Rating: 8 out of 10.

In 1955’s The Ladykillers, we’d seen Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick reach his best yet. But suddenly, Ealing Studios was closing. So what does a promising director do? He goes to Hollywood, boys and girls. He goes to Hollywood.

Sweet Smell of Success is the story of sleazy, fast talking, “cookie full of arsenic” press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who’s been shut out from powerful, possessive and egotistical J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) newspaper column. But when he discovers that J.J.’s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), has been proposed to by Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a jazz guitarist, Sidney spots his opportunity to get back in the game.

Wow, how this dog bites. There aren’t many as dark, acerbic and poisonous as this. Don’t be mistaken by the title: the smell of success may be sweet, but the arduous burdens to get there can be as soul consuming and repugnant as murder. It’s worth remembering that dead bodies give off a distinctive, sickly-sweet odour – smell can be a very misleading thing.

The script is a triumph, and likely one of the best ever written. It matches the likes of Chinatown, not necessarily in plot, but with succulently unsavoury and bitter dialogue and captivatingly complex characters. It flows like garbage juices through an intricate synthesis of precarious mountain trails, all leading to the selling of souls and wrecking of lives. It’s beautiful to see this sort of dialogue when it’s so sparse in the modern day, special-effect illiterate age. Ernest Lehman deserves the praise for the hard-bitten script, simultaneously relishing and abhorring the murky underworld of immortality.

The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.

Sidney Falco

But let’s be honest: Sweet Smell of Success is about two men. Sidney Falco, the fawning, slobbering sycophant, who will duck to any lows to serve his empty ambition, and J.J. Hunsecker, the monstrous, ice-cold power-monger, who, with his unflinching posture and domineering wedge shape, is the closest man has ever come to creating a real life Frankenstein.

And it’s the destructive and oppressive maelstrom that these two characters create playing off each other which provides Sweet Smell with that blood lusting cynicism. In reality, the rest of the characters just feel like insensible pawns in a battle between these stark opponents – which is perhaps one of my main criticisms of this film: that the rest of the characters, particularly the lover relationship caught up in this very maelstrom, feel sufficiently weaker and underdeveloped.

But it’s worth coming back to this disturbed dynamic between the two bewitching characters. Despite being guiltless mercenaries out for themselves, I think they both, deep down, need each other. The charming street urchin, Sidney has a ravenous appetite for winning, and while licking J.J.’s shoes clean is humiliating, part of him seems to savour the dirty work – and, of course, he knows that just one well-executed, sly plan means he could have his own column. J.J., meanwhile, sees Sidney as not only a reminder of his superiority, but also a test of it. To him, Sidney is the garbage juices flowing down the mountain trail, and he relishes the challenge to evade the stench without ruining his suit. If Sidney’s the snake, J.J. is the snake charmer. Beneath its scabby surface, Sweet Smell of Success is a tragic, if unorthodox, love story. These are the savage conquistadors of 1950’s America who scoff together in the darkest corner of the room about “integrity” – the only two men who understand each other.

The gay subtext is undeniable. After all, both Curtis (six marriages, six children) and Lancaster (three marriages, five children) were frequently rumoured to be homosexual – Lancaster, more specifically, bisexual. Their toxic affinity is the very backbone of the film, and as we drift away from that after the first half an hour into a more complex plot, there’s no doubt the film feels like it loses that special something. When Sidney enters the 21 Club and takes an unsolicited seat next to J.J., we just want to spend the whole night listening to the grating bickering of an old married couple, exchanging insults and smears as the midnight oil burns.

The acting needs no introduction. Tony Curtis gives a career defining performance, and it’s refreshing to see – after all, he had just been playing pretty boys in the lead up to a role he fought tooth and nail to get against Universal Studios’ recommendation. Here, he shows his full quality as an unscrupulous antihero. Burt Lancaster was also in a vicious cycle of typecasting. Often the tough guy with a tender heart, he gives an incredible power performance only replicated 20 years later in A New Hope, by Darth Vader.

