Tuesday, September 13, 2011

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, USA)

Originally published at Kevyn Knox's excellent blog THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FRAUD IN THE WORLD.

A powerful journalist recreates reality by manipulating text, reducing morality to the black and white of the printed word, language a scalpel that cuts to the bone. Director Alexander Mackendrick swims with sharks amid this vicious feeding frenzy where politicians and celebrities alike are chum for the predatory journalist. The meaning of a man’s life is gossip not truth worth only a shred of green paper backed by the Federal Reserve.

Falco is an agent short on luck, his last hope of success in the dirty game of show business is to “do a favor” for the ubermensch columnist J.J. Hunsecker: Falco must secretly undermine the romance between his own client Dallas, a jazz guitarist, and Hunsecker’s little sister. Tony Curtis' ice-cream boy good looks are disarming, his piercing eyes and sly grin a mask of greed and self-indulgence, prostituting his friends (and himself) for a shot at the Big Time...whatever that may be. He plays against type by eschewing humor for greed, hiding behind a verbal barrage of insults and accusations: Falco is a true Grade-A Asshole. Curtis' sublime performance makes this very unlikable character too human, imbued with just enough self-reflection that we hope he can change and put this terrible lie behind him. But there is no redemption for Falco, only the clockwork of success and failure.

Burt Lancaster portrays the powerful Hunsecker without compassion, a Nietzschean prototype who judges his success by the trail of dead in his wake. He hides behind patriotism and justice, words and meanings bastardized and bowdlerized to support his opinions: he is the modern equivalent of Tea Party ethics, redacting history for his story. Hunsecker’s emotionally (and physically?) incestuous relationship with his younger sister is challenged by Dallas, an ordinary young man with no ulterior motive except love, and Hunsecker sets out to destroy Dallas just to satisfy his own agenda: power and control over everyone and everything. Dallas stands up to Hunsecker’s bullying but suffers the consequences: emotionally castrated, framed for drug possession, incarcerated and his jazz career likely over.

Mackendrick’s direction is superb as he moves the camera through busy New York City streets and nightclubs, crowding the frame with movement and suffocating anxiety. Though the film is verbose, it’s whipsmart dialogue breaks the sound barrier and pops with intensity. The cool jazz music and Elmer Bernstein score create the perfect soundstage, both as diagetic and diaphanous narrative instruments.

There is no justice in this seedy egomaniacal melodrama where the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

Final Grade: (B+)


Shubhajit said...

Sweet Smell of Success is one of my favourite film noirs... hell, it is one of my favourite movies. This is a dark, disturbing, cynical & piercing commentary on social culture & human behaviour; yet it also has a deliberately underscored sense of pathos running through its veins. And what superb acting by the two lead actors - Lancaster & Curtis! However, don't you think you gave the movie less credit (in terms of final grade) than it deserves? Great review nonetheless.

Alex DeLarge said...

Thanks Shubhajit! I wrote this review about 2 months ago and thinking about my grade, it's probably should be an (A). I can't really think why I downgraded a bit but that was just my first impression. My grading is subjective and always open to change:) I too consider this a masterpiece and worth many viewings.