SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (Dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, US) – ‘I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.’

The dialogue for Sweet Smell of Success by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets is some of the most acerbic one is likely to come across in a mainstream Hollywood film especially one from the tail end of the 1950s. Whilst Lancaster and Curtis head up the main cast, this gorgeous slice of newspaper noir exudes an urban intelligence that makes it both distinctively independent and ideologically inquisitive. Shot in New York, the sense of the gutter is immediately evoked through the introduction of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis in his best role) literally on the sidewalks stalking the early morning papers so he can get a hungry eye glimpse at the sacred words of his master – the woundingly destructive J. J. Hunsecker (Lancaster upping the stakes of Machiavellian machinations). Hunsecker a villainous figure takes on all the poisonous and lethal charms of the iconographic marker of noirish immorality – the femme fatale. Whilst a sentimental love story between two kids from opposing ends of the New York social spectrum motivates the narrative, this in fact one of the great cinematic critiques of power. If Hunsecker stands for the corruption of American power – here utilised to retain a sickening incestuous hold over his sister then Falco’s venal, parasitic press agent offers an ideological counterpoint, prefiguring today’s celebrity obsessed media in which Falco would triumph glowingly. When Hunsecker’s class prejudices and snobbery are repeatedly underlined in a series of grotesque spectacles we expect some kind of triumphant fight back from the underdog but this never transpires – it has to come from within and such a defiance and rejection of Hunsecker’s lethal grip is made eventually by his repressed sister who becomes yet another victim of her brother’s vampirism. Along with The Ladykillers, this is one of director Alexander Mackendrick’s best loved films and the timeless script has become a real benchmark and one can still detect its influence even today – the contemporary American scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin and even Quentin Tarantino come to mind. The constant mood of cynicism and urban fatalism is to be expected of such a high class noir but like Force of Evil with which it shares a considerable thematic parallel, the film is very critical of the media’s role in shaping the cultural accents of society. Both Hunsecker and Falco are servants of the media and whilst they both attempt to exude power as though it is an exclusive possession, it is a delusion that ultimately reveals them to be part of an empty, morally bankrupt spectacle of power. It all makes for one of the creative peaks of 1950s American cinema. Here’s the Criterion Collection trailer for the new re-release of the film on Blu Ray:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s