Film Review: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Release Date: June 27th, 1957
Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
Written by: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Based on: Sweet Smell of Success by Ernest Lehmen
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene

Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” – Sidney Falco

Sweet Smell of Success teamed up Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, who also served as one of the film’s producers. We also get powerful performances from the sweet Susan Harrison and the cool Martin Milner, who is believable as a jazz guitarist.

The film revolves around an older brother (Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, a well respected newspaper columnist) that disapproves of his sister’s boyfriend and puts in motion a very complicated and layered scheme just to try and break the couple up. He bullies Manhattan press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) into planting a false rumor about the jazz guitarist boyfriend that paints him as a dope-smoking Communist. Hunsecker would then try to rescue the boyfriend’s reputation and assuming that his help would be rejected by the jazz man, his sister would then see the guitarist as a loser and leave him. Of course, this is film-noir and things never play out well for the schemers.

One thing that really stands out with this film is the dialogue. It is a well written script that is witty and feels authentic. When the characters speak, they don’t just sound like classic silver screen archetypes of some bygone era of overly dramatic Hollywood gum flappers. Characters are written as characters that come off as extensions of the actors themselves and not just cookie cutter lines that could be spoken by any handsome star available. It feels as if there was some real method acting on the part of the cast, as well as on set rewrites or ad libbing.

Expanding off of that, the acting is absolutely superb and this should be a primer on how to carry scenes. The stuff with Curtis and Lancaster is amazing. Harrison also impresses, especially in the scenes where she plays alongside the two male leads. The film’s finale is so well acted and plays out magnificently. Your heart breaks for Harrison’s Susan, as the consequences of the two men’s actions ruin her life and push her towards suicidal thoughts.

Serious props have to go to Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, the writers, for giving these great actors something exceptional to work with. The directorial work of Alexander Mackendrick, also can’t go unmentioned. He was an accomplished man behind the camera and this may be his best work, even though he boasts some well known pictures in his filmography: The LadykillersWhisky Galore! and The Man In the White Suit, just to name a few.

With all the talent in front of the camera, behind it and on the typewriter, there was also a great man in charge of the picture’s cinematography: James Wong Howe. He is an artist that received ten Academy Awards nominations for his cinematography work. He specialized in deep-focus cinematography and was a real artist with his use of shadows and a chiaroscuro style. He actually went on to win two Oscars for his work on The Rose Tattoo and Hud.

At its core, this is both a film about amoral people and the wreckage they cause, as well as being an artistic dissection of fame and the power of the media. It was a film ahead of its time and its message still rings true today. The film has aged well and fame hungry weirdos should probably learn the lessons that are taught here. However, morality lessons would probably be over the heads of most of those people.

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