SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
(director: Alexander MacKendrick; screenwriters: Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman/from the short story Tell Me About it Tomorrow by Ernest Lehman; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Alan Crosland Jr.; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Burt Lancaster (J.J. Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsecker), Martin Milner (Steve Dallas), Sam Levene (Frank D’Angelo), Barbara Nichols (Rita), Jeff Donnell (Sally), Joseph Leon (Robard), Edith Atwater (Mary), Emile Meyer (Harry Kello), Joe Frisco (Herbie Temple), David White (Otis Elwell), Lawrence Dobkin (Leo Bartha), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Leo Bartha); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: James Hill; United Artists; 1957)
“A cruelly cynical take on the seamy side of New York City’s swinging nightclub life.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Ealing’s Scottish director Alexander MacKendrick (“Man in the White Suit-1951″/”The Ladykillers-1955”), noted for his comedy films, makes his first American film a lyrical acerbic film noir that is primarily a bitter character study of two despicable men who have no qualms about destroying the lives of others–one to make a buck, the other because he thinks he’s been chosen to be showbiz’s avenging angel. It’s a cruelly cynical take on the seamy side of New York City’s swinging nightclub life, as seen through the eyes of an amoral, selfish, sycophantic, groveling, snakelike press agent, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and his cold-blooded, pompous, self-righteous, megalomaniacal, manipulative, monstrous, underhanded boss, the noted gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). The main characters talk as if they are throwing daggers at each other. Clifford Odets is the screenwriter who takes credit for having his Walter Winchell-like protagonist utter “I love this dirty town!” It’s based on the novelette Tell Me About it Tomorrow by Ernest Lehman (a former Broadway press agent). James Wong Howe’s glossy black-and-white photography corners the market on the Big Apple’s sinister looking nightlife and corrupt celeb hot spots. It’s a dark picture that opens the door for a bleak look at those who speak in riddles, act like vultures, and are “immersed in the theology of a making a fast buck.” Elmer Bernstein’s impressive jazz score and Chico Hamilton’s moody jazz piece, add to the offbeat fireworks surrounding tabloid journalism.
The plot revolves around Hunsecker ordering Falco to breakup the romance of his sweet 19-year-old sister Susie (Susan Harrison) with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a nice young jazz guitarist in Chico Hamilton’s quintet. Big brother is incestuously obsessed with dominating his little sister’s life, who is too weak to fight back. They live together in his luxurious Manhattan apartment. Because Falco hasn’t delivered on his assignment and the lovebirds are planning to marry, Hunsecker has cut Falco off. Falco is willing to do anything to get back in the good graces of the Broadway columnist. The wormy hustler unsuccessfully attempts to blackmail columnist Leo Bartha to print a dirty item on Steve and then pimps off his sultry cigarette girl friend (Barbara Nichols) to another columnist, Otis Elwell, to leak a story about the musician being a marijuana smoker and a member of the Communist Party. This gets Steve’s group fired from the hot Elysian Club and Falco’s dirty tactics succeed in busting up the romance, but the vengeful Hunsecker wants more when he’s taken aback by Steve’s sharp criticism of him as a slimeball who toys with people and is responsible for the scandal and, furthermore, is nothing but a phony patriot. Falco plants marijuana on the musician and the corrupt detective Harry Kello (Emile Meyer), a receiver of favors from the powerful columnist, arrests him as a returned favor.
Hunsecker aptly says of Falco “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” While Steve gets to Hunsecker by saying “You’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels.” Susie eventually confronts big brother when she fully realizes how rotten he is by saying just before she leaves him emotionally crushed: “I’d rather be dead than living with you.” Falco gets dumped on in an even worse manner than his boss, who has no more use for his services when Susie leaves him and tells Kello to arrest Falco for planting the drugs on Steve. Falco is viewed as a pitiful character, less sinister than his boss, despite all the harm he has done to others.
Sweet Smell of Success is a savagely told pulpish tale about those who can’t stand the daylight because it will shine a light on things they don’t want to see about themselves. The film is shot mostly in the dark. When Susie frees herself of big brother and ventures out alone on Broadway during daylight with a suitcase, that symbolizes freedom and independence; walking in the daylight indicates Susie doesn’t need either Steve or her brother around to tell her what to do because she at last can think for herself. She’s the only character who is able to overcome her limits and grow by the film’s conclusion.
REVIEWED ON 2/12/2005 GRADE: A+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/