Newsmen Noir: Sweet Smell of Success (Criterion Collection)
The dark 1957 dramatic satire Sweet Smell of Success has recently been given the Criterion treatment. Staring Tony Curtis as a PR man willing to sell his soul for success, the story centers around the megalomaniacal machinations of a God-like gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster. J.J. Hunsecker lords over the New York tabloid scene from his table at 21, playing the morally ambiguous Curtis for a chump as he manipulates those around him to maintain power over his younger sister and the city itself. Lancaster’s columnist is modeled after the legendary Walter Winchell, who some point to as the originator of our current tabloid news culture. Winchell played much the same character in real life as he covered celebrities and politics from his perch at the Stork Club. The relationship between Winchell and his fictional counterpart, Hunsecker, is similar to that of William Randolph Hearst and Charles Foster Kane—thinly veiled, at best. But, what makes the film Criterion worthy is less about politics than it is about artistry…that is, if the two can be untangled.
Originally penned by Ernest Lehman, based on his novella, the script was brilliantly rewritten by playwright Clifford Odets. The dialogue skips along, a mix of violent imagery, animal metaphor, and sharply cynical one-liners. “The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.” Curtis’ Sidney Falco assures. The film is a star turn for Curtis, who had, up to that point, been relegated to B-movie pretty boy. 1950’s Manhattan is captured in gorgeous chiaroscuro by Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe and a jazz-noir score by Elmer Bernstein enhances the sharp edged visuals. Director Alexander Mackendrick artfully brings it all together creating a classic of post-war American greed, ambition, and style. This Criterion edition is packed full of documentaries, commentaries, and essays on the film, but the standout is the digital restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, reinvigorating the dynamic black and white. All in all, the Sweet Smell of Success is a must have for any cinephile and is of particular interest to anyone who loves the smoke-filled jazz joints, meticulous dress, and hard drinking ambition of the 1950s: when men were men, dames were dames, and Manhattan was still in black and white.