Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick.


"I love this dirty town." -- J.J. Hunsecker

The frightful tale of a vicious gossip columnist and the desperate press agent who has to serve him. When you are in debt to a monster you do monstrous things: lying just comes with the territory, but also pimping a girlfriend and planting drugs on an innocent man. Call in the tough cops just to be sure.

The title is a bitter joke: success smells more like fecal matter.

We're used to seeing Burt Lancaster in action roles, so it is startling when he plays a gossip writer, but he is utterly convincing. A shrewd observer of human nature, he knows how to sandpaper raw nerves, and when to stick in the knife and twist. He's beyond nasty: so powerfully famous he is actually insane. The character was modeled on Walter Winchell.

Tony Curtis is a hustler hoping for more than crumbs from the table, but he's having a bad week. JJ is mad at him. His office is his apartment and his business sign is hand-made and taped to the door. He reminds me of "Harry Fabian" in Night and the City (1950) but is more slimy

Both actors do fine work here. Neither got much respect from critics, Curtis because he was pretty and a teen heart-throb, Lancaster because he started as a circus acrobat and did swashbucklers. It seems petty not to recognize their real talents.

The film is better liked now than when it was new. The dialogue is often praised, but I have a reservation. I can't stop hearing screenwriter Clifford Odets speaking through each character. That's true of all of his films. The dialogue is good, it's just that when I become aware of playwright-speak it takes me out of the film. The title character in Barton Fink (1991) was based on Odets.

Photographed by James Wong Howe. Excellent New York winter street scenes.

Brassy, kick-ass score of the big, bad city by Elmer Bernstein. The commentary track calls this "crime jazz", and looking at Amazon I see this is a known genre. I may get some compilations.

Finally, they do something here that is rare in film: showing how to "get" people through their virtues rather than their vices. You want to get rid of someone in your office? Put him in a conflicted situation where his moral sense requires him to resign. That's how they get the jazz musician to blow up at JJ. I've seen it done in real life by experts.

Criterion Blu-ray. Detailed commentary track, emphasizing the political context. Good set of supplements.