As neon lights bathe Times Square in a glamorous glow that hides its seediness in the shadows, a slick press agent, with a high-piled pompadour, sharks his way through the night. His nocturnal prowl leads him to the table of a gossip columnist who holds the fates of senators and stars in his hands. The so-called great man keeps court, keeps secrets, and keeps everyone else in their place, including the young press agent who is destined to take him down. The press agent is Tony Curtis, the gossip columnist is Burt Lancaster, and the movie is the film noir classic “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) featured May (2022) on MGM HD.
“The Sweet Smell of Success” is based on Ernest Lehman’s novella of the same name, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and filmed in inky black and white by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe. The endlessly quotable screenplay by playwright Clifford Odets captures the sharp-tongued jargon of these urban jungle dwellers all set to a jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein with music by the Chico Hamilton Quartet. In short, “The Sweet Smell of Success” is a masterpiece of mid-century midtown Manhattan morals.
But it is the tightly wound performances that really make the movie tick. Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco is among the first of a string of performances that made him one of the top stars and best actors of the era (to see his range in this period, check out “The Defiant Ones” (1958) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959) also in the MGM library). Curtis plays Falco as a man with a drive to climb the “golden ladder” to the top, but with a pesky and nagging sense of right and wrong that stands between him and his ambition. Burt Lancaster, doing double duty as actor and producer, demonstrates that he was not afraid to play a bastard. Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is a nasty piece of work, a monster, with little to like about him. He plays the part with menace and cruelty as he spits out the acid lines in Odets’ script.
Part of the pleasure of “A Sweet Smell of Success” is the opportunity to visit a specific time and place. Filmed on location around Times Square, you get a sense of New York City in the middle of the 20th Century, with its cars, crowds, and characters on rainswept streets, under the harsh lights of burger stands, and silhouetted in the doorways of night clubs. So attentive was Alexander Mackenderick to detail that the director and producer/ star Lancaster nearly came to blows over how a steak was prepared in a dinner scene at the restaurant “21”.
To paraphrase one of its characters, this movie has “more twists than a barrel full of pretzels.” So, breathe in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” featured May (2022) on MGM HD.