There’s nothing quite so enjoyable to watch as an odious man do his work. It’s a sleazy, grimy world out there and if a movie can capture that world in an entertaining way, then all the better for it. If there’s one thing to lament in the differences between film and reality, it’s that reality is never quite as clever as a Hollywood screenwriter of the fifties. I generally hold to the idea that film noir has to deal with mystery, but Sweet Smell of Success (1957) tests that theory quite firmly. Maybe all film noir has to be is dark, clever, and cynical. Of the three cynical movies I’ve watched recently–including The Americanization of Emily (1964) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)–Sweet Smell of Success is the most brutal and the most viciously funny.
This is two nights in the life of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and it’s going to be some bumpy nights. Sidney is a press agent, we’d probably call him a publicist. His life basically consists of scrounging for clients and putting their names into newspaper columns run by those gatekeepers of the arbitrarily flattered. The greatest Cerberus of New York is a man named J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and he might be the most evil man to boot. With a sharp memory and a sharper tongue, Hunsecker suffers no fools, has nothing nice to say about anybody, and lies only to his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison). But this is Sidney’s story. Sidney is ambitious, for what he is ambitious is unclear, but he knows the direction he wants to go and that’s up. The road upwards lies at the side of Hunsecker, which is why I was blathering on about him. Hunsecker has a problem he wants sorted out and he can’t do it himself. Susan is dating a guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and Hunsecker doesn’t like it. Why he doesn’t like it is probably dark and unspoken, but as its unspoken this columnist wouldn’t like to conjecture, sufficed to say he doesn’t and he’s tasked Sidney with breaking up the thing. When he isn’t quickly successful, Hunsecker retaliates by not putting Sidney’s clients in the column, but Sidney’s got a plan and it’s the execution of that plan that we witness tonight.
Sweet Smell of Success is like The Apartment (1960) with its love ripped out. It has a lot of the same satirical notes and, of course, a dark view of men in power. You come for the stars, you stay for the story. The screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman is exceptional in its winding narrative, painful payoffs, and its nerve. The two main characters, wonderfully played by Curtis and Lancaster, are so unlikable while exuding the charisma their professions require that you can watch them be bad all day. And like a good film noir, the ending isn’t going to be that same sort of Hollywood satisfaction you’re used to.
Martin Scorsese might claim The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as an influence, but it is so clearly Sweet Smell of Success that informs his filming New York. The bulk of the film is shot outdoors in the New York night, capturing the bustle of Times Square and the Flatiron District of the late 1950’s. Alexander Mackendrick was a name with which I was unfamiliar, but have now committed to memory. With cinematographer James Wong Howe, Mackendrick uses some of the most nifty camera work I’ve noticed in a movie. The black and white probably causes me to misjudge its contemporaries, but I’ll tell you it was remarkable without going too far.
I saw this on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray and was thoroughly pleased with it. They’re really knocking these things out of the park in selection and execution.