Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

January 15, 2009

As snappy as the clicked fingers on the hip jazz soundtrack, this film peels away the layers to reveal the seedy side of the glamorous New York scene.  It looks fantastic, moves like a great Billy Wilder film, has a heart and conscience and wit, great dialogue and a neatly complete storyline.

There is a saying that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and that runs to the heart of this film.  Both lead characters are slimy, Machiavellian and unprincipled but only the one with authority appears irredeemable.  I’ve said before that I usually don’t like Burt Lancaster and in this film, there are and aren’t reasons why: his delivery of dialogue is horrible, a mish-mash of abrupt glottal stops and lingering esses at the end of sentences and this can render some snappy lines as rehearsed and implausible.  On the other hand his brooding, muscular, arrogant-yet-insecure screen presence is perfect for the part of J. J. Hunsecker.

The star, though, is Tony Curtis- again an actor I’ve little time for, other than his tongue-in-cheek cameo in ‘Paris When It Sizzles’- but here he really comes into his own as the aspirational press agent who is prepared to use his charm, good lucks and even to pimp out his sometime girlfriend to get to where he wants to be.  The restaurant scene where he stands up to Hunsecker and then relents when a juicier carrot is dangled is the key scene in the movie with both men at their best.

I loved the New York at night skyline and the razor-sharp black and white cinematography that made this film-noir at its best (in spirit if not necessarily structure) too.  All in all an impressive film from Alexander Mackendrick 8/10.

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