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Sweet Smell of Success: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // February 22, 2011
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 7, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

So, what does success smell like? If one were to believe Alexander Mackendrick's cynical trip through New York, the scent resembles a strong whiff of smoke, smog, and fear. Towering architecture stretches to the ceiling of the city's skyline, with dirty, loud glitz around every corner of the chain of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Important people fill the spaces, from senators to starlets, as two-faced eyes watch for both budding talent and blossoming sleaze. Sweet Smell of Success knows the darker side of these spaces, which takes us through a day-and-a-half scramble with a muck-scraping press agent looking to pick up and plant "items" -- stories, both constructive and harmful. Mackendrick's film uses the fear of whispers or little scraps of paper, and of the entertainment/gossip journalists that elaborate on them, for a sharp-toothed noir that's still shockingly current and incisive.

The man at center of the hoopla is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a -- excuse me, THE gossip columnist for the Globe who can make or break careers over a twenty-four hour period. People claw and connive at the chance for their names to appear in his column, while others try their damndest to keep negative information out. His prickly writing style reflects just as much on his character in person, though it takes a while to find this out; instead of directly focusing on the man behind the typewriter, the film's eyes and ears are those of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a persistent weasel and information-gathering lackey for Hunsecker. Falco, a "hungry" scrounger of info, has been asked to act out a secondary job for the column-writing giant: to break up the relationship between Susan (Susan Harrison), Hunsecker's sister, and her guitar-playing boyfriend Steve (Martin Milner). Desperate and more-than-capable to twist information around, he obeys the hand that feeds him.

Initial audiences who caught pre-screening exhibitions of Sweet Smell of Success were off-put by Sidney Falco's demeanor, which veers significantly from Tony Curtis' charming and welcoming attitude from previous pictures -- and that was even before Some Like It Hot. Falco's manner earns every bit of that label, but that nastiness becomes the lifeblood of the seedy backstabbing that transpires in Mackendrick's picture. He's deliciously mischievous in his antics, a shark with an "ice-cream face" who's able to get what he wants with smooth-talk and a bit of eyelash-batting, and his manipulation -- from schmoozing a genial cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) with his sex appeal to tiptoeing along the line of blackmail with another gossip columnist -- borders on the villainous. Yet he continuously harps on it being out of desperation, out of getting to the top "where it's balmy", which attempts to justify his actions in a dog-eat-dog fashion, as if it's the only way to survive long enough to earn a position like J.J. Hunsecker's.

When the Globe's writer finally comes out from behind the shadowy curtain in Sweet Smell of Success, Falco's icky mannerisms begin to make sense. J.J Hunsecker is first seen sitting at a table with a phone right beside him and a cigarette intertwined with his fingers, chatting with a politician and a young female starlet as Sidney Falco bashfully slinks to his side like a dog with his tail between his legs. Burt Lancaster commands the screen with stony, almost jaw-dropping ferocity as Hunsecker, channeling famed gossip-column pioneer Walter Winchell with his rapid-fire words and contemptuous tone, using his weighty opinion's clout as a weapon to knock those down around him. Yet there's something strangely codependent about his connection with Falco, a seemingly easy target for the columnist to squash, and it slowly begins to make sense; he needs someone to do his dirty work, and who's better than a hungry, unscrupulous minion who strives to ascend the ranks of these showbiz busybodies?

The movement in Sweet Smell of Success is largely determined on where the quick-witted Falco goes to discover or contort information for his "items" or for a miniature smear campaign against the jazz guitarist, which takes us across several opaque hotspots and apartments in New York City. Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe captures each location with roomy depth, almost like we're looking from the corner of these places as a casual, curious observer. He gives the film a candid, albeit immaculately composed visual energy -- especially in the jazz club where much of the activity takes place, watching as the band wraps us up in the rhythm and the socialites chatter in a fog of smoke. It, in turn, envelopes us in the den-like atmosphere where Sidney slipstreams with bits of information, trading jabs and insults as he mentions the very name J.J. Hunsecker. The New York celebrity life is narcissistic and austere through Mackendrick's eyes, captured strikingly by his skilled cinematographer.

Ah, but the dialogue. The film noir genre has become synonymous with pulpy, stylish speech that endlessly plays with elaborate metaphors, yet the rhythmic wordplay propelling Sweet Smell of Success has a more instinctive flow than most others. Some quotes will leap out, such as Falco being called a "cookie full of arsenic" and another where they tie integrity to the feeling of acute indigestion. The speech that Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman spin for the characters taps into this magical balance where they double their efforts to wedge intricate metaphors in the story, yet come across twice as effortless. It's addictive, especially when it's directed at Sidney Falco; he's not the kind of guy who gets away with slime-balling his way into everyone's hearts, and they make him know it. Everyone around him knows that he's a sketchy string-puller under the thumb of Hunsecker, and each one takes a moment to direct their verbal guns at the sweet-faced, shrewd agent. It makes for some of the film's more infectious verbal barrages, especially since we have no qualms in seeing him take a beating.

