Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

“You know dear, we’re drifting apart, you and I — and I don’t like it.”

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Synopsis:
An ambitious press agent (Tony Curtis) reliant on favors from widely-read columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) panics when he’s unable to carry out Hunsecker’s request to break up a romance between Hunsecker’s beloved sister (Susan Harrison) and her musician-boyfriend (Marty Milner).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “savage glimpse at the sleazy New York show-biz scene” — co-scripted by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman — is “crisply directed by [Brit] Alexander Mackendrick, with strong emphasis placed on New York locales” and a “great array of characters”. He accurately notes that it presents an “ugly, dark… world full of paranoia, hatred, hustling, squirming, backbiting, lying, blackmailing, sex traded for favors, schemes, threats, broken dreams, ruined lives, money, and power”. Indeed, this is one truly bleak flick: as if being reminded of rampant corruption and power dynamics weren’t enough to make us quiver for the state of humanity, we’re exposed to Lancaster’s unsavory fixation on his beautiful younger sister, which propels the entire narrative. (Hunsecker was reportedly based on Walter Winchell, who was similarly upset about his daughter’s romance — but there’s a difference.)

Other distressing scenes and characters abound. Early in the film we’re shown Curtis entering his apartment/office, where his deeply despondent, love-sick, homely secretary (Jeff Donnell) lies on his behalf and makes it clear she’s at his beck and call no matter how badly he treats her. (“So, what’ll you do if I feel nervous?” he taunts her. “Open your meaty, sympathetic arms?”) Meanwhile, in a nightclub, Hunsecker viciously tears into a politician (William Forrest) naively attempting to pass his mistress (Autumn Russell) off as the ward of a talent agent (Jay Adler). Shortly after this, Curtis blackmails a buxomy, sympathetic cigarette-girl (Barbara Nichols) into sleeping with a lecherous reporter (David White) so that White will help out Curtis’s cause by printing something unsavory in his column about Milner.

Despite its challenging moral landscape, however, the film remains compulsively watchable, thanks to a script chock-full of zingy one-liners:

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
“What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”
“Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!”
“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”

and typically stunning, noir-ish cinematography by James Wong Howe. (Be sure to check out TCM’s article “Behind the Camera” for fascinating insights into Howe’s craft and decision making.) Excellent use is made of New York locales: we feel we’re trapped in this city’s snare of publicity and sleaze, with Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score simply adding to the hectic surreality. While it’s true, as Peary writes, that “Milner and Harrison seem out of place” in the film, Curtis and Lancaster — and other supporting players — are top-notch. All film fanatics should view this grueling film at least once (and probably again), though they’re excused for not wanting to revisit it often.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
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  • Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker
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  • Barbara Nichols as Rita
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  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
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  • Highly effective use of NYC locales
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  • Elmer Bernstein’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a bleak classic. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Sweet Smell of Success (1957)”

  1. A no-brainer must-see – and worthy of repeat viewings. I just rewatched it and posted on it in ’40s-’50s in Film (facebook):

    “Here’s your head, what’s your hurry?”

    ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ (1957): It’s interesting to read (at Wikipedia) about this film’s reception at its first preview screening. Tony Curtis fans and Burt Lancaster fans didn’t like it – it wasn’t what they wanted from their idols. And it was thought to be too talky. (Well, it *is* too talky – but, in this case, that’s not a bad thing. ~even if a good chunk of the Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman dialogue isn’t anywhere near the way people really talk.)

    The film opened and bombed (though it did get some critical acclaim). One producer blamed the other for the failure. Lancaster blamed Lehman for not making the script better. Apparently those guys didn’t know (or understand) what they had on their hands.

    It took some years for the film to be better (and even highly) appreciated. But there’s nothing at all sweet about ‘Sweet Smell…’. It’s like a bad dream – made more palatable by way of DP James Wong Howe’s superb visual sense and Elmer Bernstein’s hard-edged score.

    At its center is a finely tuned, well-oiled maniac columnist (Lancaster) who from all well-contained appearances wants to fuck his sister. He has a press agent (Curtis) dog-eager to get closer to what he’s got…and, of course, a sister who subconsciously wants to get as far away from him as possible.

    The world the two male leads travel in is already not a pretty one; they make it the extreme of being disgusting. ~and that world does have that aspect. Curtis actually says, “This is life – get used to it.” But it’s the seamiest side of getting things done for a buck.

    No wonder people didn’t flock to this movie. We don’t really like being reminded of the people with sick, personal agendas. But that’s the genius of this film.

    Fave scene: Curtis sets up Barbara Nichols (who I love in this) to pimp her out…for a story.

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