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Sweet Smell Of Success
cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Martin Milner, and Susan Harrison

director: Alexander Mackendrick

96 minutes (PG) 1957 MGM DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
Sweet Smell Of Success focuses on New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who has been asked by newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) to carry out a special assignment: break up the relationship between Hunsecker's little sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her boyfriend Steve (Martin Milner). However, upon failing in this task, Falco finds himself frozen out from column and at the whim of the powerful J.J. Realising that succeeding in his assigned task is the only way of pacifying J.J., Sidney once again attempts to break up the young couple; this time, employing a particularly cunning plot. As Hunsecker's instructions take an especially amoral turn, Sidney's conscience momentarily kicks in but, upon being offered control of the column during J.J.'s vacation, Sidney quickly comes round to the new plan of action.

The world presented within this film is one of power and corruption, conveying both the glamour and the seedy underbelly of city life. This is illustrated partly using noir visuals, with the film frequently employing images of bright lights shining in the rain-soaked streets, and crowded nightclubs populated by showbiz wannabes. Indeed, the film takes almost entirely at night, when the avaricious and fame-hungry city dwellers come out to play, and succeeds in juxtaposing the glitz and the ruthlessness of the setting: on the surface, the places and people might appear enviable, yet when we delve deeper, we can see that the glossy surface is a façade. The brassy jazz score that is prominent throughout adds to the atmosphere immeasurably, as does the crisp black and white photography. Overall, the world that we are presented with is certainly reprehensible in many respects, yet it also has an undeniable vibrancy that allows one to appreciate Hunsecker's statement, "I love this dirty city."
on the street - Sweet Smell of Success on the phone - Sweet Smell of Success
The script is, without doubt, a key element in creating the film's unique style, containing quick-fire dialogue that is original, witty, memorable and quotable. Lines such as "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river" and "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried" might not sound as impressive in real life, but in the context of this film and from the mouths of these characters, they seem natural and believable. Of course, this is also a testament to the actors; most notably Lancaster and Curtis. As Hunsecker (a thinly-veiled caricature of real-life columnist Walter Winchell), Lancaster has crafted a memorable cinematic villain and we can easily believe that he is someone who can make or break a person's career with a click of his fingers. Crucially, he also plays the role with restraint, projecting a cold, collected demeanour that makes Hunsecker all the more menacing. Tony Curtis, meanwhile, oozes charisma as Falco and it is easy to imagine him as a press agent. As Hunsecker so aptly puts it: "I wouldn't want to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie filled with arsenic." Falco may have dubious morals but his silver-tongued charm ensures that he can bring people round to his way of thinking and appears appealingly cheeky rather than malevolent. Together, he and Lancaster form a wonderful double-act, with Falco coming across as an excitable dog at his master's beck and call. Conversely, the supposed protagonists are bland and their love story thoroughly insipid. As such, it is hard not to find oneself guiltily liking the immoral yet charming Falco, and the viewer is thus forced to question their own morality.

Despite being made during a time when the Hays code ruled over Hollywood, the film still manages to convey the seediness of the character's lifestyles: in one scene, Falco uses his charm in order to induce a cigarette girl into prostituting herself in order to advance his own scheme, while another shows him planting marijuana on Steve before informing the police that Steve is carrying drugs. Then there is the whole dubious issue of Hunsecker's rather unnatural obsession with his sister. As such, the film could be seen as quite daring for the time, prefiguring the following year's Touch Of Evil in several respects. It also moves along at a brisk pace; again, reflecting the industry that the characters work in. As there is a lot going on in the storyline, it is a film that requires some concentration in order to keep up with it - but, as the story is so engrossing, this is not too demanding. It also contains an interesting twist at the end so that, like Hunsecker, the film itself could be said to have "more twists than a barrel of pretzels."

In conclusion, Sweet Smell Of Success stands alongside, and no doubt influenced, such films as Wall Street (1987) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), providing a scathing look at greed and immorality and illustrating the effect that this has on those who become entwined in such a world. It might have a slight air of morality in that the villains are not allowed to prosper, yet the ending does not appear cosy or clichéd and there is no catharsis. As a whole, the film is well acted, tightly scripted and, due to the continued power of the press, still relevant. Indeed, whereas some other films from this period may seem rather twee and dated, Sweet Smell Of Success remains as sharp, witty and biting today as it was back in 1957.

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