SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Review by Gordon Justesen
Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Marty Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara
Nichols, Jeff Donnell, The Chico Hamilton Quintet
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: February 22, 2011
“I love this dirty town.”
Whenever I finally get around to watching a film that has been labeled a classic for so long, I'm always troubled by the possibility that I won't exactly end up mesmerized as I'm told I should be. There's always that chance that one generation simply won't appreciate a piece of art as much as the generation who experienced it first hand. I happen to know people who can't seem to understand why films such as Casablanca or Citizen Kane are considered the masterful classics that they are.
But in the case of 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, that wasn't a problem for me whatsoever. Anyone who has a serious love for films will be able to appreciate this film in a heartbeat. It was a watershed film for its time, and the events in the story are more relevant today than were more than 50 years ago when it was first released.
The fractured relationship between celebrities and gossip columnists was in existence long before the late 50s, but this biting satire from Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick was the first major release to depict it. Mackendrick, along with screenwriters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, applied a take-no-prisoners approach to this story in which scheming and backstabbing are a daily occurrence. And by the end of the film, we are left with a simple question: who exactly possesses the most power, the stars or the journalists who cover them?
We are immediately introduced to Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent for the Broadway scene. Though it would appear in the opening scenes that Falco is the man with all the inside scoop on all the stars New York has to offer, nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, he is a puppet on strings being controlled by a much powerful figure.
The puppet master in question is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), Broadway's most powerful and feared gossip columnist. His words can make a star as well as break them, sometimes even within a 24 hour period. Falco is his personal hound dog, hunting down the inside word on all of Broadway's popular stars and starlets and then feeding them back Hunsecker's way so that any damaging details can make it into the next issue of The Globe.
And Hunsecker's introductory scene, in which he sits across a table from a politician and his mistress and proves just how damaging his words can be, is a masterful establishing of a villainous character (one that was actually listed on the AFI's Top Villains of All Time). He is very much the Gordon Gecko of the gossip beat. He knows everything about everyone, and is never hesitant to end someone's career in a heartbeat, which he is very capable of doing.
But Hunsecker's ruthlessness doesn't just end with celebrities, once he reveals his latest assignment for Falco. Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), is currently seeing a nightclub guitar player named Steve (Martin Milner). He dispatches Falco to monitor the two and see to it that their relationship ends soon. Falco, being the desperate type he is, agrees to the job in a heartbeat.
In fact, desperation is exactly what motivates Falco's every action. He carries a certain charm about himself (as only an actor like Tony Curtis can provide), which does indeed help in disguising his mischievous antics, as established in an early scene where he encourages a cigarette girl from the nightclub to go along with a sex proposition in order to avoid blackmail. He does go a bit too far, but if it promises him a future position like that of Hunsecker's, Falco is willing to do it.
By far, the most intriguing aspect of Sweet Smell of Success is the mere notion that its two lead characters, played by two of the biggest actors of the time, are completely unlikable. Of course, we are always reminded which of the two is more despicable, as Falco's shady and hurtful maneuvers are overshadowed by Hunsecker's every action in a heartbeat. How rare it must have been for a such a film to get made in 1957, and I could only imagine how frantic the studio must have been knowing that they were bankrolling a film with barely any likeable characters and a scathing view of the entertainment field.
At the same time, who could have predicted that what was being presented in the film would remain relevant more than 50 years later? With celebrities constantly being hunted down by paparazzi and gracing the cover of all the tabloid magazines in existence, Mackendrick, Odets and Lehman may have just as well been secretly predicting the future. Of course, nobody at the time knew that a future invention known as the internet would take this whole thing to a whole new level.
Another important element of the film is the astounding cinematography provided by one of the greats in the field, James Wong Howe. The Black and White photography, still used quite a bit at the time but was nonetheless being upstaged by the increasing popularity of color, adds such a great deal of impact to the film (not to mention perfectly mirroring its mood) that it simply wouldn't have the same effect if shot in the opposite format. And Mackendrick ended up executing a number of camera maneuvers that captured New York City in a way never before seen, thus resulting in many stunning images.
Though there have been a number of equally scathing satires of the entertainment industry in the years following, Sweet Smell of Success remains one of the all time best, if not THE best. It was revolutionary for its time, and the themes depicted are, again, more relevant today than ever. It's the sort of film that would be difficult to get made these days, unless a pure Hollywood power player got behind it...and quite frankly, I'd like to see one get made again!
A classic Black and White film in the hands of Criterion pretty much spells out astounding quality. That is certainly once again the case with this marvelous looking Blu-ray release. I mentioned how important the cinematography of this film is, and believe me when I tell you that when viewed through the 1080p, your visual sense will be twice as stunned. Although there are instances of picture flaws that couldn't have been cured in the restoration process (a noticeable vertical line during an early phone conversation), this is one of the most astounding presentations I've ever seen of a film from the late 50s. Everything from the interior of the nightclub (a crucial set piece) to the legendary capturing of the streets of NYC will have you doing double takes just to remind yourself what you're watching. The image detail is purely magnificent, and if you have never seen this film before (as was the case with me), are you ever so in for a treat. Far and away, a brilliant reference disc in terms of Black and White in HD.
The PCM Mono mix does manage to accomplish quite a bit. Though first and foremost a dialogue heavy film, the music that accompanies every moment in the nightclub, courtesy of The Chico Hamilton Quintet, is very much a crucial character in and of itself. The delivery of the music's every vocal, drumbeat and bass note is captured quite rivetingly. The balance between it and the dialogue exchanges couldn't be more flawless. And every word of the brilliant dialogue is delivered superbly, without any hint of distortion. All in all, about as brilliant as you could ever hope to hear a film from this time period!
As always, Criterion delivers a line up of supplements that simply can't be beat. First off, the packaging is stellar across the boards, with a cardboard foldout packaging encased in a knockout cover case. The cover art is also very eye-catching. As far as extras go, we kick things off with a most informative commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore, and after listening to him I'm more than convinced that he is the most knowledgeable individual of this film to ever exist! Next up, and by far the single best extra on here, is the riveting documentary from 1986 titled “Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away”, which is one of the most revealing behind the scenes specials you will ever see. It digs deep into the making of the film, which had its share of difficulties, in addition to exploring why the filmmaker ended up leaving the industry after only a few films. Then there's “James Wong Howe: Cinematographer”, which features extensive interview material with the Oscar-winning DP. “Gabler on Winchell”, which was specifically shot for this release, features film critic Neal Gabler offering a discussion of famed journalist Walter Winchell, the very figure who inspired the character of J.J. Hunsecker. There's also a video interview with director James Mangold (Identity, 3:10 to Yuma), who reflects on what he learned from Mackendrick when he taught at CalArts University. Rounding things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer.
And it wouldn't be a Criterion release without a glorious insert booklet, and this one is for the ages. We get a nearly super sized booklet featuring an essay from critic Gary Giddins, as well as two short stories about the film and several notes from screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and an excerpt about Clifford Odets courtesy of Mackendrick's own book, “On Film-Making”, which features an introduction by the book's editor, Paul Cronin.
As I mentioned earlier, Sweet Smell of Success is a film that deserves to be seen at some point by all film lovers. It's rare that a film is both groundbreaking at the time of its release and remains ever so relevant more than 50 years down the line. This film is one of those rare instances, and deserves to be re-discovered now more than ever thanks to this brilliant Blu-ray release courtesy of the fine folks at Criterion!