Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
JJ Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a big shot columnist who can make or break careers, and his power has gone to his head. Annoyed that his younger sister (Harrison) who he takes care of, has fallen in love with a jazz singer, he decides to manipulate Sidney Falco (Curtis) into breaking up the couple, promising him a big career boost in exchange. But the plans of all involved soon to awry.
The cynicism of this film and the way that the main two characters of this film are pretty awful makes this film an unusual story to come out of old Hollywood, which usually liked to give out heroes and happy endings. But like the Ace In The Hole, this film shows another side to life and to the press and the publicity machine specifically. This film didn’t please audiences at the time, seeing two of their favourite stars play decidedly dark characters. Hunsecker is feels huge and manacing in this film and isnt afraid t get heavies to beat the crap out of people to keep things in line. Falco is so slimey, buttering up to Hunsecker and seemingly with no shame at all once he’s in the scent of success. The two leads are really very good in this film, but some viewers at the time were upset to see their screen heroes be immoral and totally unscrupulous.
However, over time this film has been accepted and praised as the classic that it is. Alexander Mackendrick started at Ealing Studios, a British Studio where black comedies and more whimsical films were popular. Here he almost turns on the industry, showing how show business is not all sequins and glamour, but more like a shark pool, though he transfers his story setting from Hollywood movies to Broadway shows. In a way, it’s a bit refreshing, coming as it did at the end of the 1950’s, and shows the way that some films would go in the 60’s and 70’s, into new areas that explored areas of life and difficult themes, rather than simply providing entertainment. (Note: Mackendrick wrote some really great books about directing and film making that I highly recommend, they’re generally included on film school reading lists with good reason)
I found the twists and turns in this film entertaining, and liked the acerbic dialogue, though I found it definitely on the cynical side. Falco and Hunsecker were so awful that they really made me cringe, and the sister, who is the innocent pawn in it all, I felt pretty sorry for, although her weakness probably contributes to her own problems. It’s a remarkable film, and the shining visuals, jazz score and bright lights of broadway, even the handsome faces of the leads, really contrast with the rotten core of the whole thing. I really enjoyed that and it’s a masterful film for that reason, but perhaps also the reason I wouldn’t be tempted to watch it over and over again. (Not one to cheer you up on a rainy afternoon, that’s for sure!)
See It If: you need an anti-dote to the perfectly presented lives of the rich and famous, a darker film with excellent and truly slimey leads.
1 thought on “Classic Movie Of The Week: Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)”
Somewhere under a heap of old Play – er, Popular Mechanics issues, I’ve got the Vanity Fair edition that featured a long story on the making of this movie. The machinations and general hostility among the film makers surpassed what you see on the screen!
“Remind me to pay somebody to take the little Limey’s legs off” – Burt Lancaster, displaying a degree of animus toward Alexander Mackendrick.
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