Reflections on “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957),
dir. Alexander Mackendrick,
script Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman,
starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
A video presentation of these notes is available here
Given the recent scandals in and around the press in Britain (phone tapping, political jostling for favour and police corruption), this film appears more relevant than ever!
Although the film is ostensibly about a newspaper columnist, his influence and the lengths to which people will go to curry favour, the underlying criticism can be applied to any number of areas – anywhere where individuals put their own careers, needs and desires above law, principle and common humanity.
“Sweet Smell of Success” is the story of one man’s power and influence (illusory but accepted by others), his selfish abuse of that power, and the grasping attempts of others to flatter, please or weasel their way into his field of influence.
It offers a shattering picture of the media and the ways in which newspapers (and now television, radio and social networking sites) can make or break careers and lives without necessarily respecting fact and truth. This amoral and self-righteous attitude is personified by J. J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster).
Hunsecker is a callous, unforgiving and intolerant man accustomed to passing judgement and manipulating the response of others to individuals. Of course he has no right to do what he does, but he is given leeway perhaps because those in a position to stop him feel they might become the next victims of his intolerance.
In good part, this is the responsibility of the whole of society in that “they” decide what is acceptable or not, but in the meantime, until mood and attitude change, there are those who would follow Hunsecker’s example, accept the status quo and try to turn it to their personal advantage.
Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis) is one such hustler. A publicity man acting on behalf of his clients, but also in his own interests, Sidney reluctantly agrees to become involved in Hunsecker’s blatant fabrications for his own ends, paying no heed to the pain and suffering caused by his actions.
This cynical turning away from principle, truth and “decency” toward base manipulation of facts for their own ends shows there are few heroes here – only guys caught up in the existential battle for survival and the imposition of one’s own will.
Only two of the characters, Hunsecker’s sister Susie and her boyfriend Steve, show decency and a respect for truth and sincerity, and they are portrayed as hopelessly outnumbered and inadequate in face of the number of hustlers and the sheer scale of their machinations. Every other character has something shady to hide – a reason why they have sought favours from others and why they now owe favours.
This is a world of shady dealings behind a façade of glitter and respectability. Everyone conceals truth and plays on what it would cost the individual were the truth to be revealed. J. J. Hunsecker appears to be the only one to openly accept this and call a spade a spade, and this may be why he rules the rumour roost, a position he maintains through his cold and calculating use of information gathered by lackeys. Indeed, his problems begin only when he allows things to become personal and he interferes in his beloved kid sister’s relationship, and when he starts to see himself as the righteous figure whose position he has adopted rather than an ordinary man filling that position.
Sidney Falco, on the other hand, remains an underling, but one who aspires to Hunsecker’s hallowed position and “greatness”. He plays games with the lives of all those he meets, to some extent in order to further their careers, but he is overwhelmingly motivated by what he can gain for himself in so doing. That said, we feel there may still be a glimmer of humanity in Sidney as he is clearly uncomfortable with the lengths to which he is being invited to go, yet he caves in when offered what he regards as the ultimate reward – a column of his own. In the end, however, he must turn to the truth to save himself as he learns how it feels to be a victim of manipulation and deceit.
The script bristles with wit and wisdom while maintaining a remarkable pace, and Mackendrick’s direction is simply superb as he fills the screen with fake light and glitter while surrounded by darkness. It is a relief to see Susie emerge into natural light in the end, crossing the road toward sunshine! There is no let-up in the pace and Mackendrick helps to coax great and varied performances from his actors.
Burt Lancaster is the tower of uncompromising strength of self-belief required at the centre of this film. Without such a cold, manipulative, but above all intelligent and indomitable performance, there would be no film. Hunsecker is the warning, the self-righteous thing to avoid, while Sidney Falco is the wannabe in gestation – a character for whom you may feel contempt, yet he retains a glimmer of hope and humanity, and as such he is played brilliantly by Tony Curtis. Curtis’s performance (oily, manipulative, but with that trace of human hesitation and truth that allow the viewer to see the doubt in his mind) should be considered one of the greatest in film history.
All told, this is a wonderful combination of script, direction and performance to tell a tale of how personal advancement may be achieved at the expense of others, and how principle and truth may also fall victim to that ambition.
The film was, at the time of its release in 1957, a complete flop and caused considerable damage to the careers of several of the participants. It has since gained a phenomenal and well-deserved reputation as a film classic, and was even chosen for preservation in the United States Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
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