Sweet Smell of Success

In "The Great Movies," Roger Ebert writes: “The two men in Sweet Smell of Success relate to each other like junkyard dogs. One is dominant, and the other is a whipped cur, circling hungrily, his tail between his legs, hoping for a scarp after the big dog has dined,” (441). In a film he also produced, Burt Lancaster gives his very best performance as the dominating, memorable sleazy gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker who takes particular delight in destroying or saving careers like a wicked puppet master. The underrated Tony Curtis is submissive press agent and sycophant, Sidney Falco—a man willing to do anything to get his clients in the paper and he’s also more than a little envious and in awe of Hunsecker. To quote Ebert, Success is “one of those rare films where you remember the names of the characters because you remember them—as people, as types, as benchmarks,” (445). Indeed, this was the case for me—I saw the film on Turner Classic Movies years ago and remember being struck not only by the great jazzy score, the wondrous cinematography by James Wong Howe, but especially by the way the two leading actors become the people they are playing. Five minutes in, we’re no longer aware that it’s Curtis and Lancaster—we’re in New York, in the streets, ready to go along for the disturbing ride as Lancaster hires Curtis to plant a phony gossip piece about his sister’s boyfriend, in order to break the couple up (although Ebert points out that Hunsecker is asexual, there seems to be a note of repressed desire when it comes to his sister). Lancaster’s powerful Hunsecker was most likely inspired by Walter Winchell, “who for decades had become the most famous and reviled gossip columnist in America,” (Ebert, 441) but it’s essentially “a parody of the careers of all flitty hacks who based their very successful careers on gossip and lined their pockets with the fruits of sensationalism,” ("501 Must See Movies," 132). Several critics also note that it seems to stem from the blacklisting era as it was written by left-wingers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. The film takes many dark turns throughout its course and the British director Alexander Mackendrick (a man notable for his homeland comedies) made an irresistible piece of noir here and it’s light on the violence (except emotional and conversational) evident in other noirs. Bravely making no attempts to sugarcoat his characters as anything other than cruel and self-centered, Mackendrick’s film “is about media sensationalism entertainment procured at other peoples’ expense and, as such, niceties would be superfluous,” ("501 Must See Movies," 132). The work is so influential that those studying cinematography will be able to see the film’s influence on other works, most notably the lonely hallway shot from Taxi Driver which was cribbed right from Howe. Howe, one of the best classic cinematographers actually varnished the sets to get the “glimmering highlights” and the “high sheen” to the “dimly lit, smoky nightclub scenes,” according to the Facts From the Vault on the MGM video re-release. In doing so, the film is “uncanny in its ability to capture that time and place just before the Beats introduced the modern anticonventional style,” (Ebert, 444). A must see—a few years ago, Broadway released a musical version of the work with John Lithgow but I’m not sure that I’m ready to see the men of noir burst into song.