting film, Scent of Mystery (1960), was a lighthearted romp set in Spain, with Denholm Elliott as a tourist who witnesses an attempted murder and sets about trying to head off the intended victim. (His one clue to her identity is the scent of her perfume.) Elliott is joined in the film by Peter Lorre as a sarcastic taxi driver, described by producer Todd to author Stephen D. Youngkin (The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre) as "an intentional light-hearted caricature of his typical screen image."

Lorre later said he was glad to be playing "a nice man. On one hand I can count the times I've [played] a nice man. I enjoy being normal." He nearly paid the ultimate price, however. One day, while shooting a running scene in Cordoba in triple-digit heat, Lorre collapsed from sunstroke. He was mostly unconscious and pale, his belly heaving and his breathing shallow. Several doctors (there happened to be a surgeons' convention in town) believed he would die. Then a local doctor suggested bloodletting by the use of leeches. Lorre consented, and the treatment worked "almost immediately," according to Todd. Lauren Bacall, upon hearing the news, touchingly rushed to Spain to sit by her old friend Lorre's bedside as he recovered. He was up and working again two weeks later, although a body double completed his running scenes. Asked if his near-death experience had changed his outlook on life, Lorre replied, "I didn't die, so it didn't change my outlook."

Director (and former cinematographer) Jack Cardiff later recounted that he "jumped at the chance" to film a script that "was very well-written and...really dramatized the smells." But he was disappointed in the outcome. "Everything smelled like cheap perfume," he recalled.

Indeed, Scent of Mystery ran into technical problems that doomed the film and the process--dubbed Smell-O-Vision--forever more. The scents themselves smelled like chemicals, they sometimes didn't reach balcony seats until a few seconds after they were meant to, and each smell lingered in the air for too long, mingling with the next one. (A neutralizing odor was meant to take care of this issue but didn't work too well.) Critics also reported that "some odors elicited sneezes from the spectators," and "being so close to the smells, one's nose finds no escape and remains in a state of constant confusion."

Making matters worse, the film's January 1960 opening, preceded by a massive advertising blitz for Smell-O-Vision, was also preceded by another movie using a similar gimmick. Seizing a chance to capitalize on the publicity, producer Walter Reade, Jr., acquired the rights to an award-winning 1958 documentary entitled Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue about China, and hired a scientist to create odors to accompany it, which were released through the theaters' air conditioning vents. Reade called this AromaRama, and Variety labeled the bizarre situation as "The Battle of the Smellies."

That said, Scent of Mystery actually drew mixed reviews overall, with several outlets finding it to be good, tongue-in-cheek fun--at the very least gorgeously photographed in Spain. In any event, the use of smell did not take hold and vanished from filmmaking, with the notable exception of John Waters's 1981 cult classic Polyester, in which audiences used scratch-and-sniff cards.

Elizabeth Taylor, who makes a cameo appearance, had been married to Mike Todd when he died. As this film was being made, she married for a fourth time, to Eddie Fisher, who sings the title song. In 1961, Michael Todd, Jr. struck a deal to re-release the film in the three-panel Cinemiracle process, without smells, under the title Holiday in Spain.

By Jeremy Arnold

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