Sweet Smell of Success' thematic vertebrae can be found in Falco's shifty assertion about journalism, whether it's necessary to scrape and debase to stay afloat. The script nonchalantly carries labyrinthine scheming across two nights and two sunrises, long enough to see Hunsecker take the information he's given and shape the popularity of those whom he writes about, starting a new morning for Falco to pick up another paper and skim for the important "items". The film doesn't directly aim for a cautionary tale or a message about journalistic powerplay, though. It simply uses the intangible currency of gossip and hearsay and crafts a harsh, vigorous noir that's filled with bustling nerves and relentless gloom. How it snaps together, however, transforms it into a smutty, wry mystery of human dishonesty, filled with predators, their pray, and nothing more. And by letting the characters thrash at one another in this poisonous little batch of malice, it says more than enough about the not-so-fictitious nature of notoriety's consuming sway.

The Blu-ray:

Sweet Smell of Success slips into The Criterion Collection as Spine #555, arriving in single-disc foldout cardboard packaging sporting a colorful, stylish piece of art for the front cover. Inside, an extremely thick Booklet can be found that's designed to appear like a newspaper, with essays -- "The Fantastic Falco" by Gary Giddins, and "Mackendrick and Odets" by Paul Cronin -- two short-stories from Ernest Lehman, and details about the transfer/Blu-ray contained within. Though it's assumed that the booklet's too large to fit into a flat like some of Criterion's other foldout packages, like Night of the Hunter, the fact that a flap hasn't been included for the loose booklet is a bit of a frustration. Aside from that, the packaging offers an elegant presentation for this essential entry into the collection.

Video and Audio:

Put frankly, The Criterion Collection have really disarmed me this time around. Sweet Smell of Success comes in a 1.66:1-framed AVC high-definition transfer, stricken on a SCANITY Film Scanner at 4K resolution from the original 35mm negative, while tons of dust, debris, and egregious grain have also been properly controlled with native film texture respectfully in mind. There's a few moments early on where a vertical line can be seen in the print (around the time when Falco first picks up a paper, and in Sidney's initial phone call with Hunsecker), ones that, unless I'm mistaken, really couldn't be removed with the restoration process. Other than that, however, this image is damn-near faultless, retaining a ever-present yet delightfully natural veil of grain over a deep, substantial image, only showing the film's age through the perfectly-preserved '50s New York architecture and the period-bound costume work. From start to finish, it'll leave the viewer entranced in the clarity of this 54-year-old film.

The best showcases for the jaw-dropping presentation can be found in any scene within the central nightclub, as the jazz band's presence fills the space. Contrast levels retain an inky yet proper balance that gives the film an incredible amount of depth, while also zeroing in on ornate fine detail in the costume work, the instruments, and the billows of smoke coming from ashtrays. Little details can be seen sporadically throughout the film, such as the fabric of Hunsecker's coat, while the fluctuating film grain never oversteps the boundary into looking false or digital. Contours in close-ups can be stunning, as can the slight textures upon their faces, while Criterion's awareness of the native 24fps movement renders a shockingly inherent presence about the film's motion. This has become a reference disc for black-and-white HD material, and certainly one of the brightest examples of the format's necessity in presenting classic film in home-video presentations.

Big shocker here, I know, but Sweet Smell of Success focuses predominately on the pulsing dialogue between Hunsecker, Falco, and their "victims", along with ambient chatter in the nightclubs and the rhythmic music that accompanies. Criterion's monaural LPCM treatment, stricken from the original strips at 24-bit resolution, sound wonderfully balanced, articulate, and highly pleasing to the ears. There's nary an instance of strained vocals or a hissing sound to be heard, while the depth of the bass notes and of Burt Lancaster's rich, fierce voice streams along the lower-end of the design. As a surprise, there's a pleasant array of depth about the music's movement and the atmospheric goings-on. It'd take a might nice aural offering to keep pace with the exceptional video, and this high-definition track is up to the task. English subtitles are available to accompany the sole English language track.

Special Features:

Commentary with James Naremore:
James Naremore gets his hands dirty quick, using his experience from writing his BFI book on Sweet Smell of Success as a springboard to dissect the fabric of the film. He stays focus, insightful, and humorous in his discussion throughout the entire film, talking about shooting locations and techniques to no end. He jumps between details as furiously as the director moves through the picture, talking about Curtis' prestige and talent as an actor, ambiance in the central club, and several of the recurring themes and points in the film -- like Sidney's recurring embarrassment. As soon as James Naremore seems like he's about to shift into plot narration, he instantly feeds right into insightful content that makes the burst of seemingly mundane material purposeful. He talks about Walter Winchell, how much specific sets cost and how they're replicated, the purpose behind James Wong Howe's choices for framing angles and lighting, and some plot/character analysis that remains intriguing but not too deep to stray focus. It's a tremendous track.

Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away (44:40, 4x3; HD AVC):
This piece, constructed in 1986 for public television, covers the "terribly Scottish" filmmaker in a very standard format, filled with a smattering of interviews from filmmakers, stars, and the director's colleagues. Alexander Mackendrick describes his early life in his own interview time, starting with his roots in advertising and artwork and how it blossomed into his life in film. It discusses his experience in propaganda film during the war, his disinterest in the "money-making" of movies, and his early participation in a Scottish documentary. Part II of the piece gets its hands dirty with Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster offering some insight into why he's the "epitome of evil" as an actor. Talk also falls on his desire for perfection and Mackendrick's own impressions on Lancaster (a "sacred monster"), and the accusation that he was "slow" on a set that needed to be moving much faster. It brings up the end discussing Mackendrick's later years, along with the scholarly path that his brief stint in Hollywood ultimately took him.

James Wong Howe: Cinematographer (21:50, 4x3; HD AVC):
This quick documentary focuses a lot of its attention on interview material with the Oscar-winning cinematographer, especially on anecdotes from his experiences while shooting his films. He goes through some of his troubles with lighting, while he also reads through a script. He name-drops Howard Hawkes, Victor Fleming, and other stars during his reflections, as well as his philosophy on the relationship the photographer has with a director. The flow's a bit sluggish, but watching James Wong Howe tell his stories makes it worth the watch.

Gabler on Winchell (28:57, 16x9; HD AVC):
Shot specifically for The Criterion Collection in 2010, this video piece covers Neil Gabler as he discusses Walter Winchell, the inspiration behind J.J. Hunsecker. It talks about his vocabulary, his move to the New York Graphic, and his three-dot writing style that moved extremely rapidly. Neil Gabler also connects how Winchell's column compares to TMZ and other mediums for gossip nowadays, while elaborating on his "DDL" list and his rivalry with Ed Sullivan. Gabler also argues against the idea that Winchell was only negative, though he also reinforces his harshness, and how his column came close to destroying a particularly huge, "red"-haired star. The piece takes a political slant later on, looking at Winchell's impressions of Roosevelt and his memory for vengeance. Then, it shifts into Gabler's outlook on the film, and how the story that Sweet Smell of Success is built upon is more intriguing than the the way it plays out on film -- involving abductions, Broadway hustlers, non-legal marriages and the FBI. A fascinating interview about a really intriguing individual.

Interview with James Mangold (HD AVC):
This introspective interview with the director of 3:10 to Yuma and Girl, Interrupted (and Knight and Day) reflects on the director's time as a teenager visiting CalArts university, and his association with Alexander Mackendrick. Mangold outlines the structure of the school and how the director used to take a pessimistic look at his filmmaking. He talks about film analysis, how Mackendrick taught about invoking a sense of danger into his pictures, how serious he took his teaching position and the more complex films that they analyzed in his class. Several shots of the director in class splice into the interview footage, along with some discussion on his creative ways of walking students through the filmmaking process -- and why he didn't use his films as teaching models.

Capping things off is the film's original Theatrical Trailer (3:06, 16x9; HD AVC), framed at the same aspect ratio as the film and extremely cool.

Final Thoughts:

One of the best sources of fast-paced, pulpy dialogue you're likely to encounter, Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success delivers a picture that's best described in a line taken straight from the film itself: a cookie full of arsenic. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis are both at the very top of their games in this razor-sharp, briskly-paced vial of poison, driven by breakneck verbal play that's really something else to behold. It turns a critical eye to gossip journalists and the play over power that slipstreams through their battle zone, sure, but the central momentum behind the film rests in Sidney Falco's schmoozing and J.J. Hunsecker's brash, egocentric scheming -- and how the two coexist. They transform this 96-minute rush through New York City into a sneering look at the double-crossing, lying, and cunning that rests in the heartless power-driven world they exploit, and, on the surface, it becomes a giant dish of negativity that's tremendously satisfying to chew up and swallow down.

The Criterion Collection have done a tremendous job with the visual and aural properties, cleaning up James Wong Howe's cinematography into of the best black-and-white classic film images seen to date. James Naremore's commentary zips along almost as quickly as the film dialogue with its well-researched and incredibly insightful content, while an array of interviews and documentaries offer buckets of insight into both Mackendrick and the film itself. For fans of film noir and for those who relish in rapid-fire dialogue, both of which often intersect, Sweet Smell of Success should come as no surprise as an entry into the DVDTalk Collector's Series.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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