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Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) takes place in one of those movie-worlds where people just don't speak the way real people do. The Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman-scripted lines like "That's fish four days old. I won't buy it!" come snapping from characters' mouths like machine-gun fire, a mixture of both real and made-up lingo that delights the ear. Some of the snappiest of those lines come from star Burt Lancaster, who plays sharp-tongued New York City gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Based on real-life columnist Walter Winchell, J.J. holds the city's show-biz industry in the palm of his hand, making or breaking careers with the items he writes in his daily commentary. The power J.J. wields has made him egomaniacal and a tad crazy, and he's not above destroying a life purely on a whim — the life he currently wants to destroy is that of the young jazz musician named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), who's dating J.J's beloved baby sister, Susie (Susan Harrison). Not wanting to risk implicating himself in breaking them up, J.J. passes this bag of dirty laundry to boot-licking press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a sleazy hanger-on who's dependent on J.J.'s column to publicize his clients. Falco is also dependent on J.J.'s "friendship" to provide some small illusion of importance — J.J. is, Falco says at one point, "the golden ladder to the place I want to get." Photographed in luscious black and white by the great James Wong Howe, Sweet Smell's New York is a harsh nighttime world of constant traffic, busy streets, and swanky nightclubs. Curtis, in one of the best roles of his career, plays Falco as a whipped dog nipping at the heels of Lancaster's alpha male, a constant swirl of energy that never stops bobbing, weaving and circling. Like J.J., he's utterly without morals ("I'd hate to take a bite out of you,'' J.J. says to him. "You're a cookie full of arsenic''), but unlike J.J. he's desperate, even going so far as to pimp the cigarette girl who adores him to another columnist as part of his dirty work for his boss. Lancaster, absolutely brilliant here, plays Hunsecker as one of the screen's slimiest villains. He slithers through '21' Club and Toots Shor's, greeting maitre'ds and bartenders by name, and holding court at the best table in the house with complete self-absorbed confidence, never missing a trick. In one of the film's best moments he makes Falco's role patently clear by not even acknowledging his presence at the table, just holding an unlit cigarette up without looking around and demanding "Match me, Sidney.'' British director James Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers) shows us the jazz joints and nightclubs of Manhattan through a foreigner's eye — coupled with Odets' otherworldly hipster dialogue, it's an amused, horrified, and compelling view of a dog-eat-dog world where only the meanest survive. MGM's DVD release of Sweet Smell of Success does justice to Howe's rich, high-contrast cinematography, in letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1) and monaural Dolby 2.0. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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