A classic from the late 1950s, The Sweet Smell of Success looks at the string-pulling behind-the-scenes action between desperate press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and the ultimate power broker in that long-ago showbiz Manhattan, gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets (who based the Hunsecker character on the similarly brutal and power-mad Walter Winchell), the film follows Falco's attempts to promote a client through Hunsecker's column--until he is forced to make a deal with the devil and help Hunsecker ruin... a jazz musician who has the nerve to date Hunsecker's sister. Shooting on location, mostly at night, director Alexander MacKendrick and cinematographer James Wong Howe capture this New York demi-monde in silky black and white, in which neon and shadows share a scarily symbiotic relationship--a near-match for the poisonous give-and-take between the edgy Curtis and the dismissive Lancaster. --Marshall Fine, Amazon.com [show more]
The Sweet Smell of Success exposes the diseased and poisonous underbelly of New York's seemingly glamourous world of tabloid publicity, revealing a corrupt American ambition, an indictment on the American Way with all of its incestuous, power hungry, self-defacing desires. Among the diseases on show are witch-hunts, insider trading, blackmail, deceit, double-dealing and pimping. The Sweet Smell of Success replaces the old Wild West and its shootouts with verbal ricochets of the here and now, making a mockery out of the expression 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.' People are killed with words instead of guns. When the words are as dagger-sharp onscreen, the pen truly is mightier than the sword.
This masterpiece shone a hard spotlight on the trickery of media culture prevalent at the time the film was made which we are only now facing up to in the UK with our recent Leveson Inquiry. You have a courageous film not afraid to defy media moguls of the time and scoffing in the face of capitalist powers when anti-establishment thinking brought suspicion such as the McCarthy witch-hunts.
The title itself is one of the best ever created. Nowadays when you think of such a title it is standard to think of success as an admirable quality relating to having ambitions to rise up the career ladder, have a fancy house and car and countless other material symbols. We've been conditioned into admiring this capitalist notion of success but at the time the film was made, you could think of sweet as in ripe and smell as something having a bad odour that hints at something measured in terms of it's horrendous nature.
To sum up, Sweet Smell of Success is a study in bad human behaviour in an already cruel world. Here you have a film that is truly dialogue-driven with a merciless tone.
Hollywood legend Tony Curtis in arguably his finest role, is a sycophantic and unethical press agent, hungry for success. He tries to manufacture this by manipulating his clients, even his friends and lovers. You clearly get the sense he'd sell his own mother if he had to even if he didn't feel good about it. He finds himself outcast by the powerful, reptilian like, morally bankrupt and highly influential gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by the indomitable Burt Lancaster whose opinions can make or break everyone from entertainers to politicians because he hasn't been able to break up his kid sister Susan's romance with the up and coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. Hunsecker refuses to print any of Falco's promotional items for media exposure on behalf of his showbiz clients in his popular syndicated column. Like all tyrants, he believes he rules by divine right, especially since so many millions of readers place their faith in him everyday, making him feel justified hurting anyone that may prevent him from doing his job dutifully. In working the Hunsecker obstacle to the top and his desire to be a gossip columnist just like his idol, Falco is willing to play the masochist in order to get what he wants, enduring public humiliations with a thick skin and like it's second nature. Ultimately Falco is Hunsecker's lackey, his trained poodle. In essence you have two extremely unscrupulously horrid characters but what's fascinating is that somehow Falco remains somewhat sympathetic simply because Hunsecker proves so much more appalling and contemptible. There just isn't enough room on the New York planet for the both of them. Hunsecker is just so frighteningly menacing and domineering. In addition Tony Curtis has this ability to covey sympathetic vulnerability. It's easy to argue that the main characters are quite one-dimensional by being so despicable. But the film is uniquely brilliant in using other people's eyes to convey Falco's pitiable state of existence such as through his Hunsecker's secretary Mary who senses that he yearns for something better than his current world and his besotted secretary sees something good in him. There are also hints at regret shown by Falco but ultimately he is blinded by a civilisation that has been overrun by notions of celebrity, money, and power - success.
With Hunsecker it's hard to find any good in him. You want to believe that he has his sister's best intentions but his treatment of his sister's love life comes across as hard-edge and malicious, over-protective concern. He is covetous of his sister's beauty and possessively jealous of her romantic attentions to any other man, keeping her cooped up with himself, to protectively avoid the tainting of her innocence and purity. We see him sitting aloof in his office, living a forbidding, secretive life as a repressed asexual bachelor, perhaps gay and there is a hint at incestuous feelings towards Susan.
The contrast between the antiheroes couldn't be greater when we see Falco's walk-up office as a dingy office and home all in one with a cheap cardboard sign crudely taped to the front door with his name on it whereas Hunsecker has his own personal telephone at a restaurant table where he dines and meets with politicians, their favourite call girls and an agent who functions as a social buffer between the two classes, all of whom he treats with disrespect on a whim.
It's worth quoting the dialogue for the film because that's undoubtedly one of its greatest assets; You have Hunsecker turning toward Sidney with an unlit cigarette saying "Match me, Sidney" to which Falco replies "Not right this minute J.J." since he isn't up to compete against J.J.'s insults so he declines to play the game and become subservient again. The phrase has a great double meaning of both being an order and a challenge. On another occasion he says "my right hand hasn't seen my left hand in thirty years" in a twisted reference to the bible as if he is an omnipotent God-like figure for Falco giving him approval to carry out his secretive, uncharitable deed or scam and deliver the results for later rewards that will be given in secret if he can break up the romance between Susan and Steve.
