Sweet Smell of Success Review
An acknowledged film noir that lacks murder, death, and even a gun, Sweet Smell of Success instead harbors much more dangerous ambitions. Its weapons are words, the ink of newsprint and the soiled reputations that can follow. This American masterpiece directed by Alexander Mackendrick is a true dirty movie. It reeks of filth. The black night of New York City never looked so gorgeous or felt so unclean. Characters behave with skewed motivations. Everything is for sale and the price is fleeting fame. Corruption lingers. When reputations are made and broken on what's written in a gossip column, it's the writer as kingmaker and the power broker as a Godlike creature. He is hated by many but feared by everyone. This is the other, less pretty side of film noir.
It's a two character film, where one is etched in granite as an untouchable figure no one dares question and the other is the nervous, constantly moving insect trying his best to make friends despite the fact that he can, at any time, be stepped on and crushed. For much of Sweet Smell of Success, it seems that Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker, the "Eyes of Broadway" as he is promoted by the New York Globe, is our unmerciful villain of the piece. Lancaster gives a brilliantly measured performance where his voice maintains the calm rhythms of someone on the opposite end of a hostage negotiation. For an actor sometimes known to exude his physicality in body and voice, Lancaster devotes all of that volatility to Hunsecker's confidence in simply understanding that he holds all of the cards. There's no reason for Hunsecker to puff out his chest because he's already in complete control and he knows it.
As the picture progresses, we see more and more of Sidney Falco and he slowly usurps Hunsecker as the one whose ethics seem increasingly malleable. The publicity agent played by Tony Curtis sneaks up on you. It's obvious from the get go that he's a rotten seed more in love with his livelihood than any sense of even the most cautious of ethics, but Falco's conniving becomes something to marvel at in disgust as the film progresses. As much as we love Lancaster in those glasses and the beautifully biting line deliveries he gives Clifford Odets' dialogue, this is Curtis' film, and he was never better. The not always acknowledged truth is that Tony Curtis was a terrific actor when he was on, and boy was he on here. The Defiant Ones and Some Like It Hot and Spartacus and so on were all still to come. This was Curtis breaking away from being just a pretty boy. His Falco is a man desperately trying to act like he's not desperate. He's always looking to exchange a favor for this and a promise for that, constantly scheming his way to tomorrow. Even the apparently throwaway sections of the film, like the bits with Herbie Temple, illustrate the lengths and energies to which Falco will resort.
"You're dead son. Get yourself buried."
Much of what Falco does seems to hinge on desperation. He realizes that being cut off from Hunsecker's column would be a huge blow to his livelihood. He also knows that inching his way further into the columnist's good graces might mean big things. If we view Falco's often reprehensible acts as a means of self-preservation then there's at least a mitigating factor at play. By comparison, Hunsecker deeply values his power and does so while arrogantly neglecting any further considerations. He seems to parlay his vast readership into a form of capital for his own benefit. Not having Falco around would be of little or no consequence to Hunsecker.
The intricate mind games that Falco engages in tell us that he's the one to watch. He appears to be always at least a step ahead as he manipulates those around him with the dexterity of a surgeon. Perhaps most hurtful is his treatment of cigarette girl Rita, with whom he trades a favor that implicitly involves sex but is then escalated into something even more tawdry when Falco brings in a rival of Hunsecker's as a replacement.
"Match me Sidney"
It's interesting how the film almost immediately juxtaposes the positions amid their own subculture of Falco and Hunsecker. Before we even see J.J. in the flesh his name is prominently on view on the side of a van and in the heading of his column. Falco's name is first seen printed on what looks to be a cardboard sign taped to the door of his office, which also acts as his sleeping quarters. Hunsecker lives in a penthouse with a view overlooking the city. For Falco to play this game he has to work harder and be more relentless than anyone else. The public humiliations that dot the film are just part of the gig.
Necessary for the plot and as nearly perverse character shading for Hunsecker is the romance between jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and J.J.'s sister Susie (Susan Harrison). It's this strand that allows for Falco's big play. Hunsecker has entrusted him with splitting the two up and when Falco was unable to do so he's essentially cut off from getting his clients mentioned in the column. The entire premise is itching with unease. As an indictment against the nature of celebrity and the veneer of fame (and Walter Winchell), it's absolutely damning. This isn't satire. Sweet Smell of Success is quick and harsh but not satire. The film resists the Billy Wilder type of acidic humor in favor of pure cuts into the heart of its subject. The story is by Ernest Lehman and the dialogue seems to come from the skewed mind of Clifford Odets, and both are equally impressive. It's the words that are flashier, more obviously brilliant, but the larger picture containing it all is itself a fully formed beast. The time spent on Dallas and Susie isn't necessarily exciting but it builds to a point that enables the film's end.
"I love this dirty town."
Mackendrick, an American-born Scot, seamlessly weaved scenes of New York City exteriors with interiors shot on soundstages back in Hollywood. The authenticity this gives the film has to be part of why it's remained so fresh over the decades. The cool and dark location shots photographed by James Wong Howe merged with Elmer Bernstein's cynical jazz score combine to create an atmospheric expression of Manhattan that, accurate or not, certainly feels distinctive. The film has a very tactile quality as a result, where it extends beyond just visuals and audio to create a time and place we can inhale. There are other great New York City films made in black and white and during roughly this same era, but none do a better job of establishing the setting, or at least a specific interpretation of the setting.
