Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Written by Clifford Odets & Ernest Lehman

Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were two big time stars known for their likable hero-type roles, so when Sweet Smell of Success came out in 1957, imagine the surprise to find these two men playing quite unlikable characters. It makes me think of Henry Fonda and his role as the evil Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. And like when I saw that film, I was not experienced enough in either Lancaster or Curtis’ work to feel the full shock. I had only seen a much older Lancaster in his great role as “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams and Curtis in the amazing Some Like It Hot, opposite both Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent who makes his money feeding columnists with leads for good stories. He is a good friends with once such columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who is the preeminent gossip and Broadway columnist. Falco is growing tired of their relationship and J.J.’s failure to use his leads despite his promises. However, J.J. convinces Sidney to break up the romance of his kid sister, Susie, with a jazz guitarist (Martin Milner). In this ploy, J.J. gets his way without alienating his beloved sister Susie, and Sidney gets in the good graces of J.J.

What a spectacular find, and once again thanks to TCM. I know now of the reputation that this film carries, but despite my love of film there are certain greats and/or classics that slip through the cracks and go unnoticed by me until that wonderful sensation of self-discovery, even if in retrospect it has been beloved by many for the years since its release 54 years ago. I loved Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams, in fact his scene was my favorite in the film, which is one of my favorites. But here the legend grows. Watching Lancaster was like some kind of epiphany. His stature and confidence are daring and entertaining to watch. Do not cross the mighty J.J. Hunsecker, and that is all thanks to the brilliant work by Lancaster. Tony Curtis is a fun noir main character too, but it is hard for him to shine in any scene in which he shares the screen with Lancaster.

The immediacy of the proceedings really struck me as the attribute that made the film flow and tick as well as it did. The pacing is really solid and brisk for this 96 minute noir. The seemingly breakneck pace, without the inclusion of any overt action scenes is a testament to the story and screenplay and the directors ability to handle it all so nicely. And what a great mood piece. With the jazz music used prominently throughout, the mood shifts from light and airy to grave serious effortlessly, which is one of the main reasons this film just seems so fresh and pristine to me. The last compliment I will throw on the production would be the lighting. The use of shadows to shoot the scenes was amazing and really added to what the score was already doing in setting the mood.

I have been layering on praise for this film, and deservedly so, I really loved it, but I also want to make the connection to the fact that it was a surprise for me. Even when I had learned about it and saw it was coming on TCM, I did not build up any expectations, and mostly just because my experience with Lancaster and Curtis was so limited, and because I had never heard of director Alexander Mackendrick. It is hard to truly evaluate it at this point, but given my reaction I have no other expectation but to fall in love even more with this film the further I distance myself from it, and once again when I finally revisit it. There is definitely a reason why I love movies.


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