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|Index||126 reviews in total|
There are three reasons that movie fans should check this film out, if
you haven't seen it yet:
1 - Outstanding dialog. I can't recall a film in which I heard so many clever film-noir lines as this one. Almost everyone in the movie has a unique way of expressing their feelings. It makes the movie one that you want to go back and HEAR again. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay and deserve special recognition as well as the people below.
2 - Fabulous acting, led by the two male leads: Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis is the star of the film with many more lines than anyone else, and many consider this to be his greatest acting achievement. I have no quarrel with that. It's one of the finest acting jobs I've ever witnessed by anyone. It's that good.
Lancaster is memorable and plays to his strengths as a tough guy, not only with his physical presence but his tactless and cutting verbal assaults. He has the best and most brutal lines in the film.
The minor characters in here, from the cop to the comedian to the cigarette girl to the young romantic couple are all top-notch.
3 - The cinematography. A big name in the film business, James Wong Howe, more than lives up to his reputation. This is beautifully photographed and looks absolutely stunning on DVD. I have watched hundreds and hundreds of black-and-white films and this ranks with the best of them. He captured nighttime New York City as well as anybody ever has done.
"Well," you might ask, "if this movie is so great, why haven't I heard more about it?"
Maybe because it never did well at the box office. It wasn't promoted a lot, from what I heard, and the storyline is not a pleasant one. Basically, this is about two immoral people who smear a nice guy so that it will ruin the romance between he and Lancaster's sister.
Lancaster plays an absolutely ruthless newspaper columnist who makes and breaks careers and Curtis plays his slimy press-agent who will do anything to please his powerful boss, including doing the worst of his dirty work.
Furrther details of the film can be read by many of the other fine reviewers here on this website, so no need to go into that.
I am not one who generally likes films that feature mostly nasty people but this was done so well that it fascinates me every time. A final tip of the hat to director Alexander Mackendrick. Why he wasn't given more films to direct is a mystery to me. Highly-recommended.
Remember how scary Robert Mitchum was in Night of the Hunter? Or Darth
Vader in the first Star Wars movie? Well Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker
is right up there with them. With his clipped words, ice-cold gaze, rigid
neck and steel-rimmed glasses, he looks like he's ready to break people in
half with just the power of his voice. He drifts through the film like an
unstoppable barge, commanding every scene with just the turn of his head.
Seldom is there such a powerful screen presence.
Lancaster's performance alone is worth seeing this film, but the writing cracks like a whip. This is some of the best writing I've ever seen in any film, recalling the brilliant writing of All About Eve or Citizen Kane: "Come back Sidney, I want to chastise you some more", "turn around and look: is she still standing there?", "you're a cookie full of arsenic", "I see your brother's words coming out of your mouth like a ventriloquist's dummy", "I would never use an elephant gun to shoot a mosquito". Over and over, the witty dialogue slices through the scenes like a razor. You have to see this film to believe it.
Tony Curtis was never better as a sleazy PR guy as he pimps his secretary, slobbers at J.J.'s heels like an obsequious mutt, and colludes with the crooked cops to frame people. Within this maelstrom of cynicism and anger are two young lovers, driven apart by J.J.'s overbearing presence.
The photography is excellent, you can almost smell the wet NYC streets. Black and white never looked better.
This is an excellent film, and highly recommended. I wish they still made movies like this.
**MILD SPOILERS** It is amazing the number of different ways a great
film can weave its alluring web and pull you into its story. Of my 100
favorite films, this one's journey into that rarefied status is unique,
based on but a single viewing. I saw "Sweet Smell of Success" when I
was too young to really grasp the subterranean motivations of the
characters who so vividly populate the film. I did not understand, for
instance, why this powerful, loathsome gossip columnist, Burt
Lancaster's JJ Hunsecker, who so clearly despised Tony Curtis' Sidney
Falco (press agent), nonetheless tolerated his presence. There was much
that I DID appreciate--the brilliant and daring acting of the two
leads, the beautifully oppressive cinematography, and the scintillating
dialogue--but after that single viewing, the film slowly faded from my
consciousness. Twenty-five or 30 years later, I decided to make a list
of my favorite movies, and came across the title of this film.
Apparently, memories of seeing this production had been roiling around
my unconscious all this time and now, triggered by the little blurb in
the Leonard Maltin book, these half-forgotten images came bounding back
into mind, now concatenated with a quarter century of life and
movie-going experience. Honing my list over the next few months, and
considering this film's merits, I more and more began to realize what a
truly marvelous work this was. This was a study nonpareil of two
creatures wholly wrapped up in themselves and their ambition, yet bound
together in a mutual parasitism (the term symbiosis sounds much too
nice to describe their relationship). I understood, finally, why JJ
tolerated Falco's presence. He NEEDED Falco. It wasn't just that Falco
would occasionally offer up tidbits that he could use in his column. It
wasn't that the fawning Falco could be manipulated into performing
certain . . . uh, tasks that were too dirty for JJ to touch. No, as a
ruthless power-monger, he needed the treacherous sycophant as a
constant reminder and test of his superiority. Falco could be demeaned
and ridiculed, but he also represented a danger, a challenge. Falco
might seem a toady, but he was also a cobra waiting his chance to
strike, and Hunsecker relished his role as sadistic snake charmer.
