SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

Director Alexander Mackendrick
Year 1957
Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster
Rating UR
Run Time 96min

This screening is part of our December celebration of The News in Cinema!

Taking place in the late, desperate hours of the night, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS finds press agent Sidney Falco out of favor with powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker and resorting to increasingly slimy measures to turn that around. Tasked with breaking up a romance between J.J.’s fragile sister Susie and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas, Sidney finds their bond is as unwavering as J.J.’s resolve to end it. Sidney’s clients lash out against him, wondering what they are paying him for. Phonecalls go unreturned and meetings are refused, with Sidney’s charms only occasionally swaying a secretary here and there. Reeling with desperation, Sidney tracks down J.J. in the middle of a meeting with a senator and the pretty young thing he is trying to help make it, and we get a taste of how brazen and ruthless J.J. can be. He even pals around with a threatening, corrupt police lieutenant that clearly owes him some favors. The poison spreads from character to character as Sidney enlists other creatures of the night to facilitate a smear campaign that paints Steve as a pot-smoking commie. J.J. is then to come to Steve’s rescue, thus absolving himself of being a part of the takedown. Setting up the trap, Sidney knows that Steve’s strength of character breaks apart with his pride, and Steve falls right in with harsh words against J.J. that will make it impossible for him to be with Susie.

Hollywood nice guys Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster have their personas inverted here as two morally reprehensible men whose power plays turn them to monsters. As the sycophantic Sidney, Curtis moves quickly through each scene, perfectly filling out a shifty, soulless body. The sharp, cynical dialogue cuts deep, and the moment of redemption that we’ve come to expect may not be reached. Although Sidney Falco does bite back with the line “It’s one thing to wear a dog collar; when it turns into a noose I’d rather have my freedom” but rather than walking away, he is easily manipulated back into the 21 Club booth.

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