Sweet Smell of Success Review

(3.5 STARS)

Films that revel in mankind’s more seedy traits often walk a tricky line. On the one hand, they must remain true to themselves and deal with their characters’ flaws in believable and honest ways. But they can’t make these characters so unlikeable that they prevent any kind of audience connection. As sick and twisted as the characters are in Billy Wilder’s incredible noir Double Indemnity, we are completely drawn into their world. The same can be said, albeit to a lesser extent, for director Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success. The fact that the film succeeds is a minor miracle, for its two chief characters are absolutely despicable individuals. But their exploits are fascinating and speak a lot about what some people are willing to do to get a leg up. I can’t say I was blown away, but I can say it’s a film that’s well worth 100 minutes of your time.

The film follows Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a middling press agent in 1950s New York. Sidney desperately wants to get his clients featured in J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) column. Hunsecker writes the biggest column in New York, so Sidney isn’t the only agent clamoring for a bite, and to get ahead of the others, Sidney strikes up a relationship of necessity with Hunsecker. J.J. isn’t the most righteous individual in New York, so he has Sidney do some of this dirty work, and his latest target is Steve Dallas (Marty Milner), a jazz musician and the new fiancé of J.J.’s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison).

It’s hard to decide who is worse—Sidney or J.J. The latter definitely has fewer scruples, but Sidney’s willingness to just follow along for his own gain is equally deplorable. Yet these characters are so vibrant that we can’t look away. Credit the screenwriting duo of Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman for writing such brilliant words and making the characters just jump off the screen. They also create a fascinatingly symbiotic relationship between Sidney and J.J. that’s painful, but strangely fun, to watch. These two individuals hate each other, but they also recognize how much they need each other. Sidney needs the potential mention in the column, while J.J. needs someone to take carry out his more sordid business. I also got the sense that J.J. needed Sidney (and others like him) to make himself feel superior. He’s almost like a mob boss who gets off on having scum serve under him. It’s pathetic, but you can’t look away.

The film, like many other noirs from the time period, also makes brilliant use of its black and white cinematography. Light and dark are used to great, exaggerated effect. And the New York jazz world setting is absolutely perfect for a plot like this, with many scenes take place in alleys, where dirt like this should hang out.

The acting by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis is absolutely fantastic. Lancaster is cool, reserved, and unattached as J.J. We don’t see any chink in this guy’s armor, which makes him even more detestable. We hope someone like this will get a dose of reality, but the message in the film is that reality might not be the even playing field we hope it is. Often, men like this get ahead and stay ahead. Knowing that makes you dislike Lancaster’s character even more.

Curtis, on the other hand, is just full of energy. You want to sit this guy down and tell him to just chill out. He’s not as bad a guy as J.J., but he’s willing to be if it will help him. We want him to break away, but he doesn’t seem capable of it, which just makes him feel more pathetic. But Curtis makes him seem like he’s got a great deal of power, like he’s J.J.’s confidant or something. It’s a very layered performance in that respect, one of best I’ve seen in a noir from this period.

Sweet Smell of Success is a very rewarding experience if you can get past the film’s griminess. I felt icky after I watched it, but as strange as this sounds, that’s not a fault. It gets under your skin in a good way. It’s a well-written and acted tale of power and desperation, and it comes highly recommended from yours truly.

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