IMDB #219 Sweet Smell Of Success

It’s time for the long-awaited, breathlessly anticipated, months overdue next installment in the top 250! Our entry for today is 1957’s Sweet Smell Of Success, a ‘film noir’ about surprisingly low stakes, at least by modern standards. Read all about it!

The Key Players:

Our master of ceremonies is a fellow by the name of Alexander MacKendrick, whom someone on imdb describes as “one of the most distinguished (if frequently overlooked) directors ever,” paradoxical as that may seem. He directed the fondly remembered (and poorly remade by the Coen brothers) The Ladykillers in 1955 before moving from Britain to Hollywood to try his hand at directing big Hollywood stars. A perfectionist, he clashed with the film’s producers, and was fired a month into his next studio project, The Devil’s Disciple, and finished his career as a freelancer.

One of those producers was star Burt Lancaster- most famous for kissing Deborah Kerr on a beach in From Here To Eternity, he won a lone Oscar out of four nominations for 1960’s Elmer Gantry. The only thing I’ve seen him in before, I’m afraid, was the obscure Birdman Of Alcatraz in which he plays a bird-keeping inmate, but that’s late night PBS for you.

Tony Curtis, a few years before playing a pretty-boy slave, is our real star, despite second billing. An icon that we will doubtlessly encounter again, Curtis is a versatile talent that won laughs in drag with Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, garnered an Oscar nomination for being chained to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, and popularized the fifties “duckbill,” bangs-in-the-eyes hairstyle that Elvis himself would imitate. He’s also the father of Jamie Lee Curtis, if that does anything for you.

Our cast is otherwise full of several faces most famous for their appearance in this film, and Chico Hamilton as himself.

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The Story:

Curtis stars as Sidney Falco, press agent to the New York elite- he works out of a small office connected to his small apartment- the office is staffed by a classically film noir naïve secretary, who he yells at all the time.

He spends his days grinning like a fool and running all over the city to get on the good side of J. J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), a gossip columnist with everyone’s careers and social status in his hands. Hunsecker holds court at nightclub tables like a steel-gazed king, dismissing hopefuls with a wave of his hand and rebuking a visiting U. S. senator without blinking.

The key to our plot is Hunsecker’s unhealthy attachment to his younger sister- he’s basically ordered Falco to break her up with her boyfriend, a jazz quartet leader, so that nothing comes between them, and Falco’s failure to do so means his clients' continued absence from the column.

So it’s all a matter a wheeling and dealing in classic film-noir style, but for newsprint inches instead of drugs and assassinations. It took me a little while to get into it (it would help if anyone was likeable beyond the waifish women we’re left with), but it’s paced as well as any mystery. Falco uses a put-upon cigarette-girl to bribe a different columnist into printing that the boyfriend is a communist (and, gasp!, smokes “reefer”).

The accusation leads to a legit reason for Hunsecker to dislike the boyfriend, without alienating the sister, at least in theory. But really, he’s just a tyrant that then feels the need to take things too far.

The Artistry:

Shadows, music, plot- all pretty standard, I suppose. But I thoroughly enjoyed the dynamic between Lancaster and Curtis- they wove beautifully between conspirators, adversaries, and king/jester type interplay the entire time. You almost wish the sister related shenanigans didn’t dominate the story, since the gossip business is more interesting.

There’s a great, small part, where Curtis charms a secretary into seeing the column early- he spots a plug for a comedian that’s there just because Lancaster liked the act, so he finds the comedian, pretends to call Lancaster on his behalf to get him in the column, and gains a new, paying client in the process.

Not to mention the dialogue:

-"Harvey, I often wish I were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men."

-"If it's true, JJ's gonna hit the ceiling."
-"Can it be news to you that JJ's ceiling needs a new plaster job every six weeks?"

-"Mr. Hunsecker, you've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!"


The boyfriend yells at Hunsecker, who then determines to crush the guy just because he can. He employs Falco, once again (who never grows a consicence during this whole process), to plant some actual “reefer” on the guy, and tips off two corrupt cops to bring him down- they of course rough him up first, putting him in the hospital.

The sister is distraught, and Falco arrives just in time to stop her from throwing herself from a balcony. Hunsecker arrives at just that moment, of course, and rather than admit that she would try such a thing, accuses Falco of trying to force himself on her. The sister (gleaning Falco’s obvious involvement in her boyfriend’s arrest), says nothing to dispute this idea.

So Hunsecker, enraged, tells the police that Falco planted the drugs from before, Falco gets beaten up and arrested himself. Hunsecker’s sister, however, leaves for good to be with what’s his face.

Let that be a lesson, kids, contrived machinations to get gossip column space or keep loved ones from moving on just don’t pay. Like I said, I kept expecting events to naturally escalate into a murder plot, or to at least culminate in an accidental death of some sort.

As it is, it’s sort of a muted result, since the sister has really known the whole film that her brother is a monster (and you just get impatient for her to grow a spine), and Falco began the film falling from grace, anyway (and you just get impatient for him to hit bottom).


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I can’t say I feel the need to own it, or place it high on all-time lists. But it was an enjoyable showcase for two great actors I’m not familiar with (Curtis had maybe, what, six lines in all of Spartacus?). Let’s settle at slightly lower.

The Legacy:

You’ve got your standard National Film Registry inclusion, your becoming-increasingly-standard stage musical adaptation, and your not-standard-at-all homage in Barry Levinson’s Diner, in which a character wanders around saying nothing but quotes of this film.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

For once, YouTube fails me. The most anyone has posted of Sweet Smell Of Success is five clips from user sendit999 that are just there to ogle the sister's mink coat.

Instead, here's a drama club recreation of a scene between Hunsecker and Falco that I would embed if it were around, if only for the line where, after a few tense seconds of angry silence, we get the great rebuke: "Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance: to promise."

Leftover Thoughts:

-As an aspiring writer myself, it would behoove me to focus on screenwriters more: today's entry was written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (Oscar nominated writer of Sabrina and North By Northwest).

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