The portrayals of New York throughout cinema history have been nothing short of stellar. So it’s no surprise that Sweet Smell reeks of the city. People underestimate how important setting is to a film, but not this flick – it understands how inviting a tarnished and deeply rotten world can be. Swirling in Manhattan night life, buzzing night clubs are where the suckers are killed, and the rain swept streets are where they’re buried.

I love this dirty city.

J.J. Hunsecker

To think The Ladykillers came just two years before for Mackendrick is shocking. For a promising young director who had only done Ealing comedies, this must have been startling. It’s such a different type of film – misanthropic, analytical, almost gothic. He never made a film like it after. See what happens when you spend more than one week in New York?

But despite this all, Sweet Smell of Success crumbled in the box office. Losing money, people were disgusted and appalled by something so uncharacteristic of everyone involved. Curtis fans didn’t like it. Lancaster fans didn’t like it. It didn’t appear that many did. This didn’t help Mackendrick at all. While many may hail this as his best film, it certainly truncated his career at the time, and his eventual sacking from The Devil’s Disciple by the same producers here due to his overly painstaking methods did nothing to help either. Luckily, critics have been done much to help the film’s reputation since, and it’s mostly pinned as a classic. It speaks volumes that this is Vince Gilligan’s favourite film.

But dogs get old. And this one is now 64 years senior. There’s no doubt about, Sweet Smell of Success lacks the same punch that it used to hold in its golden yesteryear. Morally ambiguous characters, far more horrifying than anything that feature here, are commonplace nowadays. Unforgivable acts often seen in this film aren’t disgraced today, but glorified. It just doesn’t feel like it holds the same tension. Was I recoiling from the screen? No. And without that keyest of components, Sweet Smell of Success feels like it’s lacking the spice in the curry. If the cat’s in a bag, and the bag’s in a river, would it have been that disturbing to go all the way and let the cat out?

Perhaps you’re wondering: is this an Old Yeller situation, then? Should Sweet Smell of Success finally be put to sleep? No. There’s still a lot to like about this film, but it feels like it’s never really found it’s rightful place in history. If I was being merciful, I’d say it’s incredible that a film, which came before The Beatles, the closing of Alcatraz, the Civil Rights Act and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, still has that insatiable quality to entertain; but, if I was being cruel, I’d say this is a film you can only respect, rather than get to know any deeper in our modern age.

Sweet Smell of Success – 8 out of 10

26 Comments

  1. In case you missed it…

    Check yesterday’s post to make your suggestions for a themed week starting next Monday: https://overtheshoulder129848657.wordpress.com/2021/08/02/themed-week/

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh I love this dark and sinister film. ‘I’ve left my sense of humour in my other suit’ – doesn’t Tony Curtis say that? Haven’t seen it for years.
    I didn’t know Tony Curtis was rumoured to be gay. Good detailed post. H

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep, that’s another one of it’s great lines – it’s funny how some are burned into the memory. The dialogue being truly incredible is probably one reason. I’m not sure many films have matched it since.

      In terms of Curtis, I doubt it’s true – however: six marriages is turbulent to say the least; in Sweet Smell, interestingly, there’s the scene at the club where a woman calls him “pretty” – I don’t think many ’50s actors would just be able to sit there and smile without feeling threatened in some way; who could forget Some Like It Hot – while Jack Lemmon looks like a man pretending to be woman, Curtis is really going for it and could probably pull it off walking down the street; and, well, he’s a pretty boy – what do you expect? There were always going to be rumours around him. Whether any of them had any basis, I don’t think many people could say.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “It flows like garbage juices through an intricate synthesis of precarious mountain trails,” well that’s a thing I doubt as ever happened, you need some verbal Imodium! Never seen this movie and probably never will.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha! Have you ever been to deepest darkest Peru? Supposedly, it happens there all the time…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Are we talking Paddington Bear here!!?? (Sadly murdered by you know who).

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Paddington 3 hasn’t been released yet, so I couldn’t possibly say. But I think this a good new rule – not speaking you know who’s name aloud. Likely brings bad luck. A teddy bear dies every time you say it!

