Monday 24 June 2019

Movie Review: Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)

A drama about the power of the press deployed for all the wrong reasons, Sweet Smell Of Success is a messy but still potent treatise on misplaced priorities.

In New York City, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a sleazy publicist who has been frozen out by influential show business newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). The cold-hearted Hunsecker is unhappy that Sidney has been unable to break up the budding romance between J.J.'s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).

Berated by his clients, almost broke and desperate to get back into Hunsecker's good books, Sidney pulls out all the stops and plants a false rumour about Steve with a rival newspaper columnist. This triggers a confrontation between Steve and J.J., with unexpected consequences.

Sweet Smell Of Success features a free-wheeling, always-on-the-move style riding the energy of New York City after dark, a city that never sleeps because vile men spend the night plotting. An adaptation of an Ernest Lehman novella with the character of J.J. Hunsecker inspired by the real-life columnist Walter Winchell, the film boasts dialogue rich with insults, put-downs, threats and sarcasm as dark-hearted rivals outmaneuver each other in a sordid world of their own making.

While the story's essence of a wicked man attempting to derail his sister's romance is relatively lightweight, crazed dynamism is derived from a chaotic production which had filming start before the script was ready. Pages of the Clifford Odets screenplay went instantaneously from typewriter to set, and the result is a torrent of characters and factoids, some relevant and others not so much, drifting in and out of scenes, adding plenty of ambience and realism but also disorienting narrative dizziness.

Director Alexander Mackendrick makes the most of the anarchy and maintains focus on two men utterly lacking in scruples. Falco and Hunsecker are obsessed with their own self-interest, the publicist a say-anything hustler and the columnist a power broker in a business built on his whispers and innuendo. Neither men should matter at all in a rational society, but this is show business in New York City, where careers are made or destroyed with a few words published in the right column.

The unattached Hunsecker's incestuous obsession with his sister is strongly hinted at, and Lancaster brings to the role a chilling empathetic blankness highlighted by the most perfectly fitting browline glasses. Tony Curtis enjoys a dramatic role, losing his morality in the sudoriferous sewers as Falco prostitutes a cigarette girl, arranges a blackmail sting, then peddles career-destroying drugs-and-communism lies, all within a couple of nights.

The lovers Susan and Steve are the pure couple, and unsurprisingly, the most boring characters in this story. Nor should they expect any noble help from the authorities: Lt. Harry Kello (Emile Meyer) of the New York police is not much more than a freelancing goon-for-hire.

Sweet Smell Of Success condemns malevolent journalism and the men who enable it, but does so with undisguised relish.

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