Sweet Smell of Success is that rare film that clicks into place on every single level. Intelligently directed with a sense of atmosphere, exquisitely shot, perfectly paced and well acted; with dialogue as juicy as a Rib Eye steak, this is definitely the best of the best. Not unlike Casablanca, it represents the type of film that studios and Hollywood in general rarely succeed completely at making anymore.
A slimy New York based press agent named Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) wants a column space in “The New York Globe” newspaper, but powerful and ruthless owner J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) continuously ignores him. Hunsecker (loosely modeled after Walter Winchell) is a man who holds grudges as he is still mad at Falco for failing to live up to his promise of breaking up the love relationship between his younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a Jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Marty Milner).
Overprotective of (and subtly incestuous) towards his sister, Hunsecker wants an end to this relationship. When Falco is desperate to prove his usefulness to him, Hunsecker orders him to break up the relationship. What does Falco do? He writes a column that falsely accuses Dallas of being a dope smoking Communist. Since Hunsecker has close ties to Falco, Dallas inevitably demands an apology from Hunsecker as well as admittance that the allegation is a lie. Hunsecker approves of his demands, but Dallas feels that his apologies are insincere and begins to insult him viciously. In fact, Dallas goes so far as to label him “a national disgrace.” The put-upon Susan feels she has no choice but to take Hunsecker’s side.
There are many ingredients on display here that makes this the memorable film it is. What has stood out the most for many viewers over the years seems to lie in its razor-sharp dialogue penned by noted playwright Clifford Odets and Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lehman. In fact, Lehman adapted this original story from his own 1950 Cosmopolitan magazine article entitled “Tell Me About It Tomorrow!” The screenplay contains such priceless lines like “Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!” or “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.” My favorites are “I love this dirty town” and the legendary “I’d hate to take a bite outta you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
The performances play a large part in the process too. Throughout the 1950’s, Burt Lancaster was known for his roles in Action adventures and Westerns, so his role as J.J. Hunsecker was not only an attempt to expand his horizons, but also to show a different side of him. Prior to this film, has he ever played someone so despicable and somewhat grotesque? Along with 1963’s The Leopard, this represents him in peak form. As for Tony Curtis, he was often known at the time for playing likeable leads in various genres, but he went directly to the next level here with this dramatic breakthrough. He may still be handsome, but his character is the complete opposite. He plays this slimeball with complete conviction and a guy like him could easily represent the tabloid culture.
Aside from the performances, another aspect that is easily overlooked here is the direction by Alexander Mackendrick. Prior to this film, he was known for directing two of the four British comedy classics produced at London’s Ealing Studios. His credits were 1951’s The Man in the White Suit, and 1955’s The Ladykillers. The other two respectfully are 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets from director Robert Hamer and 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob from director Charles Crichton. In this film, Mackendrick takes the cinematic sensibilities of the aforementioned comedies and effortlessly injects them into an American narrative. I cannot quite put my hand on it, but there is a uniqueness to this film that drives it both cinematically and psychologically.
The biggest character of the film by far is New York City itself. In fact, the whole film was shot on location there. Whether it is the interiors or exteriors, the whole film perfectly captures the atmosphere of New York nightlife. Famed Oscar winning cinematographer James Wong Howe displays the city in all its glory here through the black-and-white camera lenses. The inside of the darkly lit bars and nightclubs is worthy of detective noir and the black-and-white cinematography makes the streets of New York look even more evocative of the time than they would be if they were shot in color.
In some ways, watching this film is the cinematic equivalent of a night out on the town. All 96 minutes of this film is devoted towards visits to bars and nightclubs. The jazz score by Elmer Bernstein (with an appearance by The Chico Hamilton Quintet) really lights up the mood. Add to that the noticeable sounds of cars driving by, car horns beeping, and people talking; one really gets the feeling that they are traveling through New York City. This truly is “the city that never sleeps.”
Notably flawless all around, this is without a doubt a hands down winner. Acted, directed, edited and written to perfection, Sweet Smell of Success completely lives up to that last word of its title.