Sweet Smell of Success – 1957

Sweet Smell of Success ****

I’ve always said that what makes a film timeless is its script. Those old classics are considered so because they were good back then, but when those films are watched today, do they really stand the test of time? Sweet Smell of Success was considered a box office failure upon its release. However, you can’t watch it now without appreciating the film for its noir style and witty dialogue. Director, Alexander Mackendrick (The Guns of Navarone), very obviously knew what he was doing at the time.

The film is set in the nightlife of New York. For most of the film, we follow Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a young press agent, around smoky jazz clubs and crowded bars as he sets out to do the dirty work for the big-time gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Hunsecker’s got power and everyone knows it. He is either revered or feared by all depending upon the level of association with him. He’s heartless and does what he wants to get what he wants. You do what you’re told or you pay the price. Falco is more than willing do anything to get a write-up in Hunsecker’s column and in this film he’s charged with spreading dirt on a talented, young jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas, (Marty Milner) who just happens to be the boyfriend of Hunsecker’s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison).

The characters in the film are larger than life. Falco is the main character, but he’s by no means the protagonist. He’s low-down and dirty. He blackmails. He lies. He pimps out his own vulnerable girlfriend as a trade-off for a fake gossip story in another columnists’ paper. The classic face of Tony Curtis is anything but likeable in Sweet Smell of Success, but as an audience we’re deeply invested into his character. Despite our expectations for Falco to redeem himself, he never does pull through as the hero. In fact, when Falco comes to the crossroads of either doing his final dirty deed or doing the right thing, he botches his moment of glory and digs his own grave even deeper.

Hunsecker has a deeply disturbed obsession with his sister. Susan whimpers in his presence and in almost every scene wears a mink coat given to her by her brother; marking his territory and symbolizing his power over her. Hunsecker wears browline glasses, but his towering figure gives the impression that he could overpower anyone that got in his way. It is said that part of the reason for the lack of success that Sweet Smell of Success had was the fact that both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster played such unlikeable characters. This alienated the audience who were used to both actors playing more friendly characters; a relative non-issue today.

Barbara Nichols as the cigarette girl has an extremely elegant, noir look with platinum blonde hair and wears almost entirely all black clothing throughout the film. She’s vulnerable and easy to manipulate, making her a useful tool for Falco’s debauchery.

The film is extremely well shot by cinematographer, James Wong Howe (Funny Girl & Hud). His style was decades ahead of its time and reminiscent of Scorsese’s “After Hours” or any number of films from Altman or P.T. Anderson. The camera follows behind our main character as he maneuvers his way through crowded bars and late night hot spots. We catch pieces of conversations here and there. The camera turns and pans quickly in places, leading the audience through the story and matching the tone of the film. It is said that Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired by Sweet Smell of Success. Upon watching the film it is not difficult to point out similarities between it and Anderson’s work, namely Boogie Nights. The repeated musical note in Sweet Smell is actually used in Boogie Nights. I can’t wrap this review up without mention the quality of the film itself, which is shockingly pristine for a film made over 50 years ago.

Sweet Smell of Success is class noir to the bone. It’s got dark and smoky atmosphere. It’s got quick and biting dialogue. Every word of the script, written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), seems absolutely necessary to the film and even though the dialogue is, for the most part, heavy and dark, one can’t help but appreciate the cleverness of their usage. Sweet Smell of Success is one for the ages and will be just as relevant 50 years from now as it is today and as it was 50 years ago.


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