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Classic Movie Review: Sweet Smell Of Success
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Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success
Blu-ray l DVD
Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
Written by: Clifford Odets
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Jeff Donnell, and Sam Levene
Release Date: July 4, 1957

They live by night. It is odd to see Sydney Falco or J.J. Hunsecker out during broad daylight. They do the bulk of their work when the moon comes up. It would be an apt comparison placing their names in the same sentence as Dracula. They prowl the city streets confidently, with an abundance of swag and an overwhelming sense of determination guiding them towards their blood – the one thing that keeps them alive: gossip, which evidently leads to crushed souls all around.

The bustle of the crowded city streets or the jam-packed nightclubs provide no deterrent. In Sweet Smell of Success, J.J. (played menacingly by Burt Lancaster) and Falco (the suave Tony Curtis) exchange tips on the whim, take phone calls every other second, discuss gossip with actors and even congress men. What they are after only really thrives at night. The seedy, corrupt, immoral, and conniving souls that they prey upon are ruthless and slimy each in their own ways. Yet, the big time columnist (Hunsecker) and the wanna-be big-time press agent (Falco) dwarf all of the others’ abhorrent behavior. The nights belong to them.

To revel in the misery of others takes monumental immorality. We are delighted when we encounter a good, honest man because it gives us hope that the world is not full of Falcos or Hunseckers. The former knows what has to be done in order to ascend to the top. Any decent man out there has to have some dirt on them. If not, maybe he can spin a plot so elaborate as to miraculously create some gossip for a good man. Falco won’t rest until he gets what he wants. For him, as he brazenly declares, “the best of everything is good enough for me.”

He needs assistance from Hunsecker if he wants to be any more relevant. Hunsecker is a towering presence in the film. Director Alexander Mackendrick does a terrific job at building up to his arrival on screen. We hear his name uttered numerous times, we see his face plastered on billboards and advertisements around the city. We understand why Falco wants to be with him. Determined to be a contributor in his infamous and wildly popular column in the New York Globe that makes or breaks the careers of famous people, Falco has been asked a favor by Hunsecker: to break up the romance between his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her guitar playing boyfriend (Martin Milner). Falco has failed previously, resulting in him being neglected by Hunsecker. But he has been given a second chance.

What follows is Falco desperately reaching into his deck of cards looking for a ripe opportunity to exploit, which would assist him in his ruthless endeavor to attain fame. Going from one columnist to the next, and playing one against the other (and even willing to risk ruining a marriage and a friendship) just to get what he wants makes Falco an individual easy to detest. And yet, we do find some sympathy for him. We see that he is barely able to hold it together and we do feel sorry that his aspirations and goals have undeniably plagued him. Sweet Smell of Success, with a hardboiled script adapted by Clifford Odets from a novella by Ernest Lehman, can be a movie about addiction, about the souls he jeopardizes in the process, and about an individual’s continued attempts to battle his urge that is suffocating him.

There is a sense of intense urgency with Mackendrick’s direction, almost as if the world is collapsing around Falco. His camera, assisted by James Wong Howe‘s haunting and pristine black and white cinematography, presses up against faces and sometimes makes the image crooked as to create a sense of paranoia or dread. It is a wonderful technique that he employs. It keeps us immersed in this world, making it, at times, uncomfortable for us seeing all the rot and immorality occur.

Mackendrick, who first got his start with some Ealing Studio comedies in the 1940s (with second most notable film being 1955’s The Ladykillers), never again would have the opportunity to work at such a high level as he did with this film. Maybe while filming Sweet Smell of Success he exposed himself too much to the seedy lifestyles undoubtedly populating lofty positions within the film world.

Mr. Mackendrick created a great film that explores the extent an individual will go through in order to attain professional greatness. There is an interesting subplot here, though, involving Hunsecker and his sister. It isn’t nearly as overt as Falco’s infatuation with greatness. It is subliminal. There are hints maybe of incest that could be occurring between brother and sister, or hints of an overpowering brother not accepting the fact that he has to let his sister go and start her own life. Mackendrick aptly places this in his film to show us Hunsecker’s infatuation with power. Sweet Smell of Success is a film about two individuals who make viewers uncomfortable when they display their obsessive impulses.

***** out of *****

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