"I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
As Falco continually devolves into a monstrous puppet who's willing to do most anything Hunsecker asks as long as there's some benefit to him (and there always is), it's unclear whether J.J. understands what he's helped to create. Hunsecker has only two apparent concerns. One is his sister, and that he's able to keep manipulating her just as he does everyone else, and the other is his power as the feared gossip columnist. Take either away and he's emotionally crippled. Falco is comparatively quicker on his feet. He's playing multiple steps ahead at all times. It sometimes doesn't work out as planned but there's always a back-up idea. He also doesn't have Hunsecker's affliction in that Falco seems to not care about anyone else at all. He treats women with disposable charm but only for as long as and to the extent that he can use them for his own benefit. Those who see through this, like Hunsecker's secretary, let it pass while the more vulnerable, like Falco's secretary, are begging for disappointment.
The final clash between Hunsecker and Falco becomes a tectonic struggle of inevitability that further confirms the dour intentions of the film. We also see again how squirmy of a figure Falco is. That beautiful dialogue spoken earlier instructs that he has forty faces and you're inclined to believe that without hesitation. (Odets' screenplay is filled with some of the most memorable and giddily sharp quotes ever, words that have branded themselves into American film lore.) Only through Curtis' performance does Falco become not just tolerable but a charismatic figure we watch with some mild sense of despair. He is not a hero or even an antihero, and the film is uninterested in anything of this nature. Nasty, nasty piece of work.
The Criterion Collection has once again lived up to its stellar reputation in providing spine number 555 to Sweet Smell of Success. Individual DVD and Blu-ray editions are released separately. The review here is for the dual-layered Region A Blu-ray. It comes in a digipak with slipcover box and generous, bound booklet. The eye-catching art, of which more awaits inside the case, was done by comic artist Sean Phillips.
A previous, serviceable DVD edition was released by MGM, and though it can still be had at a fraction of the cost there's really no comparison between that non-anamorphic relic and this shiny new thing. The film comes in at its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio looking beautiful. Despite some peekaboo vertical marks of light damage, not as noticeable as on the older DVD, this is a shimmering piece of silvery heaven for those who like their cinematography rich and nocturnal. Contrast is ideal and it's met with excellent detail against a perfect layer of grain. To be sure, this is not quite among the very best high definition transfers I've seen for a black and white film on Blu-ray but it's close enough to avoid any complaint.
With both the dialogue and the cool jazz music playing such vital roles in Sweet Smell of Success, the audio is especially important. Criterion has provided a lossless PCM mono track that swings and pounds with conviction. It's a smooth listen that remains consistent in tone. The single-channel sound registers as being pleasingly full and still, when necessary, as intimate as a conspiracy. There are also optional English language subtitles for the hearing impaired that are white in color.
Criterion has done exceptionally well with its supplements in approaching the film from a variety of angles. Author and film scholar James Naremore, who wrote the BFI monograph on Sweet Smell of Success, has been enlisted to provide an audio commentary. On the whole, this is a solid track that's easily listenable and continuous, with a good deal of information contained. I do have to point out that some of what Naremore shares can also be found while going through the other bonus material included in this package. Also, considering Naremore wrote More Than Night, one of the key books on film noir, it's somewhat disappointing that he didn't manage to place the picture in that context or provide any discussion at all along those lines.
Director Alexander Mackendrick is celebrated in a 1986 documentary called "Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away" (44:40). This two-part profile stands out for its interviews with Mackendrick and Burt Lancaster, among others. It's a nice overview of a man who made some truly great films and then turned to academia after finding himself unable to secure work as a director.
"James Wong Howe: Cinematographer" (21:50) is a shorter documentary, from 1973, that is particularly notable for showing the great director of photography giving the viewer an example of how he would light a potential scene. Any featurette dedicated to honoring a cinematographer is a rare and welcome extra.
Two new interview pieces done by Criterion more than continue this high level of dedication to the history and spirit of the film at hand. Director James Mangold was a student of Alexander Mackendrick's at the California Institute of the Arts. Mangold discusses (24:51) his great admiration of Mackendrick and also provides some insight into his mentor's teaching methods. It's a strong, worthy supplement that both establishes further respect for Mackendrick and makes one wonder why Mangold isn't making better films than, say, Knight & Day. Next is an interview (28:51) with Walter Winchell biographer Neal Gabler, who's a natural storyteller and has a good number of interesting tidbits to share about his subject. Some of what Gabler says is repeated in James Naremore's commentary but Gabler has a better delivery and he really gives a wealth of information about Winchell and how the film relates to him.
The film's original theatrical trailer (3:06) has also been included. It's in HD, as are all of the video extras.
More than a booklet, the reading material Criterion has provided is more like a small book. It's bound and runs 60 pages. The star attraction is a lengthy, outstanding essay written by Gary Giddins. It's tough to choose the best extra in this package but I might have to vote for Giddins' piece if forced. Also included are the original stories written by Ernest Lehman that later formed the novelette on which the film was based. Lehman provides an introduction that first appeared in the published version of the script. An excerpt from Alexander Mackendrick's highly regarded book On Film-Making about Clifford Odets has been reprinted and also includes an introduction by the book's editor. Stills, credits and information on the transfer further boost this prize of a supplement from the Criterion Collection.
This must go down as one of Criterion's best in a very long line of great releases. It has everything - masterpiece-level film, wide variety of interesting and insightful extras, and excellent technical quality. If you can play it, there's no question that Sweet Smell of Success from the Criterion Collection is an absolutely essential purchase.