Movie Project #14: Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Film Noir
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner
Running Time: 96 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of the most highly regarded Film Noirs that I still had not seen.

Accolades: Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993, part of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies series, Empire 500, 501 Must See Movies, the Criterion Collection, and many more “best of” lists

Is there a bigger louse in film than Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success?

Here is a man (and I use that term loosely), a press agent, who will do anything and everything to get his clients mentioned in a nationally syndicated newspaper column. He is willing to bribe, blackmail, extort and even pimp out his acquaintances if it helps him make a quick buck. Falco is a sleazy shell of a man.

“You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.”

The author of this newspaper column, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), isn’t much better. Rather than ooze slime, Hunsecker uses his power and authority to bully his way through life. He has an ego the size of Texas, and he is especially intimidating to his younger, 19-year-old sister, Susan (Susan Harrison).

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

“Everybody knows Manny Davis – except Mrs. Manny Davis.”

Susan is in a happy relationship with noted jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and they have begun discussing the prospects of marriage. One problem: Susan desperately wants her brother’s approval, and Hunsecker is not ready to do so.

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Instead, J.J. schemes with Falco to find a way to break up their romance. Falco, failing at this task much like everything else in his life, grows more and more desperate while aiming to please the very influential columnist. He tries selling “tips” to other gossip rags in an attempt to label Dallas as a “marijuana smoking commie.” What entails is an increasingly foul and dirty game of smearing, with both Falco and Hunsecker seemingly digging themselves deeper and deeper in their power plays.

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

“Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!”

Lancaster and Curtis are terrific in the lead roles, especially the latter. Curtis excels at portraying what is essentially the cesspool of humanity. Even when he is in the distant background during a few scenes, I found myself keeping an eye on him just to see if I could figure out what he had up his sleeve. The character of Falco never stops conniving and scheming his way to the top.

“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”

Sweet Smell of Success has some of the best dialogue I have seen in film. It is immensely quotable (as seen throughout this review), and it is a scathing attack on newspaper and print media. This is a film with horrible people doing horrible things, but damn if it isn’t entertaining.

9/10

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15 thoughts on “Movie Project #14: Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

  1. Chris says:

    Saw it in 2013 too, you liked this one a lot more than I did. I agree on the acting and dialogue. For me the weakness is I could tell from the get-go where the Tony Curtis character was heading.
    Perhaps I need to give it a second chance some day, as it clearly is an acclaimed movie. Glad you dug it!

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Yep, I remember your review. I went into this one somewhat cautiously because of it, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the film. I’m always a sucker for quotable movies like this, but I especially loved the performances from the two leads.

  2. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric:
    Nice critique and review!

    Two excellent leads playing around “Superb Louse” territory. With Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco edging out Burt Lancaster (Unheard of!). Superb, often razor sharp cinematography from James Wong Howe. And scathing, way ahead of its time, too cool for the room dialogue.

    “You’re a cookie full of Arsenic.”

    “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”

    I’m glad you liked it!

  3. samfragoso says:

    One of my favorites. Thank you for writing about it — this will serve as a reminder to re-watch it again.

    Blog looks good Eric!

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