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on 25 April 2002
Fifties New York. A few night hours in the life of a parasitic press agent, Sidney Falco (Curtis) and the monster he feeds off, big-time showbiz columnist JJ Hunsecker (Lancaster).
Falco willingly submits to JJ's humiliations because he needs the scraps of publicity JJ deigns to throw Falco's clients in his daily column.
But now JJ needs a favour; will Falco destroy the lives of two innocent people just to stay JJ's favoured pet?
The two leads are brilliant. Curtis is nervous, cynical and strangely beautiful. By turns disgusted at the squalid lapdog he has become and thrilled by the reflected power of JJ.
Lancaster as JJ is as monumental a screen presence as Kane or Kurtz; the ground shakes and the air hums when he gets angry.
The scene where a Senator is paying court to JJ with Falco hovering between revulsion and reverence is near perfect: machine-gun dialogue with each bullet carefully dipped in venom.
You could cut yourself on the sharp black and white night photography and the music adds to the jittery atmosphere.
Sure, some of the lesser characters pale against the screen presence of Lancaster and Curtis, and the plot takes over a bit too much toward the end, but this is a riveting essay on power and self-loathing.
A word about the director: nothing in the prevoius work of Alexander Mackendrick prepares you for this. He directed some equally wonderful but very different films (The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit, Whisky Galore! ) and is sadly neglected in some quarters. This a dark and brutal masterpiece.
"Match me, Sidney. "
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on 26 March 2015
Sweet Smell of Success -
Blu Ray Review
Sweet smell of success 1957 Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Arrow Blu Ray release date: March 30th 2015
Director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick had enjoyed a succession of triumphs in England. Working out of Ealing studios; he directed such memorable comedies as The Man in the White Suit, Whiskey Galore and the deliciously dark The Ladykillers. As the Ealing factory system began to dry up, Mackendrick made an arguably unlikely move to America. It was through a number of mishaps, unfulfilled projects and (one could argue) a degree of ‘fate’ that Sweet smell of success eventually fell into the lap of Mackendrick.
Whilst there was little doubt of Mackendrick’s immense ability as a director, there was perhaps - an element of doubt whether he could actually undertake a film such as Sweet Smell of Success. After all, those subtle British films were about as far removed as one could possibly imagine when compared to the media dynamics and fuelled corruption of Sweet Smell of Success. However, Mackendrick had a good eye, a very good eye in fact. Given time to observe the city he knew how to capture it at its best. Through the camera lens, Mackendrick presented Manhattan better than any other contemporary film had done and as a result, undoubtedly influenced esteemed future directors such as Woody Allen.
The film’s ‘master and dog’ relationship between newspaper columnist J J Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and the Machiavellian press publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is the only one of importance. Lancaster was never more imposing as Hunsecker, whilst Curtis displays a slimy charm and a sickening depravity as Falco. As the relationship unfolds it becomes a battle of wits and power - Falco believes himself to be in a symbiotic relationship with J J — he provides him with the stories he needs - but, by the close, the power imbalance is made depressingly obvious. Feeding off the crumbs left by Hunsecker, Sidney is always destined to be consumed by J J’s domineering dictatorship. Whilst Sweet Smell of Success remains a stunning piece of work, it is also not without its flaws - specifically in the romantic relationship between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve (Martin Milner) an aspiring young a jazz musician. Not that there is anything wrong with this coiling plot, the story of Susan’s sinisterly over-protective brother and his scheming through Falco to dishonour Steve’s reputation provides the film’s central narrative – all of which works perfectly. However, it is sadly the performances from the inexperienced Harrison and Milner that hamper the film’s vibrant energy and pace – they are both limp and damp. In contrast, such powerhouse performances from both Lancaster and Curtis, and the provision of a razor sharp, over the top script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets – still cements Sweet Smell of Success as one of the greatest films of its kind. Combined with James Wong Howe’s sumptuous deep-focus cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s brassy musical score and you are left with something damn near close to a perfect movie.
Arrow’s newly restored High Definition (1080p) presentation is a 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm camera negative – and frankly it looks incredible. As Sweet Smell of Success is such a personal favourite of mine, I have followed its evolution on home video - through VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and now Blu Ray – it’s been an interesting journey – but feel confident that I have finally arrived at my destination. The film has never looked so crisp and clean, it is spotless and always deserved to look this good. There are a couple of location scenes that look a little ‘too’ real for my liking – I’ve always considered there may be a few lengths of stock footage involved here, but I can’t be sure. Regardless of these random shots – it never detours and falls seamlessly in line with the general atmosphere and harsh realism of the urban setting. Wong Howe’s photography is defined by deep dark blacks, varying arrays of grey shade and subtle use of intelligent lighting. Pin striped suites and intense close ups are all solid and reveal sharply defined detail. Lancaster’s face and glasses (permanently lit from above) creates a near ‘skull like’ shadow upon his cold gaze, the results of which look rather spectacular in this new Blu Ray edition.
Arrow continue to supply the audio in an original untampered and uncompressed PCM mono 1.0, which is clean and free from any distortion. Extras consist of an Appreciation by critic and film historian Philip Kemp, author of Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick – Kemp appears in the top left of screen presenting a detailed analysis of the film while several scenes are presented. Kemp also provides a selected scene commentary – taking several key sequences, Kemp is permitted to expand on detail. It does nevertheless raise the question – why didn’t Kemp provide a full commentary track? The man is obviously an expert on the movie – and his knowledge would have been very welcome (and valuable) throughout. It’s a strange one?
The bonus highlight for me is Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away – Dermot McQuarrie’s 1986 Scottish Television documentary which features extensive interviews with Mackendrick, Burt Lancaster, producer James Hill, Gordon Jackson and many others. It’s a great example of how documentaries of this kind use to be made – rather than the quick, cross cutting MTV style of documentary making today. It’s certainly one to take time over and enjoyed fully.
The film’s Original Theatrical trailer is also included.
Arrow has again spared no expense in terms of packaging. They have provided a reversible sleeve featuring both an original poster and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Walker. The Collector’s booklet (40 pages) includes new writing on the film by Michael Brooke and Mackendrick’s own analysis of various script drafts – it is also illustrated throughout with original stills and posters. It all makes for a wonderful package and one that should be savoured – ‘I love this dirty town!’

