It all begins with the title. The irony aside, its lightness and alliteration suggest the last breaths of one of the film’s victims. “Dance of the Serpents” would have been too heavy, though the roles of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) realize the kind of maliciousness only possible through nonchalance. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) plays like a deliberate rebellion against the morally grounded classic Hollywood style. In this case, it’s hard to condemn crime outright when almost all are guilty.
The manner, and not the matter, makes this film a gem of the 1950s. Hunsecker, the manipulative columnist, and Falco, the opportunistic media agent serving him, deliver psychological violence through little more than conversation. Commencing from atop the corporate ladder, the power relationships are all the more damning. In “Sweet Smell,” big business (i.e., the media) is a breeding ground for abuse. The film makes much out of its 96 minutes. Every encounter seems to imply another sizable event. As the characters move from talk to action – when Falco procures a casual love interest (a cigarette girl) for personal gain, for example – a dark universe takes shape within “Sweet Smell’s” Manhattan.
This success comes down to performance. Lancaster appears impressionistic, reflecting the inner villainy of his role. An actor of immense range – he dropped jaws when underplaying in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” years later – Lancaster redirects his high-energy style toward tension between his eyes and jaw. A Senator tells Hunsecker (with intimidation, we should note) that everything he says “sounds like a threat.” For the latter, life is a series of opportunities to control; the conviction lies beneath his every word. His co-star shines next to an acting powerhouse. (When Gary Cooper was cast opposite Burt in “Vera Cruz” , Clark Gable warned the former that Burt would “wipe you off the map.”) Curtis delivers a natural performance, playing Falco as an anyguy aspiring toward Hunsecker’s level. The Faustian associations sit just below the surface, until the Dark One (i.e., JJ), turns against his underling.
Hunsecker casts him off when fearing the loss of his sister. In this role, a young Susan Harrison is at the center of the plot – her courtship and engagement to a jazz musician shakes brother’s insecure foundations. Hunsecker deploys Falco to condemn the kid through the media. Like most women in the classic Hollywood tradition, Susan is acted upon (like the cigarette girl getting pimped out in return for a smear against the fiancé). We have a peak into the warped psyche of Hunsecker – clearly obsessed with his sister, this perverse root may have spawned his remaining deviance, as such sexual issues did for the classic Warners’ gangsters. Thankfully, little screen time ponders this, leaving the actions of Hunsecker and Falco damning and engrossing. All this, plus a script stocked with some of the finest quotable barbs.
Criterion’s release dovetails with scholar James Naremore’s (More Than Night) new BFI entry on the film. Fittingly, the DVD set includes commentary from this invaluable contributor. The story of the film’s creation is as attention-worthy as the result. Blessed with talent throughout – from the writing (Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets), the cinematography (James Wong Howe), to the score (Elmer Bernstein) – the independent production rose from many strong personalities, hardly the least of which being actor-producer Lancaster. The set’s extras reflect this by delivering some backstage drama with the rightful artistic analysis. Thankfully, director Mackendrick doesn’t get lost in the mix, as the focus of two featurettes: a documentary and a tribute with pupil James Mangold. Neither does Lehman, with two of his stories featuring the film’s characters in a sizable accompanying book. Criterion’s release adds much to the central treasure. A flash of this black and white photography tells us we’re in a grand transitional period: the moments of “Psycho,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” As cinema changed, we get a fresh hit with oldtime underflavor.