Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on the novella by Ernest Lehman)
Stars: Burt Lancaster (J.J. Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsecker), Martin Milner (Steve Dallas), Jeff Donnell (Sally), Sam Levene (Frank D’Angelo), Joe Frisco (Herbie Temple), Barbara Nichols (Rita), Emile Meyer (Lt. Harry Kello), Edith Atwater (Mary), The Chico Hamilton Quintet (Themselves)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1957
Country: U.S.
Sweet Smell of Success Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Sweet Smell of SuccessA critical and box office failure during its initial theatrical release in 1957, Alexander Mackendrick’s acerbic backroom drama Sweet Smell of Success has gone on to become one of the most esteemed films of its era, a daring exposé of the sordid underpinnings of celebrity culture and gossip mongering that features two stars at the height of their power essentially risking all by playing corrupt--some might say despicable--characters locked in a power struggle out of which no one will emerge victorious. Based on a novella by Ernest Lehman, who worked as a publicist in the 1940s and thus had firsthand knowledge of the film’s narrative terrain, Sweet Smell was shot largely on location in New York City (a rarity at the time) by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, and the film’s sharp visuals are bested only by the punchy, stylized dialogue, which was primarily the work of playwright Clifford Odets, who was hired to rewrite Lehman’s initial screenplay. The film invigorates despite its inherent despondency if only because Mackendrick’s direction, honed and refined while making dark comedies at the Ealing Studios in west London, keeps it constantly biting and jabbing, never letting you get settled into its neon-lit rhythms.

By playing desperate press agent Sidney Falco, Tony Curtis boldly shed the pretty-boy image he had cultivated throughout the 1950s in a series of sword-and-sandal swashbucklers that had made him the object of many a teen girl’s desire (the production of Sweet Smell was apparently bombarded by them, hoping to get a glimpse of their idol). Curtis’s fine, multi-layered performance turns Sidney into a great conundrum, a duplicitous character who is willing to do virtually anything to get ahead, yet is always hanging on by his fingertips. We hate what he does, but we understand why he does it. He’s a cad and a huckster, but he’s also desperate and kind of pathetic, running about the dark environs of Manhattan after dark, meeting and greeting and doing anything he can to ensure that his clients get good coverage in the newspaper, most notably in the daily column penned by gossip magnate J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).

Based not so loosely on Walter Winchell, who virtually invented modern celebrity culture with his juicy newspaper columns and radio broadcasts in the 1930s and ’40s, Hunsecker is even more despicable than Sidney, but only because he actually has power and authority, which he wields with astonishing egocentrism from his private table at the posh 21 Club (a stand-in for the world-renowned Stork Club, where Winchell held sway each night at Table 50 in the Cub Room). Hunsecker, his cold stare focused even more intensely by the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses, is a ruthless titan whose violence is issued not with a gun, but with a typewriter. Each day he produces a newspaper column read by millions that can either make or break you; he is the ultimate gatekeeper.

The plot, which covers a whirlwind 48-hour period, concerns Sidney’s attempts to break up a romance and impending marriage between a clean-cut jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and Hunsecker’s 18-year-old sister Susan (Susan Harrison). Hunsecker’s possessiveness of his sister is clearly incestuous, making him all the more creepy and diabolical and linking him tangentially to Tony Camonte, the lurid, wild-eyed gangster in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), another ruthless titan undone by unnatural feelings toward his younger sibling. Because Hunsecker wields so much power, Sidney is essentially a pawn in his game, forced to do the dirty work because, without access to Hunsecker’s column, he is dead in the water. Understanding Sidney’s predicament helps to make his character more sympathetic, even as he’s blackmailing a rival gossip columnist, sexually pawning off a sad-eyed cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) who is clearly in love with him, and even planting drugs in Steve’s coat so he will be arrested by a crooked cop. Narratively speaking, the intermingled accusations of communist affiliation and drug use are designed to destroy Steve’s reputation, but they also play as biting commentary on the film industry’s McCarthy-era blacklist, which was still in full force at the time the film was made and had affected more than a few people who worked on the film (including Odets, who had narrowly avoided the blacklist by cooperating with HUAC, an act that haunted him until his death in 1963).

The very fact that Sweet Smell of Success deals directly with red-baiting is but one example of how the film challenged cinematic orthodoxy in the late 1950s, a time in which the Hollywood industry was reeling in the face of great economic, political, and social change. Not surprisingly, the film was not the product of a Hollywood studio, but rather the independent production company Hill-Hecht-Lancaster, which was one of many such companies started by powerful movie stars who, for the first time, were breaking out from under the yolk of studio contracts and forging their own paths. Like the many film noir throughout previous decade, Sweet Smell puts into sharp relief a lot of assumptions about the American way of life, recasting ambition and success as exploitation and excess. The film constantly sticks in your throat even as it draws you into its increasingly compelling narrative games, making it all but impossible to deny the thrill of its devastating emotional impact and how it helped paved the way for more challenging films to come.

Sweet Smell of Success Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Sweet Smell of Success is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore
  • Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away 1986 documentary
  • James Wong Howe: Cinematographer 1973 documentary
  • Video interview with film critic and historian Neal Gabler
  • Video interview with filmmaker James Mangold
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins, notes about the film and two short stories introducing its characters by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and an excerpt about Clifford Odets from Mackendrick’s book On Film-making, introduced by the book’s editor, Paul Cronin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 22, 2011

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Sweet Smell of Success was made directly from the original 35mm camera negative and given extensive digital restoration, resulting in an absolutely superb image (presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) that is a welcome replacement for MGM’s now 10-years-old nonanamorphic DVD. James Wong Howe’s noirish cinematography has never looked better, with inky blacks, strong contrast, and fine detail that gives the location photography in New York City and the painstakingly detailed sets a real sense of life and texture. (The detail is good enough that you can read even the finest of fine print on the newspaper pages if you pause the disc.) The lossless linear PCM monaural soundtrack is similarly excellent, with clear, crisp dialogue, realistic background noise (crucial to any film that takes place primarily in the streets of a major city and inside crowded nightclubs), and a real sense of depth to Elmer Bernstein’s jazz-infused score.
    The new screen-specific audio commentary on Sweet Smell of Success was recorded by film scholar James Naremore, who previously contributed to the commentary on Criterion’s Mr. Arkadin. Naremore more or less follows what he wrote in his BFI monograph on the film, expounding on the film’s aesthetics, its daring exposure of the media’s underbelly, and the unique role it played in terms of independent film production during the last throes of the Hollywood Studio Era. In addition to the commentary track, Criterion has also pulled some excellent documentaries out of the archives, including Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, an hour-long doc from 1986 that features interviews with director Alexander Mackendrick, actor Burt Lancaster, and producer James Hill, and James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, a shorter 1973 documentary about the Oscar-winning director of photography that features interviews with Howe and footage of him giving lighting tutorials. Criterion has also included a fascinating new half-hour video interview with film critic and historian Neal Gabler, author of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, who helps set the record straight about the how legendary columnist Walter Winchell went about his business and how he is reflected in, and differs sharply from, J. J. Hunsecker. There is also a new video interview with filmmaker James Mangold, who learned studied under Mackendrick at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1980s, and the original theatrical trailer. The extra-thick insert booklet contains an essay by critic Gary Giddins, notes about the film and two short stories introducing its characters by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and an excerpt about Clifford Odets from Mackendrick’s book On Film-making, introduced by the book’s editor, Paul Cronin.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    James Kendrick

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