Watching these two play at their oppressive games of perfidy, and
dealing dirt, provide a fascinating character study perhaps the equal
of the more famous examination of one Charles Foster Kane in an earlier
film. There are many other characters in the movie, such as JJ's sister
and her lover, and some are played with great aplomb, but they are all
pawns in this disdainful dance between JJ and Falco, and it is their
personalities that stay with you long after the lights come back on.
Everything about this movie seems to be nearly perfect (some have criticised the film for the relatively weak portrayal of the two hapless lovers, but a stronger emphasis on these two would only detract from the real focus--JJ and Sidney) even to the choice of names. JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco seem perfect monikers, by themselves conjuring up images of loathsome characters. Unfortunately, for the team that put together this masterpiece of film-noir, "Sweet Smell of Success" was no success, and critics and movie-goers alike left the theaters convinced that the "smell" generated by the film was far from sweet. Amazingly, this film not only failed to garner an Oscar, it failed to receive a single solitary nomination--not for Alexander Mackendrick's direction (this abject failure truncating his promising career), not for the incisive, endlessly quotable screenplay (Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odets), not Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score, nor the tremendous performances of Curtis and Lancaster--not even James Wong Howe's gritty cinematography, beautifully capturing the seamier side of New York City. Fortunately, history has stepped in to provide a more accurate critique of this once ignored masterpiece. I can hardly wait to see it a second time.
"I love this dirty town". "Match me, Sidney". "Maybe I left my sense of humour in my other suit". Great dialogue. Great script, great cinematography, great acting, great music. Christ, what do you want, blood? From the first moment we see Burt Lancaster as the impossibly sinister J.J., we know we're in for a cracking time. There he is, sitting at the restaurant table, wearing those strangely scary glasses, his face expressionless (perhaps he's smiling, just a little bit), talking to Sidney without even looking at him, firing the dialogue like bullets. When the action seeps into the New York streets, oozing menace, there's J.J. - master of all he surveys, twisting cops round his little finger, snarling and seething like some desperate animal. And there is something animal about this film: its characters writhe and twist in the lights and the shadows - demented, tortured creatures, all of them trying to maintain some semblance of normality, all of them aware, deep down, how corrupt and helpless they are. The symbols of goodness - J.J.'s sister and her boyfriend - are weak, pathetic, hopeless, unable to keep up with the neverending twists and turns of this awful labyrinth of manipulation and cruelty. Curtis and Lancaster were never better, and it's awesome to see them play such grotesque yet believable roles. How do people get like this? Where do they go from here? Perhaps it's best not to think about it, and just wallow in the brilliant nastiness of it all, before maybe going home and getting in the shower for a long, long time.
The fact that in 1957 this film was made at all is proof that Walter
Winchell's decline was already setting in. Burt Lancaster's J.J.
Hunsecker based on Winchell and very frightening accurately portrays
the columnist and the power he wielded.
For those who are interested in how Winchell got to where he was J.J. Hunsecker I would recommend Neal Gabler's biography of him which came out a few years ago. Sweet Smell of Success is the story of a day in the life of this monster who everyone on the planet it seems is terrified of offending. Like Winchell at the Stork Club, Hunsecker holds court like some monarch at a nightclub where people are obsequiously asking for some recognition in his column.
One of these is Sidney Falco, press agent and bootlicking dog extraordinaire. Hunsecker is mad at him because he sent him on an errand to break up a romance his younger sister is having with a jazz musician he doesn't approve of. The film is essentially Falco's attempts to carry out his master's wishes.
Burt Lancaster had already received critical acclaim as an actor, but this was a breakthrough role for Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco. Up to then Curtis was the handsome romantic lead in many lightweight films for his home studio of Universal. Sidney Falco was a lot of things, but heroic wasn't one of them. Next year Tony Curtis would get an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones. How Lancaster and Curtis were ignored by the Academy for nominations is beyond me.
The young lovers are Susan Harrison and Martin Milner. This was probably Marty Milner's finest screen role. As Lancaster was also the producer he personally cast Milner in the part having worked with him on Gunfight at the OK Corral. Susan Harrison strangely enough never had much of a career after a promising debut. She ultimately wreaks a terrible vengeance on one of our protagonists.
One of the ironic lines in the film is Lancaster saying that he'd fold up if he had to exist on a press agent's tidbits. But ironically that's how Winchell/Hunsecker did exist. Winchell had no real skill as a reporter as Gabler's biography pointed out. When the tidbits stopped, he dried up and blew away.
Sweet Smell of Success was a commercial flop, movie audiences did not take to the offbeat casting of the leads nor to the gritty realistic story. Today the film is a deserved classic.
Another poster "stole" the one line summary I wanted to use: "Match me,
Sidney." Damn. It's one of the best lines in the movie. Oh, well.
