Sweet Smell of Success

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In Sweet Smell of Success, one of the nastiest, most delightfully acid-tongued indictments of the press ever burned onto the silver screen, a black-hearted Broadway gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) schools a desperate young press agent (Tony Curtis) in the fine art of corruption, and the result is a noir-tinged tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Famed Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, West Side Story) drew upon his own experiences as a Broadway press agent to write the infamously lacerating short story “Tell Me About Tomorrow,” which he then adapted into an equally-vicious screenplay with the help of playwright Clifford Odets. The ironically titled drama Sweet Smell of Success, directed by British filmmaker Alexander MacKendrick (The Ladykillers), is a damning portrait of human nature gone sour, a unique noir/thriller/melodrama hybrid fueled by Lehman and Odets’ gloriously syncopated dialogue, which is so mercilessly cutting it leaves the impression that every word is etched in sulfuric acid.
Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster, following up his Oscar-nominated role in From Here to Eternity, dominates the film as the ruthless, iron-willed New York gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (a character modeled after real-life gossip writer Walter Winchell), a man so corrupted by power that he happily destroys both friends and enemies alike from behind his table at Club 21. When fast-talking, opportunistic young press agent Sydney Falco (played by up-and-coming star Tony Curtis) falls under J.J.’s merciless spell, he becomes an all-too-willing willing pawn who carries out his mentor’s every dirty deed with eager relish, that is until things go just a bit too far. While Success did not initially smell success at the box office, it is now regarded as the very model of street-smart cinematic cynicism. The electric performances of the stars are matched by taut direction, the jazzy score of Elmer Bernstein, and the evocative nocturnal camerawork of James Wong Howe, who beautifully captures all of the seedy and seductive charms of 1950s Manhattan nightlife. Simply put, this is one of the most enjoyably unpleasant films ever made. (Alexander MacKendrick, 1957, USA, 96 mins., Not Rated) Digital