Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #179 on the list, Alexander Mackendrick‘s Sweet Smell of Success. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
Sally: But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?
Sidney Falco: Way up high, Sam, where it’s always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, “Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!” Or, “Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.” I don’t want tips from the kitty. I’m in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn’t dream it in a dream, either – dog eat dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.
What exactly is success? How far will a person go to achieve it? And what price might one have to pay once they have what they have been striving so hard for?
These are the questions at the heart of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first: This is a movie that features Very Bad People doing Very Bad Things in order to either claw their way to, or stay at, the top of their chosen profession. The fact that these two Very Bad People are played by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster only adds to the power of this film.
Up until this time, Curtis especially was know for playing good guys, and this instance of casting against type was apparently very shocking to his fans. I can’t really speak to that, but what I can say is that he definitely delivers in a role that calls for him to use and abuse everyone around him in order to achieve what he sees as the pinnacle of success in his chosen field. More than that, however, he is also incredibly successful in conveying not only the drive of a man willing to do almost anything, but the fear and near-desperation that can be seen by seeing those goals, or having seen them, slip through his fingers time and again.
Lancaster, on the other hand, is the man that Curtis wants to be. He is hard-edged. He is powerful. He is a man who knows the power that he has, and is not afraid to use it to shape the world -or at least his part of it – to his will. And again, Mr. Lancaster completely coneys that sense of power, of supreme confidence in a way that audiences couldn’t help but find both compelling and revolting at the same time.
Of course, as we all know, this being 1950s Hollywood, eventually both of these men are going to have to pay a price for their ruthlessness. The real question is just how high that price is going to be.
One of the things that I found truly surprising about this film is the incredible number of quotable lines that it contains, and many of them are delivered with such incredible snap I was really reminded of the sharp chatter that takes place in the films of Howard Hawks. Unlike Hawks, however, these lines almost always are delivered with an incredibly underlying sense of menace. Here are some examples:
“It’s a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it.”
“The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.”
“Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!”
“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
“Tell him that like yourself, he’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.”
“What you do now, Mr. Falco, is crow like a hen. You have just laid an egg.”
Trust me when I say that these are just a very few examples, and there are many, many more where those came from. What makes it even more amazing is that from all reports, screenwriter Clifford Odets was literally pulling pages of the shooting script from his typewriter and having them rushed to the studio to be filmed the same day. It has to be to the actors’ and director Mackendrick’s credit that they were then delivered with such power and panache, and that the film comes together so well.
In the end, it has to be said that Sweet Smell of Success is, yes, very definitely a success itself. It’s a rather sleazy tale of an even sleazier business, but one that propels itself forward from beginning to end with a can’t-stop-watching sense of momentum that entertains even though you know that these are people that in real life you would never want to spend any real time with. And to me, that smells like a winner.
So what are your thoughts on Sweet Smell of Success? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Let me know below.