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Sunday, June 03, 2018

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success is one of the great movies about New York City. It also has some of the best dialogue you'll ever hear, one of the most quotable films ever. You may want to take a shower after seeing it, though, because the two lead characters are amoral, but highly entertaining.

The film was written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, and directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Released in 1957, it bombed at the box office--I imagine people were turned off by the naked venality of it. But over time it has become regarded as a classic. I certainly think it is.

Sweet Smell of Success stars Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker (his company produced it) as a popular gossip columnist, along the lines of Walter Winchell (who wasn't happy with it). He has a lot of power--he can make or break someone--and relishes it. But he's also kind of twisted. He has a much younger sister who lives him and it's a creepy relationship.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a hustling press agent who constantly has to suck up to Lancaster to get items in his column for his clients. He is at Lancaster's beck and call, and Lancaster enjoys humiliating him, even making him light his cigarettes ("Match me, Sidney"). Lancaster has engaged Curtis to break up the relationship between his sister and a jazz guitarist (Marty Milner), but Curtis has failed, and is being punished by having no items printed, which is making Curtis' clients mad.

So Curtis has a new plan, which involves some twists and turns and doing some horrible things, such as pimping out his girlfriend (Barbara Nichols) to get an item in another man's column. When Lancaster decides he wants to ruin Milner, Curtis refuses an act, but relents when Lancaster offers him a plum role.

Everything about this film is entrancing. The black and white photography by the great James Wong Howe makes the city seem like another character. At one point Lancaster looks out at the lights of Times Square from this terrace, and you can tell he is thinking "This is my town." The lenses of Lancaster's glasses were smeared with Vaseline so that Lancaster wouldn't be able to focus his eyes, which gives him a blank stare that, given his actions, make him seem even more evil.

Both men are terrific. This was Curtis' first role that required good acting, as he had mostly been a pretty boy before. He's coiled with rage. A secretary who is Curtis' some-time lover is a classic brow-beaten woman, who loves him and stands by but takes constant verbal abuse. Lancaster, usually playing heroes, portrays one of the most despicable men in film history, but Curtis is no better. "I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Lancaster tells Curtis. "You're a cookie full of arsenic."

The one part of the movie I don't buy is Milner's character. He is acts like an Eagle Scout, with integrity ("What's integrity?" Lancaster asks). That's fine, but there's no way a jazz guitarist in the 1950s would be that righteous. They should have given him some other profession.

Don't watch Sweet Smell of Success to feel good about yourself. Watch it to see the lights of Times Square, and revel in the erudite patter of two human monsters.

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