***** out of *****
Directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis at the peak of their considerable powers as actors, The Sweet Smell of Success provides a stunning film noir portrait of the sleazy world of 50s press agents and gossip columnists in New York City. Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on Lehman’s novella and featuring considerable uncredited rewrites by Mackendrick himself, the picture is blessed with one of the great screenplays of all time. In terms of story structure, characterization and dialogue, few American films can match it.
J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a Walter Winchell-like newspaperman of unparalleled power and popularity. The signs and billboards splashed everywhere on the Isle of Manhattan are adorned with an image of his trademark heavy-framed spectacles, accompanied by copy that proclaims him to be ‘The Eyes of Broadway’. Nothing, as the film proves, escapes the God-like gaze of Hunsecker. He makes and breaks politicians and show business personalities with a few deft strokes of his vitriolic pen.
He is, of course, fed many of his laudatory and/or scurrilous items by the bottom feeders of the business, the press agents who charge their clients a pretty penny to keep their names in the papers and in the most positive manner possible. The king of them all, the sleaziest benthos in all of New York is none other than Sidney Falco (Curtis). He’s equal parts detritivore and carnivore – a sea cucumber when he needs to be, and a stingray, which he mostly wants to be. He values his ability to keep his clients happy, score new clients and to curry favour with Hunsecker in hopes he’ll achieve the same level of success.
When Hunsecker’s little sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is courted by Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up-and-coming jazz musician, the innate snobbery of the omnipotent scribe kicks in, but even more compelling is his foul, incestuous obsession with her. He charges Sidney with digging up enough dirt on the young fellow in order to keep his sister in his own clutches and no other man’s.
Sidney’s complex machinations take up much of the film’s running time and are so on the edge of a kind of insanity, that the entire world Mackendrick, Odets and Lehman etch borders on the surreal. What Hunsecker wants is no mere separation twixt his sister and her lover.
‘I want that boy taken apart,’ he intones so quietly and malevolently.
There is no doubt that dialogue seems to drive much of the film’s drama. There have to be more immortal lines in the picture than many of the rest all put together.
‘Match me, Sidney,’ Hunsecker demands, seeking Falco’s compliance with his request for a cigarette light.
‘I make no brief for my bilious private life,’ Sidney slimily ejaculates upon the sleazy rival columnist Otis Elwell (David White), in order to make him believe he’s through with Hunsecker, ‘but he’s got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster’.
Every line is a gem and Hunsecker gets the lion’s share of them. One of the best is his descriptive invective hurled in Sidney’s direction:
‘I wouldn’t like to take a bite of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic.’
The simplest and most evocative line occurs when Hunsecker considers a woman’s caterwauling laughter and the sight of a drunk being tossed from a 52nd St. bar. He literally salutes the grime and filth of New York, which we see through the gloriously grimy lens of James Wong Howe’s immortal black and white cinematography, as Hunsecker happily declares:
‘I love this dirty town.’
And yet, in spite of the almost non-stop dialogue, one of the more astonishing achievements of the picture is just how visual the storytelling is. Many key set pieces of verbal chicanery and manipulations can be watched with the sound completely off, and by simply observing, one is able to easily ascertain the goals of the characters.
Try it sometime.
Put on the sequence where Sidney tries to blackmail one character, then, upon failing that, attempts to dupe another with an approach he borrows from the man he’s tried to blackmail. ALL the actions and even many underlying motivations can be noted by what is SEEN, but NOT heard. After this, play the scene with sound and thrill to how the dramatic beats are there visually, and of course, enhanced delectably by the dialogue. I’ve done this with my filmmaking students who – NOT SURPRISINGLY – had never seen the film before. It works! It’s also proof positive how superb the writing is and most importantly, how breathtaking Mackendrick’s direction proved to be.
The Sweet Smell of Success is simply and purely, one of the best movies ever made.
The Arrow Blu-Ray release is accompanied by a bevy of sumptuous features. The best of them include Michael Brooke’s magnificent, virtually definitive essay in the attractive booklet and the great Dermot McQuarrie TV documentary Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away. The following are not to be sneezed at either: a restored HD presentation of a 4K digital transfer from original 35mm camera negative, the original uncompressed mono, optional English subtitles for those of us who wish to obsessively study the dialogue as the film unspools, an appreciation and scene commentary by Philip Kemp, the theatrical trailer, a gorgeous reversible sleeve with an original poster and new artwork by Chris Walker, as well as the aforementioned booklet, which also comes with Mackendrick’s own analysis of various script drafts.