Darren Allison, Cinema Retro Magazine
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on 25 May 2000
'Sweet Smell of Success'? I doubt it. More like the rancid stench of social climbing and the perversion of good intent. The movie boasts an intensely stylised dialogue, with wonderful performances from Burt Lancaster as JJ Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as a Hunsecker wannabe. Lancaster is positively reptilian as the all-powerful gossip columnist, whilst Curtis, as the furtive go-getter Sidney attempts to ingratiate himself by despoiling possibly the only loving relationship in the movie, between that of Hunsecker's sister and her jazz guitarist boyfriend. The noirish cinematography and the inspired direction by Brit Alexander MacKendrick, combined with the waspish and highly ornate dialogue make for a potent piece of cinema. The plot twists and the skewed ending of the movie make this a rivetting masterpiece that lingers long after the final credits roll. The sort of film where almost all of the characters have no redeeming qualities, 'Sweet Smell...' is nonetheless one of the truly great movies of the nineteen-fifties.
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on 1 October 2015
The sharpest dialogue, a great score, terrific acting, small time corruption and manipulation in the 1950s New York Music scene. One of the top 10 films of all time.
Black and white (colour would damage it).
The director also made Whisky Galore, but this is a masterpiece
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on 13 July 2008
This movie is noir, but with a little more edge than the classic LA set Chandleresque noirs that are the usual Noir benchmark. This film is set in New York and because of it the pace is less laid back than typical Noirs, but its setting and its story captures the dark essence perfectly. The Odets screenplay is cynical, worldly and downright memorable, it oozes cool.

The shadowy dark b&w photography suits the mood of the picture perfectly and the finest performance of Tony Curtis' career just falls out of him as if he knows that sort of character so well. It doesn't aim too high in movie terms, it just deals with its tight little story, while saying a lot about the world the main characters inhabit and then finishes without too much of a bang. It is neat, classical noir delivered beautifully. Moody yet cool.

Unfornunately its modest run time, lack of murders, an uncommonly good year for big movies and Hollywood's obsession with bigger showier movies meant it got no Oscar. It didn't even get a single nom, which is just bizarre as you can't watch this and say it's not a brilliantly realised film, for any era. In fact it is a stylistic gem and a true unheralded classic. The sharp acting and screenplay and the buzzing New York vibe make sure of that.
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on 24 September 2014
In any serious Best Films list Sweet Smell of Success is up there with Citizen Kane, Fargo, The Grapes of Wrath, Casablanca and Abel Gance's Napoleon. After his pretty boy parts Tony Curtis's depth of performance is a revelation and Burt Lancaster's is as finely judged as the best of his later roles. Get it and treasure it.
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on 27 October 2015
I would recommend this Blu-ray, not just because of the excellent quality of picture and sound but as well for the extras it has. These include a very informative and entertaining Philip Kemp interview about the film and a Scottish Television full length documentary on the director Mackendrick. Without these I would not have understood or appreciated this film. If you buy this Blu-ray to own, as opposed to just rent it from Lovefilm, you will get some art work extras as well.
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on 29 April 2010
Incredible performances from Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster make this a classic of the film noir genre. Curtis is completely convincing as the parasitic press agent Tony Falco who throws away his moral compass in his pursuit of success. He is venal but not intelligent enough to rise to the very top. There sits the repulsive and chilling J.J.Hunsecker (Lancaster), a powerful man who is almost able to convince himself that he holds the moral high ground by getting Falco to do his dirty work for him. Lancaster creates a terrifying portrait of a man who appears totally in control at all times, and will stop at nothing to get his way.

When Hunsecker's sister falls in love with a young jazz musician of whom Hunsecker disapproves, Hunsecker and Falco enter a cycle of destruction which will affect them as much as the lives they seek to control. "He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind". The young lovers remain true and innocent: they are not two-dimensional characters, but realistic portraits of people struggling - and succeeding - in holding higher moral values in a sordid world. The film plays out to an inevitable bitter end - but for whom?

Brilliant, shocking, this film remains as watchable and as contemporary as it must have done when it was released over 50 years ago.
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on 9 June 2015
Nix to add, as the film has been around for decades. But for power and atmosphere it hits the spot. This period of American film noire is for me the summit of great American cinema. Scripts and Actors a tour de force, the top of the mountain before a descent into chewing gum sugar candy drivel that followed. Sunset boulevade is also a must.
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It seems amazing even now that Alexander MacKendrick's 1955 urban masterpiece is still only available on `BLU RAY' in the States (and boasting a much-praised restored Black and White print too). But therein lies a problem for UK and European buyers...

The sought-after US issue on Criterion is REGION-A LOCKED - so it WILL NOT PLAY on most UK Blu Ray players unless they're chipped to play 'all' regions (which the vast majority aren't). Don't confuse BLU RAY players that have multi-region capability on the 'DVD' front - that won't help.

Until such time as someone like "Masters Of Cinema" or the BFI gives "Sweet Smell Of Success" a REGION B and C release - check your BLU RAY player has the capacity to play REGION A - before you buy the pricey Criterion issue...
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