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Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A sour but compelling study of naked greed on the streets of Manhattan, Sweet Smell of Success excels in its script, photography and performances. On the so-late-it's-early streets of the city, press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) grabs a copy of the early edition New York Globe. Ripping out the heart of the paper, he scans J.J. Hunsecker's (Burt Lancaster) column and discards the rest. As the most powerful hack in New York, and possibly the country, getting J.J. to mention a client puts bread on Falco's table. Unfortunately just lately he's been frozen out of the loop and Falco knows exactly why; J.J. "suggested" that Falco help him out in the small matter of his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and Falco failed to deliver. She's still seeing rising jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and J.J's mad.

Back at his apartment-office Falco is badgered by disgruntled clients, provoking him in turn to browbeat his faithful secretary. Thinking furiously he decides that his attempt to break up Susan and Steve has foundered dismally, which spells bad news. Once J.J. has decided to cut off an agent from the vital air of publicity he is utterly unyielding; Falco has no choice but to move onto more ruthless methods. In a smoky and intimate jazz club he spots Steve performing with his quintet, watched with appreciation by his manager Frank D'Angelo (Sam Levene). However from cigarette-girl Rita (Barbara Nichols) Falco learns that Susan is waiting outside for her young love, eagerly awaiting the intermission. By the time he finds her it's too late; the couple are passionately embracing and show no signs of stopping.

By now desperate, Falco rudely drags Susan away and forever makes an enemy of straight-talking Steve. Bluntly probing into the status of her relationship he comes to realise that it's far worse than he'd ever feared; Steve has proposed and 19-year-old Susan looks primed to accept. With his brain feverishly testing and tossing out potential solutions, Falco hits upon possibly the biggest gamble of his career. By leaking to J.J. the severity of the situation he might be able to switch this defeat into his greatest victory; it's a high-stakes throw but Falco is willing to use any and everyone to win this hand. J.J. almost repels Falco out of hand, from instinct, but at the last moment sweeps a few scraps from his table. Everyone's got to live somehow, even publicists.

A stunning dip into the cesspool of urban decay, Sweet Smell of Success places a pair of searing performances as its compass points. In the north sits Hunsecker, almost in state as a parade of politicians, stars and wannabes pass by his table. Dismissing the majority with a cut-short comment, Hunsecker wields the power to make or break people; unfortunately compassion is an unknown land for J.J, with victims being destroyed on a whim. In opposition squats Falco, along with everyone else who has to pander to columnists like Hunsecker. Constantly reminded of his lesser status, Falco dreams of one day ascending to J.J's lofty heights. In the meantime he'll do whatever it takes to gain J.J's transient approval. Hence the two are inextricably linked, united in a marriage of convenience and mutual amorality.

The difference between the two is that while Hunsecker is able to display a hard-edge, cruelly insulting his pawns, Falco must cast a face of charm upon those he needs. Thus Lancaster plays his writer as irredeemably reptilian, repressed to the brink of meltdown and thoroughly heartless. He claims to care only for Susan but this is no sibling affection; he wishes to dominate her, to have her and to deny her from others. The overtones to Lancaster's manipulation of his kid sister are bone chilling. Strikingly the only human light to emerge from this darkness comes from Harrison herself; she provides the emotional counterpoint within Sweet Smell of Success, innocent yet aware of her brother's unscrupulous nature. As the one thing which J.J. wants more than life itself, yet cannot take, she puffs out her role respectably.

Matching Lancaster for sleaze, Curtis casts his feelings outwards in Sweet Smell of Success. Constantly wringing his hands and nervously ducking verbal slaps, Falco is slimy and utterly self-centred. In his eyes gleams intelligence, street smarts warped by the twisted mould of his chosen career. Looking to escape a low-grade background he'll step on anyone, even so-called friends like Rita, on his journey up the ladder. It is in these supporting roles that the true nastiness of Falco is revealed; quick with a bright smile he uses Nichols and Milner. In different ways they are both honest and decent, sucked into the Manhattan swamp. It is, however, telling that they ultimately allow themselves to be corrupted. No one escapes this urban jungle unchanged.

Technically Sweet Smell of Success shines like a beacon, albeit one shrouded in gleaming wet streets and harsh neon tubes. Featuring cinematography by James Wong Howe, the look is defined by crisp contrasts and deep pools of shadow. With infinite menace faces loom in and out of the darkness, lit up to enhance their contours and emotional state. New York has rarely looked so beautiful and yet so fake; those on the way up party into oblivion, briefly leaving behind the stench of failure. Bumping up these stakes is Elmer Bernstein's score, stirring Broadway and jazz into a potent musical soup. Perfectly matched to the pace of the story, these tunes distinguish an already excellent picture.

And then, of course, there's the dialogue. Sharp and scorching, it's a storm of quotable remarks, bleak cynicism and corrosive asides. Despite lines which might appear unwieldy when taken out of context, the words flow beautifully within Sweet Smell of Success. Catchy enough to be a part of that particular scene (night-clubs, hotels and typewriters), the meaning of J.J. and Falco's phrases is obvious. It all combines beautifully, highlighting the breathtaking arrogance of the two but never giving them a soft-focus in some misguided attempt at sympathy. These are bitterly cold figures and Alexander Mackendrick doesn't let us forget it. With tight control over every aspect of Sweet Smell of Success, his attempt at film noir is a riveting success.

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