"Scent of Mystery" centers upon a photographer, played by British actor Denholm Elliott, who is on vacation in Spain when he stumbles upon a plot to murder a beautiful American heiress played by Todd Jr.'s stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, in a surprise cameo appearance. With the help of a brandy-sipping cab driver, portrayed by screen legend Peter Lorre, Elliott embarks on a wild chase across the picturesque Spanish countryside to thwart the crime.
The film opened in three specially equipped theaters in February 1960. Some of the olfactory effects clearly had been included to demonstrate the new technology's capabilities. A view of a monastery's rose garden, predictably, was accompanied by a floral scent. When wine casks rolled down a hill and smashed against a wall, the apparatus produced the odor of grape juice. Additionally, director Jack Cardiff had included a number of "whiff gags," such as a scene in which Elliott and Lorre appear to be drinking coffee, but Lorre's cup gives off the smell of brandy, leading Elliott to chastise him about the need to keep a clear head.
Beyond that, this was the first film in which aromas were integral to the story, providing pivotal clues to the audience. The killer is identified, for example, by the smell of his pipe tobacco, and the heiress by her perfume.
Despite Laube's years of laborious effort, on opening night Smell-O-Vision didn't completely work as intended. According to Variety, moviegoers in the balcony complained that the aromas reached them a few seconds after the action on the screen and were accompanied by a distracting hissing sound. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther complained that the aromas were too faint, so that "patrons sit there sniffling and snuffling like a lot of bird dogs, trying hard to catch the scent." He caustically suggested that Todd Jr. pump laughing gas into the audience instead, since the film's acting and script seemed to him nearly as sparse as the aromas.
Smell-O-Vision's proponents made technical adjustments that mostly solved the problem, but it was too late. Negative reviews and word-of-mouth had doomed the film to oblivion. (Quipped comedian Henny Youngman: "I didn't understand the film—I had a cold.") Todd Jr. shelved plans for installing Smell-O-Vision in 100 theaters around the world, and the film eventually was re-released as "Holiday in Spain," minus the odors. As the Daily Telegraph noted, "the film acquired a baffling, almost surreal quality, since there was no reason why, for example, a loaf of bread should be lifted from the oven and thrust into the camera for what seemed to be an unconscionably long time."
The Smell-O-Vision Fallout
With the failure of "Scent," Laube quietly disappeared. Todd Jr.'s Hollywood career similarly petered out. He announced plans to make two more films—a sci-fi picture, "Creature from the Bronx," and "Bumpkin's Holiday," in which the action was to consist of a man riding on a bus, with no spoken dialogue or subtitles. Neither film was made, and Todd Jr. went nearly another two decades before producing another. The olfactory auteur's swan song was a painfully serious cinematic version of suicidal poetess Sylvia Plath's novel "The Bell Jar."
But the notion of "smellies," as some had called them, was as stubbornly persistent as the aroma of cat pee on a carpet. In 1981, independent filmmaker John Waters parodied the idea in "Polyester" with "Odorama" scratch-and-sniff cards, and Waters' gag was copied by makers of the 2003 animated film "Rugrats Go Wild," who claimed it was an "homage" to him. Laube and Todd Jr.'s film was revived briefly in the mid-1980s, when the MTV cable network aired "Scent of Mystery" in conjunction with a convenience store chain promotion that offered scratch-and-sniff cards.
In 2000, Hong Kong director Ip Kam-Hung released "Lavender," a fantasy romance in which an aromatherapy shop owner falls in love with an injured angel who has tumbled onto her balcony. To add to the film's ambience, producers reportedly spent $1 million to purchase special devices that would pump flowery scents into the air-conditioning systems at theaters. Ip told the South China Morning Post that he got the inspiration from Internet accounts of previous odor-enhanced films.
Mercifully, Ip chose to forgo the gimmick in the 2004 film "Elixir of Love," which focused on the romantic travails of a princess afflicted with intolerable body odor.