Like fresh dough being carefully twisted into a deformed pretzel, the manipulative lead characters in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success were born without a spine. Contorting words, loyalties, perspectives, and truths is second nature for a high-powered New York City columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), and his publicist lackey, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), their collective scheming and backstabbing representing just a small pocket of moral rot eating away the glitzy Manhattan mise-en-scène. These men inhabit the back corners of dive bars, the nooks offstage at Broadway plays, and the corner stools on the fringes of jazz joints, always looking for different ways to spew the poisonous gossip to insure their economic and social survival. Each machine gun-like conversation is a façade, each broken promise a Malakoff cocktail, often merging together to form negotiations ripe with passive-aggressive assaults on true love and commitment. In this world of real vice and fake virtue, nothing is sacred and everything is game.
There are no heroes in Sweet Smell of Success, just victimizers and victims. Often, key characters inhabit both roles simultaneously, with the sleek and sly Sidney fitting this mold perfectly. Mackendrick introduces Sidney as a jumbled ball of nerves, under the iron thumb of J.J. for not successfully breaking up a romance between Hunsecker’s younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and her musician boyfriend, Steve (Martin Milner), but also an effective dictator over those lost souls beneath him on the food chain. Sidney’s even willing to whore out a friend or two to get what he wants. Early on, after receiving a phone call from an angry client, Sidney tells his secretary, “Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off,” then immediately insults her for genuinely caring about his fledgling career. One second Sidney’s a sweet talker, the next he’s gutting your character from the inside out, and it’s this type of back and forth that makes Sweet Smell of Success so enthralling.
When Mackendrick finally introduces J.J. in person (we’ve already seen his pervasive picture in newspaper ads all over the city), nothing can prepare us for his cold-stone samurai presence and razorblade tongue. “You’re dead, so get yourself buried,” he says to Sydney, living up to his reputation as a crusher of dreams. Based on the infamous Walter Winchell, J.J. lobs verbal grenades at friends and foes alike, deflating egos and confidence with a few choice words and a strong glance. He commands attention and abhors insubordination, something Sidney learns far too well throughout the film. Together, they advance on Susan and Steve with a multitude of brutal tactics, everything from character assassination (accusations of communism, drug use) to entrapment and evidence tampering, forcing the innocent couple into a quagmire of emotional uncertainty.
Over the course of Sweet Smell of Success’s trim 96-minute running time, Mackendrick paints New York City in brash visual strokes, mashing together flashing lights, honking horns, and sweeping bodies to jam-pack the possibilities of movement and detail. This bustling aesthetic appears immediately, with James Wong Howe’s sterling black-and-white cinematography playing over the opening credits, a visual fabric woven together with long tracking shots swimming across busy streets, up flashing marquees, and down the depths of alleyways. The camera can’t help but slither outside in the cold, but the visuals take on a balmy thousand-yard stare during interiors, planting next to characters in static shots as they berate each other to a bloody pulp.
There’s also an intriguing emphasis on moral ambiguity as a valid belief system, something comparative to a devout form of religion. The indoctrination process is produced by years of failure and compromise, experiences that develop a callus against hard work ethics and fair play. This is best on display when Sidney tries to peak at an advance copy of J.J.’s influential Broadway column, Hunsecker’s secretary saying, “You haven’t got a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You’re immersed in the theology of making a fast buck.” Sidney squirms, then laughs it off, at peace with his own unrelenting seediness. Even more disturbing is that J.J. and Sidney truly believe their wonky methodologies are the best way to obtain freedom of expression and economic stability. In the end, they both are cut by the piercing power of that double-edged sword.
The almost elemental focus on poisoning people’s minds and manipulating their bodies wraps Sweet Smell of Success in a putrid scent that sputters the film’s moral compass out of control. When Sidney screams to the rafters, “I’m toasting my favorite new perfume: Success,” the smoky interior of the bar reeks from the fallen bodies he’s trampled over to get to the top. And even though Susan and Steve (portrayed as strong but simple innocents) deny these manipulators their day of victory, there’s still a distinct stench rising from the quiet street as the end credits roll over the New York skyline. In this final moment of deafening solitude, Sweet Smell of Success becomes a brilliant foreshadowing to the abuse of information and perspective in the Internet age, a virtuosic, damning, and above all else, intoxicating portrait of American power lust. This is the original Social Network.
No other recent Criterion Blu-ray has looked this amazingly textured and detailed, with the 1080p high-definition transfer bringing every dank corner of Sweet Smell of Success to life. The striking visual palette of layered shadow designs, cramped social spectrums, and nuanced living spaces evoke a glorious old-school Hollywood feel, putting the home viewer knee-deep in the shady dealings from the first frame. Every facet of the imagery is crisp, calibrated to highlight James Wong Howe's lush imagery and fluid camera movement. The on-location cinematography of New York City has a clarity that can't be matched, resonating with an immaculate sheen and gloss. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack improves on the previous DVD release of the film, and Elmer Bernstein's jazzy score sweeps through each location like a seductive siren reminding each character of its omniscient presence.
A wonderful collection of featurettes begins with "Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away," a Swedish-made documentary on the director's diverse career, including interviews with Burt Lancaster and James Coburn. The piece gives an extemporary view of Mackendrick's love for drawing, his time as a propaganda filmmaker in WWII, and his devotion to the process of story. "James Wong Howe: Cinematographer" is a short but informative primary source document mostly made up of interviews with the artist himself. The film's credo comes from Howe himself: "The objective of the cinematographer is to exercise the control of the quality of life in such a manner that what appears on the screen appears natural fitting the mood and the dramatic content of the scene." In a new video interview, historian Neal Gabler discusses how Walter Winchell "popularized the gossip column" through a celebrity-driven high-speed style of journalism. Finally, there's a personal video interview with director James Mangold, who lovingly remembers his mentor and friend Alexander Mackendrick as a kind but conflicted artist deeply critical of his own work and teaching styles. Also included: an original theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring a brilliantly written essay by critic Gary Giddens on the power and influence of Sweet Smell of Success.
Hyperbole doesn’t come close to describing the importance and beauty of Criterion’s essential Blu-ray release of Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a must-own for every film lover.