"Sweet Smell of Success" is a great, wildly entertaining movie. It reminds me of "Dangerous Liasons" in both it's subject ("bad" people making life worse for more decent folk) and how swiftly and imaginatively directed it is. It's juicy from beginning to end. Burt Lancaster is once again terrific as J.J. Hunsecker, Walter Winchell-esque writer of a "society" column which is more of a tool of destruction for those who cross his path.
But it's Tony Curtis who holds the movie together. Always scheming and plotting and never letting a decent human emotion take precedence over his drive to succeed at any cost. He's Marvelous and was never again to achieve what he did here.
But there's a third star to this production and it's New York City itself. The on location photography is stunning. What is amazing is that at the time the movie was made (1957) on location filming was just becoming "in vogue". For a film like this, it HAD to filmed on location or else it's power would be substantially diluted. I work in Manhattan near where a lot of this film was made (J.J. lives in the Brill Building which is on Broadway between 49th and 50th Streets, right around the corner from me). To see what the neighborhood looked like over 40 years ago is amazing. Surprisingly, it's the astonishing on site photography that prevents the film from really feeling dated. Also, the themes in the film are timeless as well.
"Sweet Smell of Success" is a classic from top to bottom.
This is the kind of film that could coin an expression like "They don't make 'em like that anymore," except that people have been using that line for every piece of crap that was made more than two years ago. Go ahead and say it to yourself, and I'll say that David Mamet's Glengarry, Glen Ross comes close. Both feature snarling, biting dialog. Both have irredeemable characters that will do anything for success. Mamet's characters are mostly down-and-outers who are scrapping at each other to find some sampling of their former successes. In Sweet Smell of Success there are successful characters and losers, both of which need each other to survive. It is a tale of a successful columnist and his need for a low life press agent. It is a bitter, bleak story of power, success and the desire to have more. Burt Lancaster plays JJ Hunsecker, a powerful, successful columnist who is at the top of his game. He gets what he wants, when he wants it with no questions asked. He can make or break celebrities with a quick blurb in his column. He dines with politicians and gets any girl he wants. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a low rent press agent who needs Lancaster's blurbs for his clients to keep in business. Problem is, Hunsecker has cut Falco out of his columns because Falco hasn't delivered on a deal they made. Though Hunsecker can garner the love and admiration of anyone he chooses, the one woman he cannot win over is his own sister. As he repeatedly says throughout the film, she's all he has. Problem is she is in love with a jazz singer, and they plan to marry. Hunsecker can't bear the thought of losing his sister, so he forces Falco to get rid of the boy by any means necessary. The film is relentless. From beginning to end it never stops its pounding. There is never a breath of kindness. The two characters with some redeeming characteristics Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Susan Harrison) and her boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), are so overshadowed by the continual foul play by Hunsecker and Falco that they come away with a foul stench. Tony Curtis pulls a performance that reminded me of his turn as the Boston Strangler. It is not difficult to see his Falco turning to murder if it helped him succeed. Though as the strangler, he seems to have found some remorse for his actions, where Falco is irredeemable to the very end. There is a seen in the middle of the picture where Falco pulls a trick to convince a mid level performer to make Falco his press agent. At this point Falco needs all the clients he can get. Later the performer comes to Falco, ready to sign him as his agent. Falco, now feeling some signs of success brushes the performer off without a second thought. It is a telling scene of just how heartless and uncaring Falco has become. Where has Burt Lancaster been all my life? Sadly enough, the only film I can remember watching him in is the 1986 toss-off comedy Tough Guys. His performance here is nothing short of astonishing. He is the king of his castle, never stepping off his high throne, treating everyone as servants. Even his shows of affection for Susan are grotesque and menacing. This is a story that his hard to watch. It is brutal, and menacing with nary a redeeming aspect. But it is a film that must be watched. The craftsmanship of the filmmakers and the performances of the actors elevate it above so many others. It is nearly a morality tale of the horrors that befall humanities greed.
After reading Neal Gabler's biography of columnnist Walter Winchell, I watched this again with new eyes. Lancaster captures not the mannerisms or speech patterns of Winchell, but the sense of menace and terror the man held over anybody who wanted to be somebody in New York or the entertainment business. J.J. Hunsecker reminds me of a glowing radioactive ball of plutonium, terrible in its simple existence. He can make or break you with a single word, and everyone knows he can and will without a single look back. The film captures perfectly the smoky nightclub world of 21 and the Stork Club along with the grubby little burrow belonging to Sidney Falco, press agent and repellent social climber. Great movie and by far, Curtis's best performance.
There are many unbeatable things about this splendid film, but more than anything else there is the dialogue - dialogue as sharp as the suits and as bleak as the slate grey cinematography. Lancaster and Curtis have never been better and the American fim industry never produced a more enjoyably bitter film.
This film really brings an air of nostalgia when you compare it to current productions. There are no special effects or noisy music, but nevertheless you are riveted to your chair form beginning to end thanks to a wonderful cast, dialogue, direction and very nice Jazz music. Burt Lancaster gives again an unbelievable performance and Tony Curtis is perfect in the role of the ambitious small time thug that cannot get rid of his own contradictions. I only wish the studios would stop focusing on the teen market today and get inspired by films like this one.
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