In Alexander Mackendrick’s swift, cynical Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster stars as barbaric Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the unprincipled press agent he ropes into smearing the up-and-coming jazz musician romancing his beloved sister.
Deliciously nasty. Bitingly cynical. That's the essence of 'Sweet Smell of Success,' Alexander Mackendrick's blistering portrait of insatiable ambition, soul-sucking greed, and twisted obsessions. An indictment of our celebrity culture and both the tabloid journalism that fuels it and bloodthirsty, egotistical vultures who prey on those desperate for a break, the film depicts with uncommon enthusiasm the corruptive influences of power and unquenchable desire of small-time wannabes to become the anointed. It's also expertly acted by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and boasts a searingly incisive script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets that film buffs never tire of quoting. Rarely does a movie dominated by snakes engender such affection, but 'Sweet Smell of Success' is presented with such passion and artistry it's difficult not to be seduced by its pungent perfume.
Much like 'Citizen Kane' skewers the character of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, 'Sweet Smell of Success' makes a thinly veiled assault on legendary, arrogant, and ruthless Broadway columnist Walter Winchell, whose words wielded such impact he could make or break a career with a one-line item. Winchell was respected and revered, but also reviled and feared, and he ruled New York's theater world like a czar. The bespectacled J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) does the same, holding court at the 21 Club with a supercilious air, swatting away fawning press agents as if they were flies. One of those annoying underlings constantly jockeying for a favored glance is Sidney Falco (Curtis), a small-time publicist longing to weasel his way into J.J.'s inner circle and reap the benefits an unholy alliance would yield. J.J., who has "the morals of a guinea pig and scruples of a gangster," views Sidney with disdain, yet sees his value as a dutiful henchman, especially when he wants to bust up his sister's romance with a jazz musician.
J.J. exerts tremendous influence over his meek, insecure sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), but unless he can indirectly smear the reputation of her soon-to-be fiancé, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), he fears he will lose her. And nothing pains the abnormally attached J.J. more than that devastating prospect. So he enlists lapdog Sidney to do what's necessary to achieve that end, and Sidney hopes that if he does his dirty deed well, even if it means destroying a couple of innocent lives and causing some collateral damage, he will become J.J.'s right-hand man and his client base will blossom.
Whereas 'All About Eve' explores ambition in the theatre world from a glamorous, erudite perspective, 'Sweet Smell of Success' exposes Broadway's underbelly and the maggots that try to feast on the fat cats and worm their way into their good graces. For small-time guys to make the big time, the film tells us, they must embrace their dark side, shed their conscience, and sell their soul to whatever devil makes them a bid. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and the film is rife with canine references to try and prove that point. Extensive location shooting also lends the movie a gritty, realistic edge, providing a better sense of the cold concrete, neon coffee shops, and dingy alleys where some of the action transpires.
It's not often the two main stars of a picture portray unlikeable, unsympathetic characters and the good guys remain on the fringe, but Lancaster and Curtis so embody their respective roles and spout such delectable dialogue, their nefarious nature doesn't faze us. The tight-as-a-drum script, delivered with rapid-fire relish, deserves to be savored, as do James Wong Howe's sumptuous black-and-white cinematography, Elmer Bernstein's bold jazz score, and Mackendrick's fluid direction that embraces standard noir elements without sacrificing artistic integrity.
'Sweet Smell of Success' was not a success when first released, but its reputation has grown over the past half century, and its relevance is much more potent today, as tabloid rags and Internet gossip-mongers vie with traditional newspapers for journalistic supremacy. Rumor and innuendo may no longer crush a career - on the contrary, they may jumpstart it - but the value of publicity has only increased, and the price paid for juicy nuggets continues to soar. Though renegade paparazzi may have replaced the likes of Sidney Falco and his brood, 'Sweet Smell of Success' shows us how we got where we are today, and the rotten nature of the entertainment biz hasn't changed. Sure, this film is nasty, but it's also one helluva ride.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Sweet Smell of Success' comes attractively packaged in a three-sided slipcase with the film's original artwork on the cover. Inside, a fold-out digipack adorned with a striking color illustration of Susan Hunsecker houses the 50-GB dual-layer disc and a 56-page softbound volume. The substantive booklet includes chapter, cast, and crew lists, transfer notes, an in-depth essay on the movie by Gary Giddins, reflections by co-writer Ernest Lehman and director Alexander Mackendrick, two of Lehman's short stories that became the basis for the screenplay, and a discussion of the collaboration between Mackendrick and co-writer Clifford Odets by Paul Cronin, along with a smattering of black-and-white photos from the movie. Upon insertion of the disc, the static main menu with music immediately pops up.
Lush and stunning is the best way to describe the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC black-and-white transfer from Criterion. Aside from one brief shot where I noticed a couple of faint vertical lines, the image remains practically spotless from start to finish. Newly remastered in 4k resolution from the original 35mm negative, the transfer brings this noir-ish film to brilliant life. Some of the location scenes sport a slightly harsh, natural look that suits the gritty story well, but interiors are distinguished by deep, inky blacks, marvelous gray scale variance, and excellent shadow delineation. Film grain is present, but not to the extent where it impinges on the picture, yet the look and feel of celluloid is never compromised.
Fine details, such as the knobby fabric in the club phone booth, exhibit surprising dimension for a film of this vintage, and even complex patterns are rock solid and never shimmer. Close-ups, though used sparingly, are crisp and show off facial features well, and background elements are easy to discern, too. Noise is never an issue, even in the dimmest scenes, and no edge enhancement disrupts the integrity of this top-quality transfer. Classic film lovers will want to eat this one with a spoon.
The LPCM 1.0 track is generally quite strong and pumps out clear, well-modulated audio with plenty of fidelity. A slight bit of hiss occasionally can be detected, but all pops and crackles have been erased. The all-important dialogue remains easy to understand at all times, and wide dynamic range complements the various vocal timbres. Elmer Bernstein's brash, jazzy score fills the room well, and despite a hefty helping of screaming brass, distortion is never an issue. The mono track was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack, and the folks at Criterion have again done a stellar job fashioning excellent audio from older, problematic source material.
Criterion again amasses a strong supplemental package that serious film lovers will both learn from and enjoy.
Even after 50-plus years, 'Sweet Smell of Success' hasn't lost its ferocious bite. Alexander Mackendrick's cynical portrait of ambition, ego, and manipulation rivets our attention, despite all the sleazy doings, thanks to a taut, lyrical script, an edgy presentation, and spot-on performances from Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Criterion serves up this classic with its customary panache, supplying beautifully restored video, solid audio, substantive extras, and stylish packaging. Though some viewers may be put off by the mean-spirited narrative, this crackling drama deserves to be seen, and comes highly recommended.