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With: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Marty Milner
Written by: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 06/27/1957

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Sweetness and Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which opens today in a new 35mm print at the Rafael Film Center, is a remarkable example of the monkey-typewriter theory. Like Casablanca, it's a great movie that was not made by one author, say a David Lynch or a Charlie Chaplin or an Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, it was a seemingly random combination of talents who became available at the same time in the same place to make one of the great American films -- like a roomful of monkeys on typewriters suddenly turning out a work of genius.

For example, director Alexander Mackendrick made only two other interesting films, both Alec Guinness comedies (The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit) of the type that director Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets) was better at. How then, did Sweet Smell of Success turn out so beautifully?

It was a combination of Mackendrick, James Wong Howe's extraordinary sultry cinematography, capturing a sleazy, crisp, smoky, black-and-white nighttime New York City -- and the two genius writers Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, who refined a razor-sharp, acid-nasty script with some of the cinema's greatest dialogue. Not to mention Elmer Bernstein's standout jazz score.

Lastly, the film wouldn't be much without the sinister, lowlife performances by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis -- a coiled snake and a rat.

Lancaster plays columnist J.J. Hunsecker -- based loosely on Walter Winchell -- a powerhouse behind thick spectacles who can make or break a man's career with a simple item. "You've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels," one character tells him. Curtis plays the sniveling Sidney Falco, a press agent who -- more or less -- sells space in Hunsecker's column. He's so cheap he doesn't wear an overcoat to the nightclubs in order to save on coat check costs.

During the course of the film, Hunsecker dispatches Falco to break up a budding romance between Hunsecker's sister (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician (Marty Milner). Until Falco accomplishes this task, Hunsecker cuts him off and won't use any of his items in his column. "I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Hunsecker tells the dirty-dealing Falco. "You're like a cookie full of arsenic."

Falco and Hunsecker slink around between bars and nightclubs, descending to where the action is, sitting with future presidents and cheap cigarette girls. Hunsecker reigns, but knows his kingdom will collapse without Falco's sniffing and scrounging. That's where Hunsecker's most subtle manipulating comes in -- to keep Falco down like a dog, but also keep him on the leash.

It's a film about power and selfishness, but more importantly, it's about a specific time and place. Sweet Smell of Success is almost a jazz film -- loose, sleazy, brilliant and hyper-cool. If it weren't so slick and superb, it would almost resonate like a brilliant accidental note from a master's saxophone.

"I love this dirty town," Hunsecker says during the film's opening. God, I love it too.

MGM/UA still has a long way to go in restoring its old films; Sweet Smell of Success actually shows film scratches from time to time, as well as overt grain. In addition, they refuse to include English subtitles for the hearing impaired; the discs only feature French and Spanish. The disc does not come with any extras outside of the usual theatrical trailers. And at $19.98, Sweet Smell of Success is a bargain at twice the price.

Note: In 2011 the Criterion Collection gave this movie the DVD and Blu-Ray treatment.

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