|Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Run time: 96 min
Genres: Drama | Film-Noir
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writers: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
New York after dark provides the backdrop for this stinging portrait of a vengeful newspaper columnist (Lancaster) and a venal press agent (Curtis) who briefly forgo their mutual antipathy to destroy a man’s career. A great jazz score, rain-soaked streets, and superb acting. A terrific movie.
Release Date: 27 June 1957 (USA)
Budget: $2,600,000 (estimated)
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There are three reasons that movie fans should check this film out, if you haven’t seen it yet:
1 – Outstanding dialog. I can’t recall a film in which I heard so many clever film-noir lines as this one. Almost everyone in the movie has a unique way of expressing their feelings. It makes the movie one that you want to go back and HEAR again. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay and deserve special recognition as well as the people below.
2 – Fabulous acting, led by the two male leads: Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis is the star of the film with many more lines than anyone else, and many consider this to be his greatest acting achievement. I have no quarrel with that. It’s one of the finest acting jobs I’ve ever witnessed by anyone. It’s that good.
Lancaster is memorable and plays to his strengths as a tough guy, not only with his physical presence but his tactless and cutting verbal assaults. He has the best and most brutal lines in the film.
The minor characters in here, from the cop to the comedian to the cigarette girl to the young romantic couple are all top-notch.
3 – The cinematography. A big name in the film business, James Wong Howe, more than lives up to his reputation. This is beautifully photographed and looks absolutely stunning on DVD. I have watched hundreds and hundreds of black-and-white films and this ranks with the best of them. He captured nighttime New York City as well as anybody ever has done.
"Well," you might ask, "if this movie is so great, why haven’t I heard more about it?"
Maybe because it never did well at the box office. It wasn’t promoted a lot, from what I heard, and the storyline is not a pleasant one. Basically, this is about two immoral people who smear a nice guy so that it will ruin the romance between he and Lancaster’s sister.
Lancaster plays an absolutely ruthless newspaper columnist who makes and breaks careers and Curtis plays his slimy press-agent who will do anything to please his powerful boss, including doing the worst of his dirty work.
Furrther details of the film can be read by many of the other fine reviewers here on this website, so no need to go into that.
I am not one who generally likes films that feature mostly nasty people but this was done so well that it fascinates me every time. A final tip of the hat to director Alexander Mackendrick. Why he wasn’t given more films to direct is a mystery to me. Highly-recommended.
Remember how scary Robert Mitchum was in Night of the Hunter? Or Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie? Well Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker is right up there with them. With his clipped words, ice-cold gaze, rigid neck and steel-rimmed glasses, he looks like he’s ready to break people in half with just the power of his voice. He drifts through the film like an unstoppable barge, commanding every scene with just the turn of his head. Seldom is there such a powerful screen presence.
Lancaster’s performance alone is worth seeing this film, but the writing cracks like a whip. This is some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in any film, recalling the brilliant writing of All About Eve or Citizen Kane: "Come back Sidney, I want to chastise you some more", "turn around and look: is she still standing there?", "you’re a cookie full of arsenic", "I see your brother’s words coming out of your mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy", "I would never use an elephant gun to shoot a mosquito". Over and over, the witty dialogue slices through the scenes like a razor. You have to see this film to believe it.
Tony Curtis was never better as a sleazy PR guy as he pimps his secretary, slobbers at J.J.’s heels like an obsequious mutt, and colludes with the crooked cops to frame people. Within this maelstrom of cynicism and anger are two young lovers, driven apart by J.J.’s overbearing presence.
The photography is excellent, you can almost smell the wet NYC streets. Black and white never looked better.
This is an excellent film, and highly recommended. I wish they still made movies like this.
