Sweet Smell Of Success

1957, Movie, NR, 96 mins


Emerging from a posh nightclub into the rain-slicked streets of midtown Manhattan, where a couple of hoodlums can be seen rolling a drunk, ruthless showbiz journalist J.J. Hunsecker experiences a pre-dawn epiphany. "I love this dirty town," he exclaims.

The moment is typical of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, Alexander Mackendrick's perverse, masterly romance of urban menace and moral decay. Best known as the director of lovably quirky Ealing comedies (e.g., THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT), Mackendrick turns to film noir with a vengeance, evincing a very British fascination with (and simultaneous distaste for) naked American ambition. With the assistance of legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, he fashions a stark, neon-lit urban landscape that seems to comprehend and surpass all of its predecessors in the genre.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a Broadway flack whose income depends on getting media exposure for his showbiz clients. The most coveted form of publicity is a mention in the syndicated newspaper column written by Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a Walter Winchell type with a nationwide audience and sufficient clout to intimidate the President. Desperate to plant items for his clients, Falco panders shamelessly to the columnist. Hunsecker, who spends his evenings sipping coffee in a trendy nightspot, is a sternly forbidding, collosally repressed bachelor with no apparent interest in women apart from his younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison). Neurotically overprotective of Susan, who lives with him in an implicitly incestuous arrangement, Hunsecker feels threatened by her blossoming romance with jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Hunsecker pressures Falco to break up the relationship; should he fail, he'll lose all access to the column.

After fabricating a blind item implying that the young musician is a pot-smoking Communist, Falco inveigles a cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) into sleeping with an entertainment reporter; in exchange for her favors, the reporter runs the item. Dallas loses his gig and is forced to appeal to Hunsecker, who offers to get him his job back if he agrees to stay away from Susan. Dallas furiously refuses. Hunsecker then extracts a promise from his sister that she will not see Dallas again. She soon breaks her word, however, meeting the musician at a secluded spot by the river, where he persuades her that she is being manipulated by her older brother. When Hunsecker discovers the couple's surreptitious reunion, he again turns to Falco to scotch the romance. This time Falco is guaranteed a period of carte blanche access to the column should his machinations succeed. Unable to resist the lucrative offer, Falco plants a reefer in Dallas's topcoat pocket and tips police detective Harry Kello (Emile Meyer). Kello finds the marijuana and viciously beats Dallas with pair of shot-loaded gloves.

As Falco celebrates, he receives a call from Susan, who sounds suicidal. He races to the Hunseckers' apartment and tries to comfort the half-dressed girl while sitting on her bed. Hunsecker arrives and, assuming the worst, tosses Falco out and interrogates Susan. Knowing that Falco is mixed up in her boyfriend's persecution, she refuses to defend him. In a jealous rage, Hunsecker calls Kello and informs the sadistic detective that he's been hoodwinked by Falco. Kello tracks Falco down near a highway overpass and, as the younger man shouts his defiance, again pulls on his sinister gloves. Meanwhile, Susan packs a suitcase and walks out of her brother's apartment forever.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS captures the sleazy allure of Manhattan like no other film; Howe's atmospheric night-for-night location shooting turns a Broadway juice bar into a cross between a Weegee photo and an Edward Hopper canvas. The charmingly venal Sidney Falco was a breakthrough role for Tony Curtis, whose frequent miscasting, particularly in costume adventures, had become something of a Hollywood joke. Here, comfortable for once in an urban milieu, Curtis does a remarkable job, managing to elicit sympathy without compromising his character's essential tawdriness. His brash 50s hepcat--a kid who's risen a little above his station and masks his insecurities with manufactured bravado--is a reminder that Cool wasn't invented by James Dean (who never even played a city boy). Lancaster, vividly sinister, seems ready to implode from surplus repression. Co-screenwriter Clifford Odets ("Golden Boy") contributes passages of lyrical slang to a Freudian scenario based on a novella by Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST). The brisk jazzy score was contributed by Elmer Bernstein, who makes canny use of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. leave a comment

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