          Liked by 2 people

        2. That would be sad. He will ever be referred to as HWMNBSO.

          Liked by 2 people

        3. We could have conjured up something shorter, but HWMNBSO will have to do.

          Liked by 2 people

        4. How about HWSBU?

          Liked by 1 person

        5. HWSBU works. Right, it’s official. The first real rule on this humble blog:

          1) He, who shall remain nameless, must be referred to as either HWSBU or HWMNBSO – not to save time, but to save Teddie bear’s lives

          Liked by 2 people

        6. Ok. Over and out.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. beetleypete says:

      You should watch it, it really is excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Brian Hannan says:

    Cigarette me! Is that from this film? this was a terrific piece of work from the deepest depths of a dirty business, a cut-throat’s cut-throat, fabulous performances and a blistering script. not sure Mackendrick did so badly out of it. Seeing he could handle big actors like these Carl Foreman hired him for The Guns of Navarone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Match me!” I believe it is, and delivered with such hate and power. A great line delivered by a great actor. Glad you love this one so much, Brian. Critics like you have made it the classic it is!

      Well, he was hired for The Guns of Navarone, but then once again sacked, as something that seemed to become a habit in his career. I don’t think he ever made anything of the same quality after this, which was a shame, because he could have done a lot more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Brian Hannan says:

        Thanks for the correction. He did go on to become probably the first professional to start teaching at film school and it would be interesting to note how many future directors he nourished. I’ve got High Wind in Jamaica and Don’t Make Waves still to see.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No worries, Brian. Would be interesting to know. Wikipedia says this: “Some of Mackendrick’s most notable students include David Kirkpatrick, Doug Campbell, Terence Davies, F. X. Feeney, Richard Jefferies, James Mangold, Stephen Mills, Thom Mount, Sean Daniel, Bruce Berman, Gregory Orr, Don Di Pietro, Michael Pressman, Douglas Rushkoff, Lee Sheldon, David Brisbin, and Henry Golas amongst others.” I’ll admit, I don’t recognise many of the names, but many of them became producers/executive producers, Thom Mount became the President of Universal Pictures, and James Mangold is a very successful director/writer. Would be interesting to see your views on those latter films.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Brian Hannan says:

          I’ll get to them later in the year.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Alex Good says:

    Nice write-up! Haven’t seen this in a while. Been meaning to go back to it. They were cynical back in the day, but there were limits to what they could get away with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Alex. Worth a revist, for sure. The Hays Code, eh? Although it was on the decline in the late ’50s, I see your point.

      Like

  6. beetleypete says:

    “Match me, Sidney”. This film has one of my favourite scripts ever, and simply outstanding performances from both leads playing against type. That it was unpopular at the time speaks to ‘fan disappointment’. Real film fans would have seen the quality in every frame. Despite its age, it still gets 10/10 from me.#
    Cheers, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew you’d like this one, Pete. The script, I agree, is stellar. Curtis and Lancaster are incredible and with great chemistry. I know many a people who would agree with your rating – some people adore it. It’s flawed, but I can certainly see why.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Started to read this on my lunch break yesterday and wanted to finish it this morning. Great review and for a film I might have never noticed, I now want to watch. I have a feeling I’m going to be watching a few black and white movies for the next couple of months, what an era. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Neon! You’re too kind! Most certainly an interesting one. There are some stone cold classic black and whites, and this is one of them. Give it a watch!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. What a chronicle! I like that, I like sentences like “It flows like garbage juices through an intricate synthesis of precarious mountain trails, all leading to the selling of souls and wrecking of lives.” they give me the urge to see the film. 😀
    I’ve seen “The Ladykillers”, both versions, but I’m not fond of it. But Ealing produced the excellentissime” “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, and I think that is one of the best British movies ever.
    And Mackendrick did also “A High Wind in Jamaica” which was also a very good surprise.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Glad you liked it. It’s well worth a watch. Shame you didn’t like Ladykillers – it was an interesting one, and still, surprisingly, very entertaining. Ealing made a lot of good stuff, and so did Mackendrick. Haven’t seen A High Wind, so may be worth a look!

      Liked by 2 people

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