"Sweet Smell of Success," the 1957 Big Apple mud-wallow directed by Alexander Mackendrick, is powered from the start by the snazzy, efficient introduction of its two main characters.
Like a good movie monster, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a vindictive, career-making-and-breaking gossip columnist, is held off-screen as various characters build up his menacing reputation by talking about him. The "bad guy" isn't officially introduced until 20 minutes into the film, ‘round about the start of the second act, when he's first shown in a low angle shot that emphasizes Lancaster's imposing frame as J.J. sits at his reserved table at the 21 Club, a king holding court. Not quite Harry Lime, but a damned fine entrance nonetheless.
But J.J. is actually in the film from the very start. As the opening credits run, a newspaper truck rumbles through the streets of New York, like Godzilla wading through Tokyo Harbor, until it spits out its flames (a stack of newspapers) at a helpless populace. This is J.J.'s newspaper, and his gossip column provides its fieriest, most deadly content. Citizens, run for your life!
Grubby publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) isn't granted quite as dramatic an introduction. We first see Sidney as a furtive figure in the background, partially eclipsed by two anonymous characters between him and the camera. He creeps up (or sidles, or stalks – these are the ways in which Sidney Falco moves) to the newsstand to buy a paper and then is once again obscured as he scuttles (or worms) his way through a deli, the camera set on the opposite side of the long counter so that his lower body is obscured. Sidney's just another part of the scenery. J.J. Hunsecker merits close-ups through sheer force of will; Sidney Falco has to work hard to earn one. But damned if he doesn't try.
We quickly learn all we need to know about Sidney. In one of the film's finest touches (indeed, in one of any film's finest touches), we see that the sign on his office door ("SIDNEY FALCO, PUBLICITY) is held in place by four sad, smudged strips of Scotch tape. Later, Sidney heads out into the cold New York night without his top coat because he doesn't want to have to tip every hat check girl in town. There are an awful lot of night clubs out there, and Sidney needs to work every single one of them just to pay the bills. Tipping would kill his margins.
When the time the two men finally meet, the film repeats its earlier staging to further emphasize the power chasm between the nowhere press agent and the big-time writer. As larger-than-life J.J. sits in the foreground, Sidney, slightly out of focus, skulks (or slithers) into the scene, at first partially obscured between J.J. and a waiter until he pulls up almost, but not quite, even with J.J. Sidney stands and later sits just behind his lord and master. Even when seated, Sidney is in constant, nervous motion. J.J. hardly moves, his hand gestures and slight posture shifts slow and deliberate. J.J. has it all. Sidney doesn't even have a top coat. If these two are going to duke it out, it's hardly going to be a fair fight.
What remarkable staging by Mackendrick, recently off a successful stint at Ealing Studios, and the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, a veteran from the silent film era and one of the true pioneers in the sculpting of light. The intricate blocking in these few shots tell a fully satisfying story all by themselves, but fortunately for the last 54 years of movie watchers, "Sweet Smell of Success" is also blessed with sensational script.
The film was adapted from a novella by Ernest Lehman ("North by Northwest"), who had worked in the New York publicity business himself. Lehman also wrote the initial draft of the screenplay which was then extensively re-written by the brilliant playwright Cliff Odets, who is largely responsible for many of the most quotable lines in this most quotable of films: "The cat's in the bag, and the bag's in the river," "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
Lehman's story was a thinly-veiled fictionalization based on the strange, sordid story of Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist who was one of the most influential men in America during the 30s and 40s. The populist Winchell led a strange private life, and his ambiguous obsession with his daughter Walda and her suitor formed the basis for Lehman's story.
In the script, J.J. (Winchell was known as W.W.) is fixated on his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her entirely unacceptable boyfriend, a jazz musician names Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). J.J. has few needs in life, but this is one of them. The young couple must be broken up, and the only person sleazy enough to accept the job is Sidney who, in turn, needs just about everything, but especially space in J.J.'s column for his "clients," a handful of celebrity wannabes. But Susan and Steve's innocence touches even Sidney… for a few minutes. The central tension in the story is pretty straightforward. How low will Sidney Falco go? The answer: Real low, baby. Real low. And there was nobody who could do it better than Tony Curtis.
