Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty-Four

#44 — Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
“I’d hate to take a bit outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” There. I’ve completed one of the necessities of writing a piece of any amount of skill and knowledge (baffled philistine internet comments section twaddle doesn’t count) and quoted the signature line from Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick’s savage indictment of the fragility of an entertainment industry utterly beholden to the unscrupulous journalists that cover it. Though my instincts tend towards finding a way to sidestep the familiar quotation, there’s a reason it shows up every time someone tries to convey the bleakly comic power of the film, especially the screenplay that Ernest Lehman adapted (with no less than Clifford Odets pitching in) from his own novelette. There is the fact that the line in question is iconic among cineaste geeks, the rough equivalent of “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” or “May the Force be with you” in the broader culture. More importantly, like those more famous pieces of dialogue, it not only conveys the pure essence of the film it’s drawn from, but somehow taps into what’s special about movies themselves, particularly their capacity for cleverness and surprise. This cutting description delivered by ruthless columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) does what the very best film noir dialogue does: it recasts the patter of everyday life in a more brilliantly barbed form.

The film’s protagonist is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent who’s struggling at his chosen job, at least in part because of his inability to curry the favor of Hunsecker and his ilk. In a last ditch attempt to rescue himself professionally, Falco throws in with Hunsecker, quickly descending into some of the dirtiest dealings employed by the columnist. The film doesn’t avoid the contradictions at play, openly condemning the immorality of the codependent culture of fame while simultaneously acknowledging the toxic allure of shortcuts to success, especially when joined with base impulses for vengeful triumph over others. Much of that comes through in the resounding performance of Lancaster, all oily, steely authority as Hunsecker. The man has a sedate contentment in his own viciousness, a unquestioning certainty that what he is doing is always to his own benefit. And what else could possible matter?

The words of Lehman and Odets are roundly and rightly celebrated, but Mackendrick’s direction is just as key to the film’s success. The film is rich with film noir stylistic touches, notably the dark yet vivid shadows that infiltrate the frame (the marvelous black and white cinematography is by James Wong Howe). That element heightens the stark brutality of the story, and the fierce rhythms of the work gives it a yet more striking undercurrent of urban cool. Elmer Bernstein provides the jazz-inflected score, moving in tandem with Mackendrick’s edgy visual music. Sweet Smell of Success often seems like it’s finding its way in a dark world, trying out flinty improvisations and willfully taking sharp, smart intellectual digressions, always with the assurance that it has the wits–and scathing wits, at that–to emerge safely from its tonal experiments. Its sweet acidity is a marvel. And always worth quoting.

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