Sweet Smell of Success is a gem of 1950s film noir. I absolutely adored this film, with its unrelentingly cynical tone, snappy dialogue, and gorgeous black and white photography. Sometimes my eyes just hunger for black and white and this film definitely satisfied that.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is an eager and unscrupulous press agent who knows where his bread is buttered. This is JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a newspaper giant who can make Sidney’s clients instantly famous. Falco’s fallen out of Hunsecker’s good graces recently by failing to put an end to a romance between his kid sister and a guitarist in a jazz band. Falco must successfully break them up without tarnishing the sister’s opinion of Hunsecker if he ever wants him to print another one of his client’s names.
The two greatest things about the movie are its cynical tone and the relationship between the two main characters, each of which feed into the other. Hunsecker shamelessly takes advantage of Sidney, who doesn’t mind as long as he gets what he wants. There are many scenes that illustrate this, but a late one is one of my favorites. Sidney, feigned scruples that he doesn’t possess, is ostensibly objecting to Hunsecker’s insinuations but actually is naming his price. In saying that he won’t help Hunsecker even if he gave him what he’s offering, he’s saying that’s exactly what it would require for him to conduct the shady business in question. It’s a brilliantly written scene, masterfully acted by Tony Curtis, who slowly comes to realize the meaning behind his own words.
Most of the film was a fairly comfortable watch. If you’ve seen a couple of these types of noirs you’re not really getting anything different here. However, it is done very, very well. Just on an execution level, this is what a noir should be like. Nothing is really shocking though, for me anyway, until the end. The film got a lot darker than I thought it was going to and I couldn’t really tell where it was going in its final scene. Not bad for a film that is almost sixty years old. Ultimately, I was hoping it would give Hunsecker’s sister a bit more agency, but oh well.
If the film has one fault, it’s that it does tend to get pretty talky. Mackendrick does do a good job having Sidney move through the underworld, giving us a lot of different nightclub scenes, but it did start to bog down in the middle there as it really did just seem to be Sidney going around to different characters and asking for this and that. I didn’t feel that for long, but the film does slow down in the middle and tends to get stuck in talkier scenes.
Unfortunately, I watched this movie a week ago and am struggling to remember most of the details of what I wanted to write about. I will say this though, I loved the film and can’t wait to revisit it sometime. I’m especially sorry I can’t think of some more things to say about the cinematography by James Wong Howe besides that it was great. I just know I reacted strongly to the black and white and I can’t really say specifically why. Another standout of the film was its jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, very similar to his equally great work in The Man with the Golden Arm.
If you like film noirs dealing with terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons, Sweet Smell of Success is for you. It gets a little bit talky (though nowhere near the earlier noirs like The Maltese Falcon), that’s easily forgiven because the film more than makes up for it by the end. The cynical tone is pervasive throughout, the characters interestingly amoral, and this is all back up by a great score and exceptional black and white cinematography. I’ll definitely be revisiting this at some point; it was a great ride.
“You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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