Sweet Smell of Success

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(1957, directed by Alexander Mackendrick)

- inducted 2016 –

“When I first watched Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success a few years ago, I remember being struck by just how cruel it is (or, more specifically, many of its characters). It reminded me strongly of Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, which I saw much earlier and was no doubt influenced by the earlier film. Both center on two men, one a coolly intelligent, emotionless sociopath and the other a spineless weasel who functions as his sidekick/patsy, and we observe, helpless, as they scheme to ruin the life of a woman. Mackendrick’s film may include fewer four-letter-words, but the dialogue cuts every bit as deep.

“Sweet Smell of Success paints a deeply cynical portrait of big city life. ‘I love this dirty town!’ J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) happily exclaims at a key moment in the film, and it’s a moment that more or less encapsulates his entire being. Hunsecker is a gossip columnist who wields an enormous amount of power and influence because the dirt he dishes is on the rich and the powerful. Lancaster is excellent in the role, a smoothly charismatic sadist who knows and relishes the power of his pen to wreck entire lives at will. He’s like the progenitor for Patrick Bateman and TMZ all at once. His weasel-y sidekick/scapegoat for the day is Sidney Falco (Curtis), a press agent who desperately needs Hunsecker to drum up interest in his clients through his column. Curtis, in a performance every bit the equal of Lancaster’s, plays Falco like a grinning parasite, eager to step on anyone else’s back that he can in order to reach the next rung, and without so much as a shred of dignity.

Sweet Smell of Success is mostly a film about atmosphere, location, modern life, celebrity culture. But there is a plot, so to speak. Falco needs Hunsecker, and recognizing this, Hunsecker is happy to use Falco in an insidious plot to break up the happy romantic relationship between his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz guitarist (Martin Milner). Susan lives with J.J., and he is hugely dependent on her; she is essentially the only human being for whom he has anything other than open disgust for, and the only person who might show him kindness out of anything other than fear or obligation. Her falling in love with the jazz guitarist means that he may be totally alone in the near future, therefore he demands that Falco devise some way to break them up, and Falco is only so happy to do so.

“The love story stuff is a little soapier than I remember, but it still has bite, largely because J.J.’s subtly incestuous obsession with his sister looms over it so menacingly. Every scene, every line of dialogue that revolves around Lancaster and Curtis is pure gold, however. Sweet Smell of Success is a great film, and ahead of its time in many ways that I wish it wasn’t.”

~ Jason Alley

Principal cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Marty Milner, Jeff Donnell, Sam Levene, Joe Frisco, Barbara Nichols, Emile Meyer, Edith Atwater, and the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with additional uncredited appearances by Nick Adams and John Fiedler
Screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman
Based on the novella by Ernest Lehman
Produced by James Hill
Photographed by James Wong Howe
Art direction by Edward Carrere
Set decoration by Edward Boyle
Costume design by Mary Grant
Editorial supervisor: Alan Crosland Jr.
Original music by Elmer Bernstein
Makeup by Robert Schiffer
Sound by Jack Solomon (recordist), Robert Carlisle (sound effects editor)
Presented by Harold Hecht, James Hill, and Burt Lancaster
Executive producers (uncredited): Tony Curtis, Harold Hecht, Burt Lancaster

Duration: 96 minutes
Languages: English
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1

Produced by Norma-Curtleigh Productions
Released in USA by United Artists
Premiered in USA on 27 June 1957

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1993
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 21 October 1997
- BAFTA Film Awards, 1957: Best Foreign Actor – Tony Curtis (nominated)