Curtis was a heartthrob and one of the biggest box-office draws in the country, but "Sweet Smell of Success" was indisputably a breakout performance for him, one of the most perfect marriages of character and actor the screen has ever seen. The Bronx native who made do as best he could with his unshakable accent was all but genetically engineered to play the shifty, fast-talking New Yorker, permanently in survival mode and blessed with the McGyver-like ability to take advantage of everything and everyone in his environs to weasel his way through. The result is a perfect depiction of a profoundly imperfect character. It changed the way Curtis was viewed in Hollywood and although "Sweet Smell" received little recognition at the time, he would receive an Oscar nomination the following year for "The Defiant Ones. " He would also learn about the difference between oysters and snails a few years after that.
"Sweet Smell of Success" is one of the bleakest, most cynical studio films of the decade. Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" (1951) might match it. The more poor Sidney struggles to assert himself, the more insignificant he becomes. When Sidney finally gets his come-uppance, we barely even see it. He is, once again, relegated to the background and obscured by a body closer to the camera. He wasn't important enough for a dramatic introduction, and he doesn't deserve a proper sendoff. I bet the Scotch tape won't even hold for long.
It's hard to believe such a great film had to wait so long for a proper home release, but the wait was worth it. The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The digitally restored high-def transfer is a thing of beauty with a rich, grainy look and sharp detail all around. Even those little strips of Scotch tape stand out.
There are a few instances of damage visible from the source print, but these are fairly minor. Grey scale shows tremendous variation, doing justice to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe. I'm not sure anyone could ask for more.
The film is presented with a linear PCM Mono track. The lossless audio is predictably sharp, not only presenting crisp, clear dialogue but also showcasing Elmer Bernstein's jangling, jazzy score which never sounds distorted or overblown. The restored audio isn't quite perfectly clean at all spots, but it's close enough. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar James Naremore. Naremore is one of my favorite writers on film, and his commentary doesn't disappoint. He balances historical information (about the film's production, about Walter Winchell, etc.) with audiovisual analysis and general commentary. I watched the film in its entirety a second time simply to listen to his commentary.
"Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away" (1986, 45 min.) is a Scottish documentary that includes interviews with Mackendrick, Lancaster, James Coburn, producer James Hill, and others. It details both Mackendrick's film career and his subsequent departure from film after some unsatisfying projects ("A High Wind in Jamaica") to teach at the California Institute of the Arts where he became a major influence on generations of students.
"James Wong Howe, Cinematographer" (1973, 22 min.) Howe must have been about 200 years old when this was filmed (OK, only 75, but I think he was in film for at least 74 of those years) but he provides a fascinating tutorial on how to light a scene along with reminiscences about his career. I loved this feature.
"Gabler on Winchell" (29 min.) is a new feature in which film historian Neal Gabler will no doubt ruffle a few feathers with his relatively sympathetic discussion of Walter Winchell.
Director James Mangold (25 min.) was a student of Mackendrick's and speaks fondly about his teacher and mentor.
An Original Theatrical Trailer is also included.
The handsomely produced 56-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Gary Giddins that might be a bit overreaching but is still an informative and engaging read. As a nifty bonus, the booklet also includes two short stories by Ernest Lehman, which were published before his novella "Sweet Smell of Success," and introduced the characters of J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco. The stories are "Hunsecker Fights the World" and "It's the Little Things That Count." They were originally published in "Collier's" and "Cosmopolitan." Paul Cronin also writes a short article about Mackendrick and Odets" and the booklet wraps with an excerpt from Mackendrick's "On Film-Making" in which he discusses Odets.
The bag's in the river, and this cat should be in your collection. One of the greatest Hollywood films of the 1950s (or any time) has finally gotten the deluxe, Criterion treatment. Even J.J. Hunsecker couldn't say anything nasty about this gem.