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USA 1957
Directed by
Alexander Mackendrick
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Sweet Smell Of Success

Synopsis: In the days when newspaper columnists were important opinion makers, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster),is New York’s most powerful, with contacts everywhere. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), is a two-bit press agent who wants to be Hunsecker’s right-hand man. But when he tries to break up a romance between Hunsecker's younger sister (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician (Martin Milner) he doesn’t have much luck. Realizing that his livelihood and future depends upon his filling his order, Falco decides to use whatever it takes to succeed.

Alexander Mackendrick was a British director best known for comedies such as The Ladykillers (1955) and The Man In The White Suit (1951) but he shows no lack of empathy for his very American project. Although lacking some of the key elements of film noir, such as the crime story and the femme fatale, Mackendrick’s film continues the tradition, largely through its central preoccupation with the dirty underbelly of society and with moral corruption. When the bitter and twisted Hunsecker says early in the film “I love this dirty town” he pretty much sums the movie’s key theme. (Hunsecker lives in the Brill Building, whose empty entrance hall was used by Scorsese in Taxi Driver, 1974).

A major stylistic contribution comes from James Wong Howe’s outstanding black and white photography. The wet, wintry streets of Manhattan's midtown club district, largely shot at night, ablaze with neon signs and jammed with bustling crowds, create an anonymous, intense and suitably impersonal and heartless backdrop for the near-Shakespearean tale of duplicity, manipulation, betrayal and loss that Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman scripted from the latter’s short story.

When the film was released it was generally recognized that the Hunsecker character was based on the famous right wing columnist, Walter Winchell. That the Steve Dallas character is branded a Red is of course pertinent because The House of Un-American Activities was at the height of its power at this time (Odets, a left-wing playwright and activist, was eventually blacklisted). Whilst Falco is a despicable, fawning lickspittle it is Hunsecker who is evil, the personification of the corrupting nature of power (one of the most striking things about the film is the way that Lancaster virtually never appears in full light, but is always obscured by shadows, his eyes hidden behind the reflection of his spectacles). Odets and Lehman use a climatic scene when Dallas confronts Hunsecker to concisely vent their contempt for public probity and private vices.

The Sweet Smell of Success is a powerful depiction of corruption undoubtedly because it is grounded in reality and is given bite by its writers' political commitment. But it is also an enormously stylish film. Not only for its striking cinematography but for its very cool '50’s jazz look and sound, supplied by Chico Hamilton (who appears in the film, together with co-songwriter Fred Katz) and Elmer Bernstein. Take your pick, social criticism, film noir, jazz film, The Sweet Smell of Success is up there with the best of them.

 

 

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