Criterion Project #16: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

I can say with complete sincerity that I did not plan this order. Two noirs back-to-back in the month of November is a serendipitous coincidence that pleased me. I may just continue the trend and keep the noir train rolling through the month. We shall see…

Sweet Smell of Success

Year: 1957

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

I saw a humorous user review on Letterboxd that jokingly proposed a drinking game for Sweet Smell of Success wherein you take a drink every time somebody does something horrible in the film. The joke being that you wouldn’t last very long before succumbing to the not-so-sweet effects of alcohol poisoning. I don’t know what it says about me that this film is easily one of the best I’ve seen in the last five years or so, but I digress.

Poisoning is actually a perfectly apt word here, as well as a common nomenclature in the seedy milieus of film noir. Dark places where we see humankind stripped bare of humanity, right down to its rotten core. Perhaps the most famous line from this film perfectly sums up its personal view of our species:

I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.

Ostensibly, the line refers to the film’s protagonist, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). I can’t call him a “hero” because he’s anything but, and if you ever needed an example of an upside-down “hero’s journey”, watch this film. Sidney is another Class A user like the “hero” of last week’s film, Mike Hammer (Kiss Me Deadly).

(Before we move on – “Sidney Falco” and “Mike Hammer” are two pantheon film noir names. Bravo.)

Sidney is a bottom-of-the-barrel press agent who has stooped to doing personal, sometimes illicit, favors for his more successful friends in order to get space in a newspaper column. As played by the fantastic Tony Curtis, he darts through this movie like a great white shark, always moving, always preying, always looking for his next meal. But Sidney’s problem isn’t his ego, it’s his approach. He thinks and moves like a great white, but has all the bite of a catfish skimming the ocean floor for scraps. When we meet Sidney he is already a blackballed player who has seemingly run out of favor with every newspaper in New York City.

None more so than the most powerful columnist in town – J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).

(These names! *Chef’s kiss*)

Sidney can’t get a thing published in J.J.’s column these days, not until he performs one simple task – dissolve his little sister’s, Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison), relationship with a young, straight-laced jazz musician, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Susan is very dear to J.J. and he doesn’t want a man complicating their relationship. Knowing this is a dirty deed, he dangles a juicy steak in front of the mangiest dog he can find – Sidney Falco.

And honestly, that’s the set-up. It seems simple but what ensues is a Rube Goldberg of horrible behavior that culminates with one of the most tragic yet ultimately satisfying conclusions I can think of.

It’s bleak and offers a harsh reality check of the kill-or-be-killed mentality. The only good people in the film are teased, toyed with, gobbled up, chewed on, and spit out by the scheming vultures circling the would-be carcass. They’re food for the beast. Sidney and J.J. have differing ideologies – J.J. believes he’s acting in his sister’s best interest while Sidney is well aware he’s acting for his own personal gain. While superficially different characters, they both suffer a downfall as a result of their own greed and ambition.

The saddest realization is the lengths Sidney will go to for the meager prize he’s promised – a spot in J.J.’s column. He’s willing to break-up a happy relationship with nothing more than a promise of a spot in a national newspaper column driving his “actions”. I put “actions” in quotations because the behavior he engages in, against “friends” of his, is fiendish to the nth degree. So horrible that you can’t believe pretty-faced Tony Curtis was capable of such devilish acts. As they say, with friends like Sidney who needs enemies.

It sounds weird but I can’t wait to watch this movie again. There aren’t many movies that make me feel that way, I’m normally good with one viewing. This is going to seem abrupt, and I apologize for not having much commentary to offer, but I think I need to marinate with this and give it another watch before I put into words why I loved this film so much. Until then – watch it!

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