Wednesday 13 June 2018 10.15pm
‘The Putrid Stench of Self-interest’ 2018
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
An Alexander Mackendrick Film
Top 100 Films –
TIME Magazine has The Sweet Smell of Success in it’s Top 100 Films released since TIME Magazine was first published in 1923 which covers most of the period of great filmmaking.
The Sweet Smell of Success is equal #171 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll
The Sweet Smell of Success is equal #322 amongst others in the 2012 BFI Directors Poll
Opening line: “Alright fellas, here it comes, get with it. C’mon, c’mon, we haven’t got all night. Let’s get going.”
I think I’ve only seen The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) once before – definitely once but possibly not twice – and I remember finding it quite disturbing. It wasn’t what I expected in my early twenties when I caught up with this film because I was a big Tony Curtis (actor) and Elmer Bernstein (music score). I didn’t expect it to have such a hard edge to it. Watching it now, thirty years later, I can guess that I expected a film more acerbic and witty than downright barbaric.
Burt Lancaster had already had a long and distinguished career playing heroes and villains, so his ruthless portrayal of a gossip columnist is credible. But, Tony Curtis, I only knew from his frothy romantic comedies of the 1960s, many of which were so mediocre they weren’t worth a second look. I also remember him (to my mind) miscast and unbelievable in Spartacus. He has a cinematic persona which didn’t gel in a period piece like Spartacus. In The Sweet Smell of Success, however, his pretty-boy image works perfectly for his role as a charismatic press agent who wouldn’t think twice about betraying his closest friend to get ahead. He uses his looks and charm to get into places where he can rub shoulders with people who can help him get what he wants and where he wants to be.
His secretary asks him, “Where do you want to get?”
“The up-high set where it’s always balmy… I don’t want tips from the kitty. I’m in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell and I didn’t dream it in a dream, either. Dog eat dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.”
He’s angry because of his failures, and wants to justify his anger towards her. In that instant he wants to make her aware of what he’s really like, no matter how much it could hurt, “I’m no hero. I’m nice to people where it pays me to be nice. Look, I do it enough on the outside, so don’t expect me to do it in my own office. I’m in a bind right now with Hunsecker.”
Sally loves him and sticks with him because she’s similarly one-dimensional. She see that he’s handsome and can charm the scales off a fish.
“Sidney, I don’t know how to try to tell you what to do. It’s just that it makes me feel bad when Mr Hunsecker hurts you.”
Falco is indefatigable, knowing, now, with a newfound resolve, he will be as ruthless as everyone else, “Every dog will have its day.”
The contrast between J.J. Hunsecker who is already successful and powerful, and Sidney Falco, who is lowly but hopefully on the rise, is as black and white as James Wong Howe’s voluptuous photography. Hunsecker doesn’t need Falco and Falco desperately needs Hunsecker.
I only added this film to the list of the Top 100 Films because Schickel and Corliss put it on their TIME Magazine list. With 100 titles to choose from they elevated this film into the Top 100 at the expense of other films by Bergman, Kubrick, Antonioni, Truffaut and Chaplin. I wanted to know why.
Now I do. It is a remarkable film because of the punch it packs. It’s smart, sassy, and has several great exchanges between its main characters. It’s a bit talky and sometimes it’s dialogue is more suited to a play than a film, but the commitment of the actors to making the dialogue believeable, with a ring of truth, adds up to an extraordinary film that rivals other great black and white films of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
It is a remarkable film.
What’s it about? you ask. Everyone and anyone who tried to climb out of their particular social state who doesn’t care how many people they burn on the way up.