Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks success smells like oranges.
"I love this dirty town."—J.J. Hunsecker
"Hunsecker's the golden ladder to the places I wanna get."—Sidney Falco
Facts of the Case
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis, Some Like It Hot) is a press agent, a grimy, two-bit press agent who'll do almost anything to try to get ahead. Everyone knows he's a worm, but he's thinking he can hit big time.
In New York, "big time" for a press agent is getting clients mentioned up in the daily columns of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity). Hunsecker can make a career with a good word and destroy one with a nasty item—or by refusing to run any items at all.
Falco woos clients by bragging of his friendship with Hunsecker, but in fact, Hunsecker despises him, particularly now. Hunsecker's beloved sister, Susie (Susan Harrison) is going around with jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner, Pete Kelly's Blues), and Hunsecker doesn't like it. He'd asked Falco to break them up, but Falco failed; in fact, Susie and Steve are planning to get married. Now, desperate to get in Hunsecker's good graces, the press agent will use any rotten trick he can think of to get the job done—even if it means destroying the young musician.
Darker than dark, so bitter and nasty that a bar of soap and book of affirmations should be included for a post-viewing cleansing, Sweet Smell of Success is an astonishingly cynical work of art. Abrasive, uncompromising, and downbeat, the film failed at the box office in 1957, but time has been good to it. Criterion offers an exceptional Blu-ray treatment of this stil-potent masterwork.
Director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers), working from a script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, gives us the ugly side of celebrity, New York City as a stark and treeless jungle of nocturnal prey and predators—like vampires, these creatures come alive at night. People are commodities, particularly women, and "favors" the currency of choice.
In a key segment, Falco sets up a date with Rita (Barbara Nichols, The Pajama Game), a cigarette girl at a nightclub. While it's clear the bleached-blonde Rita is regarded as little more than a bimbo, it's also clear that she harbors feelings for Falco—not "love," exactly, but something more than just the casual sex the two apparently enjoy. Before their date, Falco finds himself owing a favor to another columnist (David White, Bewitched)—and a sexy, "easy" blonde will cover this debt nicely, so Falco brings the man to meet Rita. Nichols' performance here is devastating; in just a few minutes' screen time, she captures the character's anger, vulnerability, shame, and resignation. This is a man's world, and women are objectified and subjugated, either by being overprotected and lied to, like Susie, or exploited, like Rita.
The jungle is ruled by men and lorded over by not-so-benevolent dictator J.J. Hunsecker. He's feared and despised, and respected only insofar as offering anything less than respect would mean swift and stunning retribution. A man made of grey shades overseeing a colorful world, Hunsecker is a social misfit with the power of the word, a self-righteous martinet sitting in judgment of the humanity he clearly loathes.
The closest thing Hunsecker has to human feeling is his love for his sister—or so it seems, at least at first; but the more we see, the more apparent it becomes that this, too, is somehow "off," that this is not a pure love, but something sinister, more corrupt than the various peccadilloes he so gleefully reports. His wrath at the thought of her loving another is less like a protective brother and more like a jealous lover.
Hunsecker has insight, and he knows that in this instance, his power's no good. So he enlists the hungry and pathetic Sidney Falco to do some dirty work, to engineer a scheme on which Hunsecker wouldn't sully his hands.
Falco's a slime, and he has no compunction about driving a wedge between Susie and Steve—even if it means driving Steve into the ground. He concocts a plan of almost pathological ugliness to discredit the musician. But by trying to be his own man, Falco turns himself into Hunsecker's bitch, an obsequious lapdog salivating for a scrap—a few words in a popular column.
Curtis oozes a pungent mix of sleazy charm and palpable desperation as Falco. While this might be the story of how the man loses his soul, there's a sense that Falco's soul was long ago dispatched—having such a thing would have been little more than a millstone in his occupation. He is the inverse of the traditional success story; his ambitions have made him impotent, even feminized—people remark on how "pretty" he is, and the fastidious, apparently asexual Hunsecker, in one of the screen's great lines, refers to him as a cookie—"a cookie full of arsenic."
Tony Curtis didn't get a lot of respect as an actor; he seems remembered primarily for his preternaturally good looks, multiple marriages, and roles in a number of forgettable sex comedies. But Curtis was a better-than capable actor, and when he took a risky, demanding role—like Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler—the results were striking. Curtis throws himself into his role here, making Falco an unapologetically unsympathetic character—the sort of thing that could have spelled doom for an up-and-coming leading man in the '50s. There's a feeling that the actor dug deep into his own background and experience to play this hard but handsome, New York-born hustler who's a runt of humanity—literally, as in a scene with Milner, in which Curtis (who was around 5'8" or 5'9") is shown looking physically tiny next to Milner's "good" character.
Burt Lancaster is well-remembered as a "tough guy" actor, an image that near the end of his career he revisited playfully in Tough Guys and poignantly in Atlantic City. But Lancaster had enormous range, and unlike many leading men, who consigned themselves to hero/anti-hero roles, and didn't shy away from playing characters who were weak, as he did in Come Back, Little Sheba, or downright unpleasant, as he does here. Based loosely on famed columnist Walter Winchell, Hunsecker is a stiff, sanctimonious phony, and no one played phonies better than Lancaster, though this time, the actor doesn't trade on his charm as he did in The Rainmaker and Elmer Gantry. Lancaster's slow-boil, quietly intense performance is filled with subtle menace.
The script—based on Lehman's novella—is wall-to-wall hard, fast, quotable dialogue. James Wong Howe's cinematography is striking, giving the film a nightmare-noir look, and Elmer Bernstein's jazzy score hits just the right notes.
Criterion offers the kind of first-rate package we've come to expect from the company. The 1080p Blu-ray image is near pristine, so sharp and detailed, it's tough to peg this film as over 50 years old. You might catch the occasional fine scratch or imperfection, but this is really a great looking transfer. The PCM Mono audio track is clear and pure, free of any hiss or distortion.
The disc offers an outstanding array of supplements:
• A commentary by James Naremore, film scholar and author of a book about the film.
• Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, a 1986 documentary on the director.
• James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, a 1973 documentary.
• An interview with director James Mangold (Walk the Line) about Mackendrick.
• An interview with film critic and historian Neal Gabler on Walter Winchell.
• A 56-page booklet that includes an essay by Gary Giddens, two stories by Lehman featuring the Hunsecker and Falco characters, and a passage from Mackendrick's book On Film-Making.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The continuity is occasionally problematic. In some instances early in the film, simple reverse shots are bungled, and scenes that go from master to close up are badly matched.
Also, the ending seems a bit abrupt. According to Naremore's commentary, there was some dissension between Lancaster (who also produced) and Mackendrick over how the film should end, and what we get just seems a little rushed.
A caustic masterpiece is given a definitive release by Criterion. Unqualified recommendation.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.