**MILD SPOILERS** It is amazing the number of different ways a great film can weave its alluring web and pull you into its story. Of my 100 favorite films, this one's journey into that rarefied status is unique, based on but a single viewing. I saw "Sweet Smell of Success" when I was too young to really grasp the subterranean motivations of the characters who so vividly populate the film. I did not understand, for instance, why this powerful, loathsome gossip columnist, Burt Lancaster's JJ Hunsecker, who so clearly despised Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco (press agent), nonetheless tolerated his presence. There was much that I DID appreciate–the brilliant and daring acting of the two leads, the beautifully oppressive cinematography, and the scintillating dialogue–but after that single viewing, the film slowly faded from my consciousness. Twenty-five or 30 years later, I decided to make a list of my favorite movies, and came across the title of this film. Apparently, memories of seeing this production had been roiling around my unconscious all this time and now, triggered by the little blurb in the Leonard Maltin book, these half-forgotten images came bounding back into mind, now concatenated with a quarter century of life and movie-going experience. Honing my list over the next few months, and considering this film's merits, I more and more began to realize what a truly marvelous work this was. This was a study nonpareil of two creatures wholly wrapped up in themselves and their ambition, yet bound together in a mutual parasitism (the term symbiosis sounds much too nice to describe their relationship). I understood, finally, why JJ tolerated Falco's presence. He NEEDED Falco. It wasn't just that Falco would occasionally offer up tidbits that he could use in his column. It wasn't that the fawning Falco could be manipulated into performing certain . . . uh, tasks that were too dirty for JJ to touch. No, as a ruthless power-monger, he needed the treacherous sycophant as a constant reminder and test of his superiority. Falco could be demeaned and ridiculed, but he also represented a danger, a challenge. Falco might be a toady, but he was also a cobra waiting his chance to strike, and Hunsecker relished his role as sadistic snake charmer. Watching these two play at their oppressive games of perfidy, and dealing dirt, provide a fascinating character study perhaps the equal of the more famous examination of one Charles Foster Kane in an earlier film. There are many other characters in the movie, such as JJ's sister and her lover, and some are played with great aplomb, but they are all pawns in this disdainful dance between JJ and Falco, and it is their personalities that stay with you long after the lights come back on.
Everything about this movie seems to be nearly perfect (some have criticised the film for the relatively weak portrayal of the two hapless lovers, but a stronger emphasis on these two would only detract from the real focus–JJ and Sidney) even to the choice of names. JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco seem perfect monikers, by themselves conjuring up images of despicable parasites. Unfortunately, for the team that put together this masterpiece of film-noir, "Sweet Smell of Success" was no success, and critics and movie-goers alike left the theaters convinced that the "smell" generated by the film was far from sweet. Amazingly, this film not only failed to garner an Oscar, it failed to receive a single solitary nomination–not for Alexander Mackendrick's direction (this abject failure truncating his promising career), not for the incisive, endlessly quotable screenplay (Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odets), not Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score, nor the tremendous performances of Curtis and Lancaster–not even James Wong Howe's gritty cinematography, beautifully capturing the seamier side of New York City. Fortunately, history has stepped in to provide a more accurate critique of this once ignored masterpiece. I can hardly wait to see it a second time.
"I love this dirty town". "Match me, Sidney". "Maybe I left my sense of humour in my other suit". Great dialogue. Great script, great cinematography, great acting, great music. Christ, what do you want, blood? From the first moment we see Burt Lancaster as the impossibly sinister J.J., we know we’re in for a cracking time. There he is, sitting at the restaurant table, wearing those strangely scary glasses, his face expressionless (perhaps he’s smiling, just a little bit), talking to Sidney without even looking at him, firing the dialogue like bullets. When the action seeps into the New York streets, oozing menace, there’s J.J. – master of all he surveys, twisting cops round his little finger, snarling and seething like some desperate animal. And there is something animal about this film: its characters writhe and twist in the lights and the shadows – demented, tortured creatures, all of them trying to maintain some semblance of normality, all of them aware, deep down, how corrupt and helpless they are. The symbols of goodness – J.J.’s sister and her boyfriend – are weak, pathetic, hopeless, unable to keep up with the neverending twists and turns of this awful labyrinth of manipulation and cruelty. Curtis and Lancaster were never better, and it’s awesome to see them play such grotesque yet believable roles. How do people get like this? Where do they go from here? Perhaps it’s best not to think about it, and just wallow in the brilliant nastiness of it all, before maybe going home and getting in the shower for a long, long time.