RogerBW's Blog

Sweet Smell of Success 25 November 2023

1957 noir, dir. Alexander Mackendrick, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster; IMDb / allmovie. Compromise enough and there's nothing left; then the film begins.

This is a film about unlikeable people doing unpleasant things to each other. So is Uncut Gems, which I watched a few months ago also for Ribbon of Memes; and yet I enjoyed this film very much more.

Some of it is probably that Tony Curtis is a better actor than Adam Sandler. Although his Sidney Falco is, without doubt, completely morally bankrupt, one gets the sense that somewhere deep down he has buried the self-awareness of what a vile person he is, and occasionally it threatens to get out. Gems' Howard Ratner never has the slightest bit of doubt that he's on the right track.

Two of Falco's acts as a press agent leave a particular impression; he tries to blackmail a columnist into running a hit piece, only for the columnist to turn round and say "publish and be damned", and Falco in his world of apperances and getting ahead clearly can't understand how anyone could do that; and later, he bribes another columnist by pimping out his occasional girlfriend to him. (And then talks her into going along with it.) "Whatever it takes" would clearly be his motto.

Meanwhile Burt Lancaster (co-owner of the production company that was paying for the film) breaks type from his usual leading man roles, not least by hiding his bankable face behind thick glasses. (Not to the extent of de Niro in Brazil, but I get a similar impression of deliberately not using the thing the actor is known for.)

But nobody here has all the answers, and even Susan (sister of Lancaster's leading columnist J. J. Hunsecker) can only prevail by using the deceptive tactics that surround her, not by playing straight against cheaters.

This was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment, I suspect in part because of the lack of sympathetic characters (and in particular Curtis had mostly played good guys). But my goodness, it works. "This is life, get used to it" says Falco to his secretary; but one feels that his life is horrible like that because he made it horrible like that. He is the man who does other people's dirty work, going to places nobody else is willing to, while still mistakenly believing that the people he works for respect him.

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

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See also:
Uncut Gems

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