You really get the sense that Hunsecker isn't just using Falco to help break up the relationship his sister is having with the young musician but is relishing the challenge of taking on Falco to see how easily he can destroy him. As I mentioned earlier, he isn't deeply concerned about losing his sister but gaining the upper hand over and toying with Falco.
There are all sorts of scenes in the film that show you the level of power commanded by Hunsecker. He has corrupt police in his pocket who are indebted to him and worship him for his nepotism - providing additional sources for the city's happenings as repayment. There's another great scene where Falco tries to blackmail a rival columnist into printing a smear about Steve Dallas's character by threatening to reveal to his wife that he had an affair with a cigarette girl named Rita but the columnist decided to come clean as if he's redeeming himself when in actual fact, he's still responsible for the infidelity and his hatred of the small fish trying to play in his shark pond is what truly drives him to come clean to his wife about the affair. Characters who think they are being nice are completely clouded and living a different reality. Another columnist is willing to print the smear simply because he wants to bed the very same cigarette girl. Theirs is a world so detached and small but because the media tycoons have such a huge readership, they think they have a grand obligation to please their public. Sidney knows the cigarette girl and pimps her to do himself favour.
What this film doesn't offer is the good side in very much strength. Yes you have the true love of Steve and Susan in stark contrast to everyone's horrid notion of human relationships and Steve, the average Joe ultimately stands up to Hunsecker calling him a national disgrace on account of how he treats people - you get the impression Hunsecker would sell his own country if need be. He is only selflessly interested in saving Susan from Hunsecker's manipulative clutches than finding revenge, so she can stand up for herself, realising that he's no match for the shrewd and clever columnist. But ultimately the film says that the world is dominated by big players and everyone else has no say in their world. It also asks questions like who is really free. Can Susan be free if she chooses to be with Dallas, leaving Hunsecker to view the world all alone and captured from his high-rise parapet, to always survey the prone city below that he also loves, possesses, and dominates like an imperious gargoyle, but always from that vantage? The high-rise of Hunsecker is a metaphor of how lonely it is at the top. In this universe there's no room for starry-eyed idealistic secretaries or youthful musicians. These are men who relentlessly pursue success like a game, hurting everyone in their path. There appears to be no redemption for Hunsecker. He plays the duplicitous role of concerned brother only when it suits him. You get the feeling that the only way Falco will ever see the light is if he stands to lose it all in a brutal film noir punishment. He's also not free and a slave to his own greed and ambition. The powerful get away with it all but have to make some sacrifices and their henchmen are easily sacrificed and despised the most. It's not enough for Hunsecker to simply break up a relationship, he wants to annihilate the people who dared to stand up against him. The irony in the two deeply flawed characters is that they despise each other but are of the same ilk.
The low key lighting by the director of photography James Wong Howe emphasises the harsh shadows and dark, unglamourous recesses of the corrupt and seamy environment of free wheeling and dealing. There's a great scene when we're first introduced control freak Hunsecker, that Howe uses an overhead table lamp that gleams down to cast a shadow of his spectacles on his face, making Lancaster's character look truly scaly and inhuman. You could imagine Reggie Kray being given the reins of the newspaper column and this would be the result. Sweet Smell of Success is given a great sense of immediacy by shooting on location in the city that never sleeps. An urban jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein enhances the swanky yet pungent underworld maelstrom of nightclubs, apartments, restaurants and offices.
Above all though it truly has to take incredible timing and talent to deliver such priceless quips and stylised language with the correct rhythm and inflection so the credit has to go to the actors above all else. There are many references to animals and you really sense that the human beings have debased themselves and how low they've fallen. Sweet Smell of Success is unlike any other Hollywood film made at that time and is so relevant now as it was then. You feel compelled to view this over and over again to reinforce the significance of the film and how it turns up the heat on the pressure cooker that is Sidney Falco and tests him to greater and greater challenges, and how he ebbs and flows from small victories to small failures and yet he remains unperturbed by those losses. You become intrigued to find out how if at all the two leads in this film can change for the better or the worse. A captivating and riveting film.
Burt Lancaster sets aside the typical tough guy routine to portray a Newspaper Columnist of single minded disposition.
Tony Curtis plays an odious manipulative agent.
The venom that Curtis' character is apparent and caught up in a spiral of lies and deceit, you just know it will end in tears and there's no sympathy for him.
Lancaster's character utilises the most vile attributes of Curtis' character for his own ends, in a double act of selfish and poisonous behaviour everyone they come into contact with gets hurt.
A fine script and so well played as to this day it is commended in its power.
No DVD collection is complete without this movie, Curtis and Lancaster are on fine form.
Two great actors in their element and playing off each other with precision.
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A newspaperman sets out to break up his sister's marriage.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a New York press agent caught up in a complex relationship with the powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco needs to get his showbiz clients placed in the newspapers, and hangs around Hunsecker hoping to garner a mention in his column. Hunsecker is obsessively protective towards his sister Susan (Susan Harrison), and his only apparent desire is to see an end to her budding romance with jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Thus with Falco growing increasingly desperate, Hunsecker lets him know that the one way he can secure access to the column is to break up Susan and Steve, thereby setting in motion a chain of events which will tear them all apart.