SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, ALEXANDER MACKENDRICK, 1957
Sweet Smell of Success is one of many in a long line of New York City masterpieces. It captures not only the high traffic sprawl, but also the culture and especially the seedy underbelly. In this case the sludge is the press, and is based on the life of Walter Winchell, one of the earliest and most influential gossip reporters. He had a massive following, seemingly limitless power, and according to many, was completely unscrupulous, unethical, and would use people and spit them out, building and destroying lives and careers.
Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis star in this vehicle, with Lancaster as the Winchell-inspired reporter named J.J. Hunsecker, and Curtis plays Sidney Falco, the smarmy press agent that thinks of little other than climbing the ladder to success. He is at the columnist’s mercy, since being locked out of the column would mean the end for him. In order to curry favor, he goes the extra mile by trying to split up the relationship of Hunsecker’s sister with a local musician. He is blackballed in the papers until he succeeds in the division, and none of his actions can trace back to Hunsecker.
There was a lot of talent behind this picture. Alexander Mackendrick was an unrecognized genius, known for making a handful of successful pictures for Ealing Studios. This was his first American film, and even though he was not equipped to handle the Hollywood-style kill-or-be-killed environment, he managed to pull off an amazing film. His success would not last as he would be fired from his next product. The writing was based on stories by Ernest Lehman, which were thinly veiled to be about Winchell, and the best parts of the screenplay were penned by playwright Clifford Odets. The rapid fire and biting dialog that occurs between the two larger-than-life characters was mostly the product of Odets and his constant rewriting. The result was a tightly-written and quickly-paced pictures, especially since it is mostly dialog driven. On top of all this talent, was James Wong Howe, cinematographer extraordinaire, who through Mackendrick’s vision, captured New York City like no other.
Appropriately for the subject, the style and tone resembles a film noir, only without the typical stereotypes of the genre. There are no private detectives or unsolved murders at the core of the story. Compared with the noirs of the era, the plot is actually quite mundane, mostly about the rivalry and dependency between the two men, and what deceptive machinations they will undertake to accomplish their goals. The film looks, sounds, and flows beautifully.
The only weak point, and this is a minor one, is that it is such an indictment of the changing newspaper industry, most notably Winchell, that it seems heavy handed at times. Winchell, for all his faults, was not as calculating and overbearing as Lancaster’s Hunsecker. If he were, he would have never achieved such a powerful position in the industry. On the other hand, his confrontational characterization made for some terrific character drama. If he were a weaker character, the climax might not be as impactful.
Movie Rating: 9.5/10
This disc has a treasure of features, almost too many. There were two that were exceptional. The 40-minute documentary, [i]Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away[/i], was fascinating, chronicling how the director went from the top of the British film system to an American director, to completely out of a career and into academia. His life is an example of how Hollywood was not all that indifferent from the cutthroat newspaper world that he so eloquently portrayed in his first American film.
Another terrific feature on the disc was an interview with Neal Gabler, a film critic and historian who had written a book about Winchell. His commentary was mostly about Winchell’s history and legacy, and how his life was portrayed on the screen in what was a major character indictment. The character of Hunsecker was protective of his sister, but in real life, Winchell was protective of his daughter and outcasted one of her suitors, which is what the movie was based on.
There are other features, including a lengthy interview given by successful Hollywood filmmaker James Mangold, who studied under and was mentored by Mackendrick.
On top of that, the commentary by James Naremore has a wealth of information about the film, the time, and the production. There are many interesting details pointed out. One that struck me was how this film pushed back against the production code by ignoring its reservations and going forward as scripted anyway. He also points out that this is one of the first films that references the McCarthyism trend in the press of calling out communists, and that much of those behind the film had leftist leanings and an anti-HUAC agenda. This is peppered throughout the film, and it is used as the smoking gun that shoots the narrative into the third act, which is the leaked item suggesting that Dallas is a pot-smoking communist elitist.
This disc has some fine features and I didn’t even go into the packaging, which is also terrific. This is also a must for Blu-Ray owners and anyone with an interest in film history towards the end of the studio system.
Criterion Rating: 10/10