Sweet Smell of Success

Alexander Mackendrick | USA | 1957

2003 Locarno
2010 Austin
2012 Athens

A film noir from the Ealing funny man? But Mackendrick’s involvement with cosy British humour was always less innocent than it looked: remember the anti-social wit of The Man in the White Suit, or the cruel cynicism of The LadykillersSweet Smell of Success was the director’s American debut, a rat trap of a film in which a vicious NY gossip hustler (Curtis) grovels for his ‘Mr Big'(Lancaster), a monster newspaper columnist who is incestuously obsessed with destroying his kid sister’s romance… and a figure as evil and memorable as Orson Welles in The Third Man or Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. The dark streets gleam with the sweat of fear; Elmer Bernstein’s limpid jazz score (courtesy of Chico Hamilton) whispers corruption in the Big City. The screen was rarely so dark or cruel.
– Chris Auty, Time Out Film Guide.

The tone of the Fiftfes was summarized by the titles of the popular fiction which earned its place on the best-setler lists. People were led to believe that America consisted of a lonely crowd of status seekers, businessmen in gray flannel suits daily travelting to their executive suites to serve a power elite and seek ‘success’. In the odd idle moment they contemplate – from the terrace – the developing cracks in the picture windows of their suburban homes.

There was a certain amount of truth in this portrait of middle-class angst in Fifties America, but only a certain amount. When this material was adapted for the screen the sight of dozens of mlddle-class males fussing over the price they were paying for their success was a lugubrious one.

That was why Sweet Smell of Success seemed, and still seems in retrospect, so refreshing. It took up the theme of anatomizing success and its costs – in a context infinitely more raffish, and therefore infinitely more entertaining, than that of the office and the suburban bedroom. The world of Broadway is more fun to prowl around and the vulgar denizens of that vulgar world are expected to state their business more vigorously and resolve their conflicts more melodramatically than are the corporate types.

In this respect the film is not disappointing. The vicious and power-drunk gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster} is as potent in the showbiz world as a chairman of the board is in his; in those days a columnist did have the power to make and break careers – or at least was thought to have that power, thereby granting him the ability to make people jump in order to curry his favour. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis}, the sweatily obliging press agent who needs the columnist’s patronage; is analogous to all those middle management executlves trying to get ahead – but his weakness and desperation are more visible and emotionally gripping. The brutality of J.J.’s hold on this toad and Sidney’s slimy panic when he starts to feel the squeeze are vividly apparent.

However, there is more to the film than this fascinating central relationship. There are the marvelous subsidiary characters, notably Sam Levine as a decent, small-time agent, Barbara Nichols as a not-so-dumb hat-check girl and best of all, Emile Meyer as a corrupt cop whose humour is of the menacing variety.

Surprisingly Sweet Smell of Success was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, best known for his softer work for Ealing Studios. Very few outsiders have seemed so familiar with such a singularly American milieu as the sleazy side of Broadway. Mackendrick captured it better than did John Schlesinger in Midnight Cowboy (1969) or Alan Parker in Fame (198O), precisely because he understated Broadway’s more sordid physical aspects instead of crudely forcing them forward as a metaphor for his characters’ inner lives.

However, it is Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s dialogue that’s responsible for the film’s lingering power. The critic Stanley Kaufman once remarked that fast crosstalk and smart remarks were to the American movie what blank verse was to the Elizabethan theatre. It was a verbal convention that served to compress and metaphorically change what sounded like realistic speech into something else, granting the writer the abillty to touch on matters that normal speech patterns cannot generally encompass without sounding awkward and pretentious. Kaufman was right and Sweet Smell of Success represents a culmination of a tradition that traces its history back to the beginning of sound film, when Broadway wise-guys of the Hecht-MacArthur tradition were first imported to Hollywood to teach movies how to talk. Odets was in on the creation of this tradition, both as playwright and screenwriter, and Lehman, on whose magazine story the film was based, was a worthy disciple.

For all its virtues Sweet Smell of Success was neither a commercial nor a critical success at the time of its release. Doubtless it seemed too parochial in its concerns and even in its setting to appeal to the vast reaches of middle America. But it was an almost instant cult success and remains alive in the memory, for J.J. and Sidney were alive – kicking, scratching and biting – when their contemporaries could scarcely summon the energy to mutter their complaints to themselves.
– Richard Schickel, The Movie No.52, Orbis Publishing 1980.

This new digital transfer was created on a SCANITY Film Scanner in 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

Great looking transfer! I have seen this film more than a dozen times and without a shadow of a doubt this is the best it has ever looked. Fine object detail is excellent, clarity very pleasing, and contrast levels dramatically improved. Color reproduction is also very impressive – now the variety of blacks, grays, and whites finally look rich and healthy. Edge-enhancement is not a serious issue of concern. Some small noise corrections have been applied, but a light, healthy layer of grain is very easy to see at all times. There are no serious stability issues either.

The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using Audio Cube’s integrated audio workstation. Generally speaking, the dialog is crisp, clean, stable, and exceptionally easy to follow. There are no balance issues with Elmer Bernstein’s music score either.
– based on Dr Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com, 24 February, 2011

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