Sweet Smell of Success/ 1957/ United Artists/ 96 min.
This month, I am giving away a copy of Criterion’s new two-disc edition of “Sweet Smell of Success” directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Just leave a comment on any post in March and you will be entered; the winner will be drawn at random. Here, critic Michael Wilmington reviews this unforgettable film.
“Sweet Smell of Success,” an American movie masterpiece and one of the best and gutsiest of all the classic film noirs, is a sleek killer comedy/drama about Broadway in the ’50s.
It centers around two influential New Yorkers: megalomaniac star gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and one of his more energetic publicist-sources, scummy but fashionable Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis).
Falco, who wears a suit black as night, a dazzling white shirt and a poisonous leer that implies he’s seen something dirty and knows something even filthier, lives and dies each day by whether he gets a story planted in Hunsecker’s hugely successful column. Hunsecker, meanwhile, mostly holds court in the night spots that are his fiefdom, condescending to all the people, from Falco and other flacks, to movie stars to a U.S. Senator, who come to sip, smoke and pay him homage.
Hunsecker and Falco are unashamed users, almost proudly amoral. Hunsecker thinks he’s above morality; Falco thinks he can’t afford it now. Falco treats his potential patron with a fawning but mean-eyed servility. Hunsecker, with his ominous spectacles masking eyes of ice, freezes out Falco dismissively. “Match me,” Hunsecker tells the weasely Falco, in one of this movie’s many famous lines. Though Falco doesn’t actually scramble to light his cigarette, he does far worse.
Both these monsters have need of each other in this dark night and smoky day, in this world bounded by the Stork Club, Twenty One, Broadway and 42nd Street. Falco wants to use Hunsecker to ascend higher, into the sweet, smelly heights of Broadway gossip success, to become another Hunsecker.
Meanwhile, Hunsecker has nominated Falco for one of the dirty jobs he can’t get too close to: sabotaging the romance between his younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her straight-arrow musician lover Steve (Martin Milner).
“Sweet Smell” deliberately patterned Hunsecker after one of the country’s most famous and powerful newspapermen Walter Winchell (1897-1972). Winchell’s daughter Walda was the model for Hunsecker’s sister Susan.
When you watch Hunsecker and Falco do their routines – snazzy, cruel, funny – you’ll never forget them. You’ll hear Hunsecker telling Falco, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” Or Falco circling cigarette girl Rita (Barbara Nichols) and answering her query about whether he’s listening to her by wisecracking, “Avidly, avidly.”
Falco and Hunsecker are classic American movie characters, written with knifelike wit, commanding craft and true street genius by Ernest Lehman (who worked in this world) and Clifford Odets (a one-time playwright king of Broadway). It is directed with stinging life, energy and flawless insight by Alexander Mackendrick, an American of Scottish descent, who was one of the comedy experts of that British treasure-house, the Ealing Studio.
“Sweet Smell” was a sometimes-chaotic production. But Lehman or Odets never produced a better script. Mackendrick never directed a better movie. Elmer Bernstein rarely wrote a jazzier, sharper score. The master cinematographer James Wong Howe (“Hangmen Also Die!” “Pursued,” “Body and Soul”) never shot a darker, more brilliant noir.
Lancaster was sometimes more impressive, more richly colored and dominating, in tonier classics like “Elmer Gantry,” “From Here to Eternity” and “The Leopard.” But Curtis never topped Falco, not even in “Some Like It Hot.”
Lancaster was not Mackendrick’s choice for Hunsecker. He wanted Orson Welles or Hume Cronyn. It’s a weird piece of casting that works and it makes this a stronger, sexier and more subversive film.
Lancaster, who was also boss of the film’s production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, has that rapt, bedazzled quality and an overwhelming athleticism that enlivens both his heroes and villains, gives them a bizarre energy and a burning magnetism. His sexually bent Hunsecker (he seems to be in love with his sister) seems contemptuous not just of Falco, but of the whole world.
He doesn’t remind you of Winchell, so much as what Winchell, in a dream, might have wanted to be: a brawny god and a muscular, intimidating king of Broadway, ensconced at the Stork Club, ruling the night, rattling out a lead in his mind.
Curtis’ Sidney Falco brings a grin to your lips and makes your flesh crawl. Just as the movie’s title suggests something both sweet and rotten in the American dream, Curtis, here in his movie-star prime, creates a best-dressed Broadway louse; a dirty-minded ace of backstage deception; a fast-talking, seductive scumbag.
Like Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Lancaster, Curtis was a ’50s star not afraid to look evil, even though Falco’s badness almost pales next to Hunsecker’s.
In the waning years of the McCarthy era, with a crack cast and crew loaded with lefties of all types (starting with Lancaster himself), the movie attacks Commie hysteria, police brutality and corruption, celebrity and success, and, almost incidentally, its main target: the lies, hypocrisy and double-dealing of show-biz press agents, gossip columnists and gutter journalism.
“Sweet Smell of Success” lost money. But it fairly quickly became a classic. A classic it remains. Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” or “The Sweet Life” (from 1960) had to have been influenced by “Sweet Smell of Success”).
Criterion’s two-disc set for this great film is a wonderful one. James Naremore gives one of the best audio commentaries I’ve heard. And the film itself deserves it: a terrific package of high talents in their prime, taking chances and winning.
Why can’t we have movies this smart, tough, sharp and beautifully made today? Movies about real American subjects? We need movies to take chances like this, to be irreverent, smart, bold and stylish. It isn’t just the dialogue that’s great in “Sweet Smell of Success.” It’s the ideas. And the people. The style and the craft on all levels.
Newspapers are dying, but TV is there and boy does it need to get a laser-eyed once-over like this. Broadway’s still there too. The people are around. The movie makers are there. And the movies? We’re waiting for them.
Extras: Commentary by James Naremore. Documentary “Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away” by Dermot McQuarrie, 1986; interviews with Mackendrick, Lancaster, James Coburn, James Hill and others; written and narrated by Michael Pye. Documentary “James Wong Howe: Cinematographer” by Arthur M. Kaye, 1973; conversations and tutorials with Howe. Interviews with Walter Winchell biographer Neal Gabler and filmmaker/Mackendrick student James Mangold. Booklet with essays by Gary Giddins; a memoir and two “J.J. Hunsecker” short stories by Ernest Lehman.
You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.
Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski