Scent of Mystery

Scent of Mystery is a 1960 mystery film, the first to use the Smell-O-Vision system to release odors at points in the film's plot. It was the first film in which aromas were integral to the story, providing important details to the audience. It was produced by Mike Todd, Jr., who, in conjunction with his father Mike Todd, had produced such spectacles as This is Cinerama and Around the World in Eighty Days.

Scent of Mystery
A film poster bearing the film's new title: Holiday in Spain
Directed byJack Cardiff
Produced byMike Todd, Jr.
Screenplay byGerald Kersh
Based onGhost of a Chance
by Kelley Roos
StarringDenholm Elliott
Peter Lorre
Elizabeth Taylor
Music byHarold Adamson
Mario Nascimbene
Jordan Ramin
CinematographyJohn von Kotze
Edited byJames E. Newcom
Release date
  • 1960 (1960)
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited States
External video
"Holiday in Spain (trailer)"

The film was released in Cinerama under the title Holiday in Spain, without Smell-O-Vision. In 2012, the film was restored, reconstructed, and re-released by David Strohmaier. In 2015, a version complete with reconstructed scents was presented at screenings in Los Angeles, Denmark, and England.[1]


A mystery novelist, played by Denholm Elliott, discovers a plan to murder an American heiress, played by Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited role, while on vacation in Spain. He enlists the help of a taxi driver, played by Peter Lorre, to travel across the Spanish countryside in order to thwart the crime.[2] Some scenes were designed to highlight the Smell-O-Vision's capabilities.[3] In one, wine casks fall off a wagon and roll down a hill, smashing against a wall, at which point a grape scent was released.[4] Other scenes were accompanied by aromas that revealed key points to the audience. The assassin was identified by the smell of a smoking pipe, for example.[5]

The screenplay was adapted from the 1947 novel Ghost of a Chance by Kelley Roos, the pen name of husband and wife mystery writers Audrey Kelley and William Roos.[6] The novel was set in locations in New York City. Kelley Roos also wrote a 1959 paperback novelization of the screenplay, reset in Spain.[7]


Scent of Mystery was not the only attempt to combine cinema and smell. The AromaRama system, which released scents through the air conditioning system of a theater, was first used for the travelogue Behind the Great Wall in December 1959.[8][9] Scent of Mystery, released in 1960, used a more technologically advanced system, called Smell-O-Vision. It was designed to pipe scents individually to each seat in the theater. Costs of the system were high. It took an estimated $25 to $30 per seat to install and use Smell-O-Vision, at a time when a movie ticket cost less than a dollar.[1]

Ads for the film proclaimed: "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!" Producer Mike Todd, who was a bit of a showman, engaged in such hyperbole as, "I hope it's the kind of picture they call a scentsation!" He also got help from newspaper columnists such as Earl Wilson, who lauded the system, saying Smell-O-Vision "can produce anything from skunk to perfume, and remove it instantly." New York Times writer Richard Nason believed it was a major advance in filmmaking. As such, expectations for the film were great.[10]


The film opened in three specially equipped theaters in February 1960, in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Unfortunately, the mechanism did not work well. According to Variety, aromas were released with a distracting hissing noise and audience members in the balcony complained that the scents reached them several seconds after the action was shown on the screen. In other parts of the theater, the odors were too faint, causing audience members to sniff loudly in an attempt to catch the scent.[10] Technical adjustments by the manufacturers of Smell-O-Vision solved these problems, but by then it was too late. Negative reviews, in conjunction with word of mouth, caused the film to fail miserably. Comedian Henny Youngman quipped, "I didn't understand the picture. I had a cold."[11] Todd did not produce another film until 1979's The Bell Jar, which was also his last film.[12]

The film was eventually retitled as Holiday in Spain and re-released, sans odors. Its primary release was by Cinerama which needed new product for their specially equipped theatres. For the Cinerama release the film was converted into three-strip prints that could be exhibited on the very wide, deeply curved screens in those theatres. Having been converted from Smell-O-Vision, however, as The Daily Telegraph described it, "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."[10][13]

Scent of Mystery was aired once on television by MTV and syndicated on local TV stations in the 1980s. A convenience store promotion, similar to that for the movie Polyester, offered scratch and sniff cards that viewers were to use to recreate the theater experience.[2]


In 2012, Holiday in Spain was completely restored and digitally reconstructed by film editor and Cinerama restoration specialist David Strohmaier. Only portions of the original camera negative remained in usable condition, so the remaining parts of the film were reconstructed from two archival 70mm Eastmancolor prints. Not enough of the deleted footage from the original Scent of Mystery was recovered to be able to restore that version as well. The newly restored film was released on Blu-ray in 2014 by Screen Archives.[13]

In 2015, Australian film producer Tammy Burnstock and artist and scent creator Saskia Wilson-Brown revived the Smell-O-Vision experience, presenting David Strohmaier's restored film at screenings in Los Angeles, Denmark, and England. The only information about the scents used in the original production was a list with entries such as "happy odor of baking bread" and "the faint smell of a yellow rose". Without any perfumer's or chemist's specifications, Wilson-Brown had to recreate the smells for the film from scratch, by blending possible aroma ingredients.[1][14]


The Scent of Mystery soundtrack was released on CD in 2011 on the Kritzerland label. It features the score composed by Mario Nascimbene, and two songs from the film sung by Eddie Fisher.

See also


  1. Gross, Daniel A. (2017). "The Third Sense". Distillations. 2 (4): 6–7. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  2. Coles, David. ""Scent of Mystery" Playdate History". The 70mm Newsletter. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  3. Holmes, Bob (2017). Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense. W. W. Norton & Company.
  4. Stanley, Robert H. (1978). Celluloid empire : a history of the American movie industry. New York: Hastings House. p. 167. ISBN 978-0803812475.
  5. Morris, Neil (2011). Gadgets and inventions. Chicago, Ill.: Raintree. pp. 10–12. ISBN 141093909X.
  6. Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. 1960. p. 599. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  7. Pronzini, Bill; Muller, Marcia (1986). 1001 midnights: the aficionado's guide to mystery and detective fiction. Arbor House. p. 695. ISBN 0-87795-622-7.
  8. Crowther, Bosley (December 10, 1959). "Smells of China; 'Behind Great Wall' Uses AromaRama". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  9. Montefiore, Clarissa Sebag (13 October 2015). "The movie you can smell". BBC. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  10. Smith, Martin J.; Kiger, Patrick J. (February 5, 2006). "The Lingering Reek of Smell-O-Vision". West. Los Angeles Times. p. 26.
  11. Kirsner, Scott, Inventing the Movies, Createspace, pp. 45–46, ISBN 978-1-4382-0999-9
  12. Willis, John (1983). Screen World. New York: Biblo and Tannen. p. 363. ISBN 9780819603081. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  13. Galbraith, Stuart, IV (December 4, 2014). "Holiday in Spain". DVD Talk. Retrieved April 25, 2017.
  14. "Scent of Mystery". Institute for Art and Olfaction. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
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