Sweet Smell of Success Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 2 release of Sweet Smell of Success. A magnificent piece of filmmaking is released on a fairly substandard disc, and one utterly lacking in any extras of note

The Film

The genre of film noir traditionally contains most, if not all, of the following ingredients: a flawed, anti-heroic central character whom, if he has any decency, has long ago submerged it under a shell of cynicism; a duplicitous, highly attractive femme fatale who may, or may not, be at all trustworthy; a deeply unpleasant villain, often with perverse tendencies that could only be hinted at by the standards of the day; and a bitter, twisted atmosphere of venal corruption and dread. Sweet Smell of Success was once thought of as a comedy, thanks to Mackendrick’s previous work on such Ealing classics as Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers; however, this dark, disturbing examination of the nastier recesses of the human psyche comes much closer to traditional film noir, albeit without the comforting ambiguity of even an anti-hero or a femme fatale; instead, the vision painted here is depressing, dark and intoxicatingly well made.

The plot, as based on a ‘novelette’ by Ernest Lehmann, concerns would-be Machiavellian press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis), and his desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with JJ Hunsecker (Lancaster), America’s most powerful newspaper columnist. Hunsecker only sees one use for Falco, and that is to compel him to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s younger sister Susan (Harrison) and a young musician (Milner), for incestuous reasons hinted at rather than spelt out. And that’s more or less it, in terms of ‘storyline’; instead, Mackendrick and his screenwriters, Clifford Odets and Lehmann, delight in exploring a world without morality, principles or even hope.

Surprisingly for a PG-rated film, this is as depressing and dark a cinematic experience as anything in Se7en, a film with which it has a surprising amount in common; the difference is that this was made in the late 1950s, when Curtis was viewed as a pretty-boy matinee idol and where Lancaster was a respected but decidedly mainstream actor, tending to play heroic figures, such as Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corrall and Milton Warden in From Here to Eternity. Here, Curtis plays a morally reprehensible and utterly loathsome snake, who, in one of the most grotesquely memorable scenes, has no compunction in blackmailing a former lover into sleeping with a rival newspaper columnist to advance his (and Hunsecker’s) career. He didn’t play another part with the same depth until The Boston Strangler in 1968, by which time his career was too far in decline for his undeniable talent to be fully appreciated.

Lancaster, meanwhile, creates one of the screen’s greatest ever villains, apparently based on the real-life colummnist Walter Wichell, by little more than line delivery and glances. Hunsecker gets some fantastic lines, with possibly the best being ‘My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in years’. Odets’ script is full of these pop-operatic utterances, with a kind of casual poetry being leant to the truly appalling deeds being conducted by these two men. There is no silver lining here, no pat happy endings, just an unremittingly bleak look at the evil that men do. Even the ending, something of a sop to the Hays Code, does not wipe away the feeling of degradation engendered by the rest of the film.

This is an essential film to see, to be appalled by, and then, possibly, to watch again, to savour the full wit and style with which it is constructed. It’s not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, with fans of Mackendrick’s Ealing comedies likely to be disappointed, given their rather broader look at human failings and foibles. Technically, the film is brilliant; James Wong Howe’s cinematography represents New York as the archetypal noir location, and Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score complements the action perfectly. Highly, unreservedly recommended for all fans of truly great filmmaking.

The Picture

MGM have provided a mixed effort here. For a start, the picture isn’t anamorphic; having said that, it’s arguable how much benefit enhancement actually is to films filmed in the 1.66:1 ratio. Unfortunatly, the print itself isn’t up to all that much; although it tends to be fairly clean throughout, there are frequent and irritating amounts of print damage present, not least when visible lines can be seen on the picture for minutes at a time. A restoration job is needed, and fast, before the film deteriorates further.

The Sound

The mono soundtrack provided does an OK job of showcasing the dialogue and score, without anything especially exceptional or interesting; occasionally, the quality of sound reproduction did sound slightly muffled, but it’s certainly preferable to have the original soundtrack than a failed attempt at a remix.

The Extras

What the film needs:
A critical commentary, focusing on the film’s noir influences and themes, amongst other things, some sort of input from Curtis, who has proved willing to participate in such discs as Some Like it Hot, background information on Clifford Odets, a once lauded playwright who has unjustly been completely forgotten since his death, a piece on Mackendrick’s move from Ealing to this, original newsreel footage, an interview with Elmer Bernstein, etc, etc…

What the film gets:
A trailer, and not a very good one at that. It has to be hoped that MGM surrender the rights to Criterion at the earliest possible opportunity.


A film that genuinely was ahead of its time, Sweet Smell of Success is a masterpiece of acting, scripting and direction, as well as being a disturbingly clinical dissection of the lure of fame. However, MGM’s presentation leaves a vast amount to be desired, with the absence of supplemental material a major blow; it is to be hoped that a decent version of the film materialises in the near future.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Mar 31, 2002

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