A hard-boiled fantasia of 1950’s Manhattan, the ironically titled Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most cynically entertaining pictures to come out of old Hollywood. There are no real heroes in the picture, although the character left standing in the final shot may be given bragging rights simply for surviving the perils of the Great Metropolis. But the film works on so many levels that there are more than enough heroes behind the camera to make up for the deliciously appalling behavior of those in front of it. And a generous disc of supplements gives credit where its due to these great craftsmen.
The proof is in the pudding and the pudding in the classic opening sequence: Elmer Bernstein’s blaring, brassy score takes you on a neon tour of a seedy night in Times Square, courtesy of master cinematographer James Wong Howe. While interiors were shot in a studio back in Hollywood, Howe and MacKendrick toured the city for mid-town locations, and they found plenty of dark corners where you could practically smell the rats. There were films shot on location in New York before Sweet Smell, and there were certainly many afterwards. But there may be no more iconic depiction of Gotham City as in the chiaroscuro compositions here.
The plot revolves around press agent Sidney Falco and his sometimes smybiotic but mostly parasitic relationship with gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a figure based on Walter Winchell. Jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Millner) has the bad fortune to fall for Hunsecker’s daughter Susan (Susan Harrison), and these poor souls are but field mice for the predatory talons of J.J. and Sidney.
Although the film thoroughly demonizes a writer, the writing is first-rate. Ernest Lehman went on to pen the scripts for such classics as North by Northwest, and SSOS is based on his stories. He left the production early, but the dialogue, largely written by Clifford Odets, is some of most colorful you’ll hear in the movies – so much so that the director doubted it would come off. Odets insisted that the overheated dialogue would move the action on screen. And sizzling lines like “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river!” prove him right with a flurry of consonants that drive the plot as steadily as a Studebaker.
The generous extras in this set include documentaries on cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Alexander MacKendrick, who was previously known for the “small English films” he made for Ealing Studios, like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers. MacKendrick left the movie business to head the film department at CalArts, and CalArts graduate James Mangold (director of I Walk the Line), discusses his former teacher and mentor. I wish the featurette on James Wong Howe, who is responsible for the film’s striking look, were longer than a half hour, but it will have to do – for further study, you may want to consult the documentary Visions of Light, a survey of the art of cinematography which happens to be the film where I first saw excerpts of Sweet Smell of Success. Visions of Light fetches a premium on Amazon, but you can pick it up from Netflix for their monthly song.
Critic Neal Gabler puts the film into the context of the time – and makes it relevant to contemporary audiences – in a discussion of gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Gabler comes off as smarmy but that more than suits the fascinating material, which taught me about much more than Winchell – for instance, did you know Ed Sullivan started out as a gossip columnist – and was Winchell’s bitter rival? The notion that a print columnist can wield so much power may seem antiquated in the digital age, but in an increasingly poisonous media environment, the spirit of J. J. Hunsecker (and Walter Winchell) is alive and well today.