Best known as the director of some of the more gently subversive Ealing comedies (Whisky Galore!, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers), Alexander Mackendrik made his finest film in America. The ironically titled Sweet Smell of Success is a scathing satire on the cult of media celebrity and a great film noir. Misunderstood at the time of its release in 1957, it has grown to cult status over the years and is now receiving a very welcome re-release in a new print.
A study in what one of its characters describes as ‘the theology of making a fast buck,’ the film anatomises the cult of success and its costs in the raffish world of Broadway. A powerful figure in this milieu is journalist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a notorious columnist who can destroy a reputation in a paragraph. Striking fear into public figures as well as the minions who need his patronage, Hunsecker is befriended by press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Hunsecker’s downright evil manipulations and Falco’s slimy panic when he starts to feel the squeeze make for a fascinating central relationship. Lancaster and Curtis are outstanding in roles that were foreign to their screen personae at the time. As the smiling but desperate ‘boy with the ice-cream face,’ Curtis revealed a new range to his talent, while Lancaster’s sinister study in megalomania is a tour de force.
Absolutely crucial to the lingering power of Sweet Smell of Success is the superb idiomatic dialogue written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. Everything in the film, from the dialogue to the discordant music, is barbed and nasty. James Wong Howe’s superb black-and-white cinematography makes New York by night look fierce and frantic, the relentless pace adds to the sense of unease, and everybody is so busy hustling that there is no place for sentiments such as decency. It’s no wonder that Sweet Smell of Success proved too pungent for American audiences of the 1950s. U.S.A., 1957. Black and white. 93 mins.