In a world of old rags and bones, I like it.
I’ll cut straight to it, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success is a grimy film, one filled with nasty characters who partake in repulsive behaviors for the dirtiest of reasons: greed and success. The story revolves around a New York newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster), who tasks press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) with breaking up the relationship between his sister Susie Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) and her boyfriend Steve Dallas (Marty Milner), a man he deems unfit for his sister’s love.
It’s a simple and straightforward film that plays out as a crime noir, one that relies not on twists and turns but on the weaknesses and the corruptness of its characters.
Press agent Sidney Falco has been unable to get his clients mentioned in nationally-syndicated columnist (and purported “good friend”) J.J. Hunsecker’s newspaper column for some time, due to the fact that he has yet to make good on a promise to break up J.J.’s younger sister’s relationship with Manhattan jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. And making good on that promise won’t get any easier: Steve has just proposed to Susie, a 19-year-old with a heart and mind that are easy to sway.
Sidney is given one last chance by J.J. to follow through, and as such he decides to plant a made-up story about Steve’s drug use in the papers through a rival columnist, a go-big-or-go-home, last-ditch effort to break the young pair apart without them knowing it came from J.J.’s camp. Knowing full well that the story will get Steve fired at his nightclub gig, Sidney plots to have J.J., with his stature and power, offer to get Steve his job back. The idea is that Steve, knowing the connection between Sidney and J.J., will turn the offer down and look bad in Susie’s eyes.
The plan works, but in turning down the offer, Steve insults Hunsecker, who doesn’t take kindly to marks against his reputation. J.J. decides to bury Steve by planting drugs on him and enlisting the help of his cop buddies. Despite Sidney’s up-to-now repulsive behaviors, even he wants no part of this, but J.J. assures him that if he helps, he will have major rewards and career viability. How could Sidney, quickly losing clients and fading into obscurity, refuse such an offer?
It turns out he can’t, and in the end, we discover that no man in this story is free from corruption in the face of a name, some fame, and a paycheck.
As I said, this film is dirty. You may very well feel disgusted at the corruption on-screen when you are watching it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable film. There are many one-liners and quips to be found, surely different from anything you’d find on the screen nowadays (“I’d hate to take a bite out of you,” Hunsecker says. “You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”).
The movie starts slow, as most noirs do, but once we reach the midway point, the story begins spinning faster and faster towards its corrupt conclusion. And that slow build works well here, given the film’s relatively short 90-minute runtime. It is shot in black-and-white, against the backdrop of downtown Manhattan. I don’t know if I’ve seen a more beautiful back-and-white film, especially one that is shot in a city and primarily at night.
As I was speaking with some friends and family last night, it was mentioned that films like this seem lost on younger generations; that most of what is put out by Hollywood now eschews story and character development (or in this case, degradation) for effects and flash; and that people my age have a difficult time sitting down and watching a film from the 30’s, or 40’s, or 50’s, or 60’s, because they have a different motivation or theme or culture behind and within them. Unfortunately, I find that statement to have a lot of truth to it, what with our seemingly constant need for sensory overload.
But I have a difficult time thinking that people of any age wouldn’t be able to watch this movie. It is both so magnificent to look at and so structured in its dialogue, with a script that is so snappy and quick and fresh that its banter reminds me of the recent works of one Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network).
The Sweet Smell of Success is a film with such a large reputation among critics that it’s interesting to note it wasn’t taken too kindly by the public upon release. Fans of Curtis and Lancaster didn’t much like that their favorite actors were playing such deplorable characters. My, how times have changed in this regard, considering that we love the opportunity to see our favorite actors and actresses take on roles different from their usual work.
To close, I highly urge you all to give this masterpiece — yes, I am opting for such strong words — a watch or two or three. Lancaster and Curtis are so deep into the characters that they pull you into their ring of corruption, and Mackendrick’s direction and the script from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman are so wonderfully composited that you won’t care how disgusting their film might make you feel. After all, you can always take a shower afterwards.
My Score: A+