Readers Write In #477: Classic Hollywood Recommendations: Sweet Smell of Success

Posted on August 22, 2022

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By Vijay Ramanathan

How do you take wordy source material and adapt it into a movie that has the briskness of a thriller? Sweet Smell of Success is a stellar example of how to achieve this. Director Alexander Mackendrick, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman based on a novelette written by Lehman, uses geography, movement, dialogue, cinematography, music and the powerful acting chops of its lead actors to craft a movie that sucks you in right from the first scene.

Sweet Smell of Success is about the symbio-parasitic relationship between two amoral, self-centered men. The more powerful one, J.J. Hunsecker (played with menacing brilliance by Burt Lancaster) is a newspaper columnist who can make or break careers with a single sentence in his daily column. The meeker one, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis in a breakout dramatic role), is a press agent who is down on his luck – he doesn’t wear a winter coat to avoid tipping the coat room attendant at the various clubs he frequents – thanks to power tactics employed against him by Hunsecker. Hunsecker wants Falco to do a dirty job for him, refusing to publish any material favorable to Falco’s clients unless the job is done. Falco has to use charm, guile, and dirty tactics – like convincing a “cigarette girl” from a club to sleep with a newspaper columnist – to get the job done. It’s all entirely unsavory but Falco is keen to succeed at all costs, and perhaps one day, rise to the heights of Hunsecker. That’s what keeps him going. The righteous and positive characters – Susan, Hunsecker’s sister, and Steve Dallas, her boyfriend – are left at the periphery of this sordid saga.

Shot on location, Sweet Smell of Success, immerses us in a Manhattan that is buzzing with life at all times. The clubs are packed. Pedestrians and cars crowd the streets. And the bright lights keep it all alive. Mackendrick keeps moving the action between the outdoors and the indoors, from one location to another almost constantly – an office here, a street there, a restaurant here, a theater elsewhere. As a result, the wordiness of the dialogues doesn’t feel heavy or out of place. When a press columnist berates Falco (and by extension Hunsecker) in a busy nightclub using overly dramatic insults like “Nevermind about my bilious private life but… like you, he’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster,” to which Falco sardonically reponds “What do I do now? Whistle Stars and Stripes Forever?” – it works completely in that setting with these characters. 

The screenplay balances action and dialogue with sharp efficiency throughout the movie. We learn of Falco’s state in life not by exposition or voiceover but by his first few scenes where we see his anguished reactions to Hunsecker’s newspaper column, we notice his office nameplate written on cardboard, and we subliminally realize that his office doubles as his apartment. But when Hunsecker holds court at a restaurant table with a US Senator, his secret side girlfriend, her agent, and Falco sitting on the side, Hunsecker’s power is almost all communicated through his voice, tone and minacious words. This balance between what we see and what we hear is maintained (mostly) successfully throughout the movie.

The camera work is strikingly noirish. The contrast is stark and the ambiance rightfully stifling. In many of Hunsecker’s scenes, his eyeglasses cast such a shadow over his eyes and face that it almost obscures his features. This deliberate choice by Mackendrick and cinematographer, James Wong Howe, adds an apt ominous tone to Hunsecker’s words and expressions, and his overall character. The edgy, noir feel is further elevated by the jazz soundtrack scored by the legendary Elmer Bernstein (no relation to the legendary Leonard Bernstein).

The ending of the movie plays out a tad melodramatically with the dialogues weighing a bit much. The final outcome is designed to leave us with a sense of triumph and optimism for the wronged one. As a result, the conclusion feels somewhat unnatural. However, this doesn’t subtract too much from the overall brilliance of the movie. Sweet Smell of Success is a definite must-watch for lovers of Classic Hollywood and good cinema.

Sweet Smell of Success is available for viewing online in the US on Amazon Prime Video, and The Criterion Channel streaming service.