Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis
Runtime: 96 minutes
My Rating: ★★★★1/2
In Short: Tense, well-constructed classic noir drama
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was one of the last true Hollywood noir dramas of its era, and one of the most powerful. Its protagonists are greedy, selfish and downright evil, and the director paints them against a backdrop of equally dark, mysterious locales, such as bars, nightclubs and various shady settings.
And yet despite this, Sweet Smell of Success is a film primarily about the cruel greed of the upper class. We see the character of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) slithering his way like a snake through various rooms, crowds and fellow socialites without a second glance. His face is cold, stony and expressionless. It has become commonplace for characters like these to have secret weaknesses like alcohol or drugs, but Hunsecker knows enough of the world around him, being a newspaper tycoon, to avoid such traps. He is the ultimate ideal of the classic movie bad guy, all the class and none of the clichés.
Following his every move unwaveringly is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis in perhaps his greatest role), a desperate man who is losing a fight to the top that has been dependant on Hunsecker. Both are men with no understanding of the concept of morality, but of the two, Falco is the true fool. Hunsecker realizes that despite his success, he must be careful, whereas Falco will do anything to get ahead. The way Curtis and Lancaster act in their scenes together is truly remarkable, carefully crafted, so that we see how little they revere each other and how much they despise each other. Other, lesser actors may have played it so that the two have a mutual respect for each other, but Mackendrick is not that contrived. He knows that in reality the two are so selfish that they each regard the other only with contempt, and use them simply to get ahead in their own ways.
The film was written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmen, adapted from Lehman’s short story, and it oozes incredible dialogue that has since become commonplace in the vocabulary of classic film lovers. “I’d hate to take a bite out of you,” Hunsecker tells Falco. “You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” The characters’ words slices through the atmosphere like a bullet; everything is spoken with calm, cool definition and cold certainty. You wouldn’t dare argue with these characters, which is what makes their arguments and tense discussions even more riveting. As has become standard in noir, characters rarely yell and scream. Their manner of speaking makes every statement feel like the last word on the subject.
Sweet Smell of Success uses black-and-white to convey evil and bitterness, the darkness of city streets that never seem to see daylight. It’s difficult to define noir, but one of the most definite qualities of a noir film is dark black-and-white cinematography, making the oily hair and pressed suits all the more thick and greasy. All men look alike and all women look alike in classic noir, they really only seem to have one unique identity, so it is up to the actors to give their character certain traits or habits; emotional characteristics that make them stand out from the crowd. There are no stereotypes here; each and every person is different and acts differently, even if the motive is the same, and each character has startling depth and definition. This is one of many things that makes Sweet Smell of Success so powerful and engrossing.