Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

From the very first scene, The Sweet Smell of Success locks you into the exact date and location where the story inhabits, New York in the later part of the 1950's. This was a tough, dirty and un-gentrified New York. You are automatically thrown into the clogged streets to fend for yourself. This is a New York where men wore hats and women were dames. Everybody around you seemed to move with a dancer's strut and with just the turn of a phrase could cut you into pieces. 
The director, Alexander Mackendrick, channels the manic energy of The Big Apple and serves up a bitter dish of smoky bars, cigarette girls, and unscrupulous bottom feeders.The story revolves primarily around Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent, and J.J. Hunsecker, the columnist who can make or break careers. They are two desperate individuals; Sidney is desperate to get to where J.J. is, while Hunsecker is desperate to keep the power he already has. You have to give Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster a lot of credit for being brave enough to play such unlikable roles, especially when their careers were built around their pretty-boy facades.
J.J. needs Sidney to pry his sister, Susie, away from the arms of Steve Dallas, a jazz guitarist. If this movie has any flaws it would have to be these characters. They aren't fully developed, and for a jazz guitarist Steve Dallas seems too white bread. Susie and Steve are mere plot devices, and I didn't much care for their story.
The real meat within the movie is the dynamic between Falco and Hunsecker. It has been written that there relationship has homoerotic overtones, but I disagree. Both men are attracted to power, but they are too narcissistic to ever really have any sincere feelings for any person. They are victims of their own greed and have become such good manipulators that they have started to believe the very lies that they tell people.
This movie is about the power of media. How a small number of people have a monopoly on how we get our information, and how people who relish power more than they care about the truth filter that information. This movie shines a light on the tarnished beauty of New York. Many come to this city looking for validation, but very few achieve their goals. We may not live in that New York anymore, but at least movie fans can sit back and enjoy the great on-location shots by James Wong Howe, Elmer Bernstein's rhythmic score, and the arsenic-laced dialogue.

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