Words: Brody Rossiter
“YOU’RE DEAD SON, GET YOURSELF BURIED”
Synonymous with a series a successful and celebrated Ealing Studios releases, including Whiskey Galore, The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, Alexander Mackendrick’s first directorial effort upon crossing the Atlantic was a Machiavellian exposé of New York City’s seedy print media underbelly. Starring Tony Curtis as a “pretty” but increasingly fraught press agent who has fallen out of favour with his newspaper connection, the ruthless gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), Sweet Smell of Success details a venomous plot to sabotage a young couple’s relationship beneath a very public spotlight.
Hunsucker’s potent column spreads far and wide throughout late 1950’s New York City, making and breaking stars with a paragraph, but when his sister begins dating a talented jazz guitarist – a relationship to which he takes great exception – he releases even his influence has its limits. Curtis’ smooth talking Sidney Falco is tasked with separating the young lovers, however, when his scheming falls short, so do his clients’ newspaper inches – threatening his existence as a premier press agent amongst the bright lights of NYC’S burgeoning nightlife.
The picture is an intricately plotted journey through a vivacious yet cutthroat scene of peddlers and pushers, but despite the evident noir presentation – the city largely blanketed in darkness punctuated by the hot white of neon throughout – it’s not thieves and hoodlums that inhabit murky interiors and energetic clubs, but rather newspaper men and their dirty deeds.
Despite his stardom, Lancaster’s fearlessness in depicting downright ugly characters is never more evident than in the case of J. J. Hunsecker. A manipulative control freak who displays the once unseemly power of the press and printed word, the columnist wields his pen as though it were brick conveniently resting outside the house of anyone who rubs him the wrong way. Curtis’ Falco provides the perfect foil. Young but already extremely savvy, the press agent begs, barters, and blackmails, all with a charming smile on his face to ensure Hunsucker’s demands are met.
This Arrow Blu-ray release of the picture, an edition which expertly sharpens the black and white tones, pumps up the jarring brass score, and provides an array of valuable extra features, is an appropriate package for one of the finest and most unique crime thrillers of the era. With a highly memorable cast, sumptuously dark cinematography, and razorblade sharp dialogue, Sweet Smell of Success is undoubtedly a classic. And in an age when press activity is under more scrutiny than ever before, a clear piece of evidence in exhibiting the behaviours that led newspaper men and women down a decidedly dark and ugly path.