Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – An offbeat and ruthless masterpiece from Alexander Mackendrick

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British director Alexander Mackendrick cut his teeth making some delightful comedies at the famous Ealing Studios in London. Some of the most notable ones are The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit, two favorites of mine. After the studio closed down, he moved to Hollywood and made one of the greatest (yet overlooked) film noirs ever made, Sweet Smell of Success. This was a major transition for the director who, as I’ve mentioned above, was used to making comedies. But some of them were dark comedies and even though this isn’t a comedy, he brought some of those dark elements here as well, only more amplified.

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J.J Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster) is one of the most powerful columnists in New York. He has the ability to make or break people’s lives with his pen. Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis) is a slimy press agent who works for Hunsecker. Falco is feeling agitated because he was ordered by Hunsecker to break up the romance between his sister Susan (played by Susan Harrison) and a jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (played by Martin Milner), and has now displeased him because he has failed to make good on that promise. Falco is now unable to get his clients to feature in Hunsecker’s newspaper. Hunsecker gives him one more chance and this time, a desperate Falco comes up with a wretched plan to discredit Dallas.

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Sweet Smell of Success is fundamentally a story about puppets and puppeteers, manipulators and the manipulated, tyrants and sycophants . Here, the puppeteer is Hunsecker and everyone inhabiting his world are the puppets, which include his sister Susan, Dallas and Falco. It’s also about the dark side of tabloid journalism – it’s power to destroy people’s lives. Hunsecker and Falco are a couple of self-interested and vile human beings who would do anything – including manipulating people close to them – to get what they need. Hunsecker is the tyrant and Falco is the sycophant. The only characters who actually resemble human beings with genuine human emotions are Dallas and Susan, who are caught up in this web of treachery and deceit woven by Hunsecker and Falco. Well, primarily Hunsecker. It’s clearly not a film that was designed to make people feel comfortable.

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The film was not well-received upon initial release. Both Lancaster and Curtis were cast entirely against type and audiences found their characters a little hard to digest. They were used to seeing them play more likable characters. Lancaster and Curtis had previously played mentor-protege in another film called Trapeze which came out the previous year. But the characters they played were relatively different from the ones they played here. Lancaster spews venom in every scene he is in. This is one of the most despicable characters in motion picture history. The experience of playing a character like Falco encouraged Curtis to take on more similarly daring roles in the future.

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The dialogues are scintillating and razor-sharp. They are the sort of lines that can possibly be framed and hung on your wall. My favorite is: “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” And I cannot stress enough the mastery that cinematographer James Wong Howe has displayed here. This is black-and-white photography at it’s finest. It’s rich, vivid and beautifully portrays the murky world the characters are inhabiting.

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