Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of SuccessSweet Smell of Success poster
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman from a novella by Ernest Lehman
Norma-Curtleigh Productions/Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#341 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Sidney Falco: If I’m gonna go out on a limb for you, I gotta know what’s involved!

J.J. Hunsecker: My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.

This is in the top 50 of my non-existent 100 Greatest Films list.  It has everything – a brilliant screenplay, unforgettable  performances, and exquisite cinematography of the shiny night streets of New York City.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent who lives to get items about his clients into J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) gossip column.  He is a dynamo of ambition who will lie, cheat, steal, and humiliate himself to achieve his goals.  Sidney even goes so low as to pimp his date (Barbara Nichols) to get what he wants.

sweet smell of success 3

As the story starts, J. J. is punishing Sidney for failing to break up a romance between his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and the squarest jazz guitarist on the face of the earth, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).  J.J.’s possessiveness of his sister is of epic proportions, bordering on the sexual.  When Sidney discovers that Susan has agreed to marry the musician, J.J. gives him a second chance to do his dirty work.  With Sam Levene as Dallas’s agent and Emile Meyer as a crooked cop.

sweet smell of success 2

Often I find Odets’s screenplays to be stagy or preachy but this one works perfectly.  It might just be the most quotable movie ever made.  The film is savage in its indictment of the press run amok and ruthless ambition but so enjoyable on so many levels that the medicine goes down painlessly.  The performances are spot-on.  Curtis was never better and Lancaster shows previously unexplored talents in slinging barbs.  New York is a dark and glittering jewel in James Wong Howe’s capable hands and Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score adds to the atmosphere.  Must-see viewing.

Astoundingly, Sweet Smell of Success did poorly at the box office and was totally snubbed by the Academy.

Trailer – cinematography by James Wong Howe

John Landis on Sweet Smell of Success – Trailers from Hell


2 thoughts on “Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

  1. I was so hooked up on the creepiness of Curtis and Lancaster (Was he awesome?!) that only late in the movie did I realize how great the score is. It fits perfectly. And then I started noticing how elegantly the cinematography is done; the angles, the light, the why the characters are positioned to each other. It is a work of pure (or very soiled!) art.

    • I love this movie so much. I don’t think either of the leads ever did better work. It’s amazing that the director came straight out of the Ealing Studio. It really looks like the work of a great auteur.

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