Shot on location, Sweet Smell of Success provides a memorable view of New York in the 1950′s. I can’t remember other comparable opportunities in which New York was shot with such a strong sense of place and time. Mostly known for directing comedies, Alexander Mackendrick does a solid job of capturing this serious story about a man with serious influence.
- Director: Alexander Mackendrick
- Writer: Ernest Lehman, Clifford Odets
- Cast: Burt Lancaster,Tony Curtis
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a young press agent whose ability to create publicity for his clients is compromised by the power of one man. Falco relies on the mercy of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancester), a wildly influential gossip columnist. Falco needs Hunsecker for his career to survive. On the other hand, while Hunsecker appears to not need anyone, Falco can service his personal motives. Forced to comply with Hunsecker’s demands, Falco is ordered to break up a romantic relationship between Susan (Susan Harrison), Hunsecker’s younger sister, and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a musician.
While Alexander Mackendrick’s directing is consistently strong, the three stars of this film are Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and the screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. The relationship between Lancaster and Curtis is what this film is all about, although a good chunk of the plot involves the romantic relationship between Susan and Dallas. Unlike his earlier roles, Lancaster plays a character who appears civilized on the surface but hardly conceals the violent savage within. His subtle facial expression shows a constant look of restrained aggression. Often shot from a low angle, Lancaster’s presence is imposing and adds a great deal of unpredictability to each scene. Curtis also plays a character that deviates from his more well-known roles. Here he nails the behavior of a character forced into a precarious professional position. However, despite Falco’s major restriction of power by Hunsecker, Falco convincingly appears like a man driven by his own unethical ambitions.
Based on a novelette adapted for the screen, the dialogue is an absolute joy. With “more twists than a barrel of pretzels”, the snazzy dialogue alone is worth your time. Aside from period films based on classic literature, character assassinations and rebuttals rarely sound as eloquent as they do when Dallas confronts Hunsecker. The interplay between Lancaster and Curtis makes the most of lines that might appear like flat punchlines if delivered by other actors. I was reminded of dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross, though without the humor. Mackendrick succeeds in making each scene feel more than just a filmed stage production. Knowing that Mackendrick originally hesitated to direct this film fearing that it was too talkie, his fluid camera work and appropriate camera angles more than overcome the danger of seeming visually static.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Based on the life of real-life columnist Walter Winchell, Sweet Smell deserves praise for recreating a figure whose influence could make or brake the careers of entertainers, politicians and other public figures. Ebert’s review points out the films merits with precision, going as far as discussing some of the most memorable dialogue and noticing a high level of detail about the smallest choices made by the two main characters. Ebert also accurately emphasizes that the film is primarily about Falco and Hunsecker. Halfway through the film, I found myself asking, “is this film all about a break-up?” But this thought is soon eliminated by the power dynamics existing between the two protagonists. Elements such as the marijuana make the film feel a bit dated, but it also adds to its charm as a film transporting us to a specific place and time.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like The Sweet Smell of Success? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Rocco and his Brothers
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Success this week, he now has 348 under his belt and less than 20 films left to go.