Criterion | 1957 | 96 mins. | NR

A bomb at the time of its release in 1957, Sweet Smell of Success was largely thought to be a thinly veiled attack on Walter Winchell, who for decades had been the most famous and reviled gossip columnist in America. Largely forgotten now, he as well as fellow gossip columnists Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and others, had the power to make or break careers. The tepid box office was likely the result of disgruntled Tony Curtis fans. They expected him to play one of his typical nice guy roles and instead were presented with the acid tongued, Sidney Falco.

Sweet Smell of SuccessSidney Falco (Curtis) is the kind of guy no one truly calls a friend, “a man of 40 faces, not one, none too pretty, and all deceptive”: he’s a press agent. His job is succinct, yet dirty: convince gossip columnists to run a sentence or two about his clients; after all, a sentence or two can make or break a career. He’ll do anything to get ahead; in his words, “a press agent eats a columnist’s dirt and calls it manna.” So marginal that his name isn’t printed on his dingy office door, but written on a sheet of paper and taped there. Falco needs to break out as much as one of his stars.

Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, the most powerful columnist in New York. Just a few words from him can make or break a career. Most of Falco’s income is derived from the items he gets into Hunsecker’s column, but recently Hunsecker has frozen him out. Hunsecker’s reasoning is straightforward—the columnist had asked Falco to break up a romance between his younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and so far, Falco hasn’t done the job.

Desperate to get back in J.J.’s good graces, Sidney hatches a plan to convince another columnist–Hunsecker’s bitter rival—to run a smear item about her fiancé—in a manner that won’t appear like it came from her brother’s camp.  Of course, these are the acts of two very cruel men. Susan is clearly in her twenties (at least), yet her older brother feels the need to control every aspect of her life. While Sidney is cruel, there’s something sad about him; he’s a has-been who never really was, catching the crumbs of other’s success.

Hunsecker tries to appear emotionless at all times; for a man of such power he seems almost devoid of any sexuality. However, his relationship with Susan feels wrong—one might say there are incestuous overtones. Despite this, Hunsecker seems tuned into all of Falco’s emotions—able to anticipate how he will react to every situation.

Tony Curtis had to fight for the role of Falco; his studio Universal was afraid it would ruin his pretty boy reputation. Though response at the time was tepid, Falco was one of the best performances of Curtis’ career and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  Slinking around the city, heavy lidded, looking for a way to curry J.J.’s favor. Curtis constantly wipes his mouth with his hands, tissues, handkerchiefs; it’s as if he’s trying to wipe away his own fifth. Even J.J. seems to admire the depth of his depravity: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Lancaster is top notch as well. A cross between a Marine drill sergeant and the Old Testament God, he is always shot from low angles, emphasizing his power and overbearing. He speaks softly, he’s confident people will strain to hear what he has to say. When he sets out to destroy Dallas, it’s all the scarier because he remains calm as the dastardly plan plays out.

Co-written by Ernest Lehman (with Clifford Odets), he based the film on a novelette he’d written in the late 1940’s. The director, Alexander Mackendrick, from Britain, is probably best known for comedies such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) but Sweet Smell of Success, a piece of film noir, is arguably his best work.

Photographed by Oscar winner James Wong Howe, he effectively shows the ‘grimy’ side of glamorous New York. Scenes take place in midtown Manhattan at clubs such as 21. Though we watch as J.J. courts senators and other important people and works in his palatial residence, no matter the scene the wintry, black & white photography adds an unmistakable sense of dread throughout the film.

Sweet Smell of Success was rightly selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1993 and the Criterion Collection has given the film a wonderful Blu-ray release.

Criterion presents Sweet Smell of Success in a wonderful new 1080p/24hz transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc.

The transfer is excellent. The contrast is top notch, bringing every detail to the fore. In close-ups, we see every blemish and pore on the actors faces. Blacks are solid but but can be a bit dull here and there. However, there are no problems with artifacts. The image is also clean and free of dirt or damage.

The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio mix presents the typically mono-era soundtrack with crystal clear dialogue  along with the jazz riffs and the occasional street or nightclub ambiance typical of New York City nightlife in the 1950s.

We get the following special features:

An audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore. Naremore offers a informative track, delivering his own observations about the film, its story, characters, his feelings on the relationship between Hunsecker and his sister, and he discusses the noir-like photography. He also covers the somewhat problematic production.

Following this is a 1986 documentary made for Scottish television, Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away. Running about 45-minutes it covers his early film career including work he did in Italy after the war. He then moved on to Ealing Studios where he made The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and others, and from there it covers his move to Hollywood and briefly covers Sweet Smell of Success and A High Wind in Jamaica. It then briefly mentions his move to teaching at CalArts. It includes interviews with him (Lancaster, James Coburn, James Hill, Charles Crichton, and others.

Next up is a brief documentary about the film’s cinematographer, James Wong Howe. Made in 1973 and running 22-minutes it’s comprised primarily of interviews with the man as he reflects on his career and explains his techniques.

Gabler on Winchell has historian Neal Gabler talking about gossip columnist Walter Winchell, the basis for the J. J. Hunsecker character in the film. It runs 29-minutes.

Director James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line, Knight and Day) talks about Alexander Mackendrick, who was the teacher he most looked up to while attending CalArts. For 25-minutes Mangold covers Mackendrick’s teaching style and his concern over the art of telling a story rather than the technical aspects of making a movie.

The disc concludes with a 3-minute theatrical trailer.

Also included is a 56-page booklet. We first get a essay by Gary Giddens  about the film, Mackendrick, HHL productions, cinematographer James Wong Howe, Lancaster, Curtis, and everything else about the production. Following this is a brief introduction Ernest Lehman wrote for a publication that included his novella Sweet Smell of Success, followed by a reprinting of the short story Hunsecker Fights the World, which introduces Sidney Falco and J. J. Hunsecker. The booklet then concludes with a piece written by Paul Cronin about Clifford Odets and his involvement with the script and working with Mackendrick, which then leads into a piece written by Mackendrick about Odets and the film.

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