The Criterion Collection presents "SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS" (27 June 1957) (96 min/B&W) (Fully Restored/Dolby Digitally Remastered) -- Burt Lancaster stars as J. J. Hunsecker, a Walter Winchell-style columnist who wields his power like a club, steamrolling friends and enemies alike --- Tony Curtis co-stars as Sidney Falco, a sycophantic press agent who'd sell his grandmother to get an item into Hunsecker's popular newspaper column --- Hunsecker enlists Falco's aid in ruining the reputation of jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), who has had the temerity to court Hunsecker's sister Susan (Susan Harrison) --- Falco contrives to plant marijuana on Dallas, then summons corrupt, sadistic NYPD officer Harry Kello (Emile Meyer), who owes Hunsecker several favors, to arrest the innocent singer.
A sharp-edged, penetrating film, Sweet Smell of Success is now regarded as a model of street-smart cinematic cynicism --- The electric performances of the stars are matched by the taut direction of Alex MacKendrick, the driving jazz score of Elmer Bernstein, and the evocative nocturnal camera work of James Wong Howe.
Under the production staff of:
Alexander Mackendrick [Director]
Writers:Clifford Odets [Screenwriter]
Ernest Lehman [Screenwriter]
James Hill [Producer]
Elmer Bernstein [Original Film Score]
James Wong Howe [Cinematographer]
Edward Carrere [Art Director]
1. Alexander Mackendrick [Director]
Date of Birth: 8 September 1912 - Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Death: 22 December 1993 - Los Angeles, California
2. Burt Lancaster
Date of Birth: 2 November 1913 - New York City, New York
Date of Death: 20 October 1994 - Century City, California
3. Tony Curtis [aka: Bernard Herschel Schwartz]
Date of Birth: 3 June 1925 - The Bronx, New York
Date of Death: 29 September 2010 - Henderson, Las Vegas, Nevada
the cast includes:
Burt Lancaster ... [J.J. Hunsecker]
Tony Curtis ... [Sidney Falco]
Susan Harrison ... [Susan Hunsecker
Martin Milner ... [Steve Dallas]
Jeff Donnell ... [Sally]
Sam Levene ... [Frank D' Angelo]
Joe Frisco ... [Herbie Temple]
Barbara Nichols ... [Rita]
Emile Meyer ... [Lt. Harry Kello]
Edith Atwater ... [Mary]
The Chico Hamilton Quintet ... [Themselves]
SPECIAL FEATURES [BONUS]:
1. Exclusive new digital restoration from the original 35 mm camera negative (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
2. New audio commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore
3. Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, a 1986 documentary featuring interviews with director Alexander Mackendrick, actor Burt Lancaster, producer James Hill, and others
4. James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, a 1973 documentary about the Oscar-winning director of photography, featuring lighting tutorials with Howe
5. New video interview with film critic and historian Neal Gabler (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) about legendary columnist Walter Winchell, inspiration for the character J. J. Hunsecker
6. New video interview with filmmaker James Mangold about Mackendrick, his instructor and mentor
7.. Original theatrical trailer
8. PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins, notes about the film and two short stories introducing its characters by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and an excerpt about Clifford Odets from Mackendrick's book On Film-making, introduced by the book's editor, Paul Cronin
Mr. Jim's Ratings:
Quality of Picture & Sound: 5 Stars
Performance: 5 Stars
Story & Screenplay: 5 Stars
Overall: 5 Stars [Original Music, Cinematography & Film Editing]
Total Time: 96 min on DVD ~ Criterion ~ (02/22/2011)
on January 13, 2004
Sweet Smell of Success is not only an example of a quintessential film noir, it is also a quintessential movie about New York City. As J.J. Hunsecker puts it so well, "I love this dirty town." This is a tough, gritty, uncompromising film with dialogue that crackles and pops (in some respects, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is a homage to this movie) with intensity as the various characters trade barbs with each other.
The film belongs to Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Both were huge stars at the time and cast themselves against type in this movie. Naturally, the film tanked when it was released but it has since become a much admired and imitated film (Oliver Stone has said that a lot of his movie, Wall Street, was inspired by Sweet Smell). Curtis is note perfect as a slimy agent who'll do anything to get his clients promoted and climb the social ladder. This puts him at odds with the most powerful columnist in the city--J.J. Hunsecker, played by Lancaster. J.J. can kill careers with a few words and it is this power that makes him such a dangerous person.
The film also features stunning black and white cinematography that is moody and atmospheric. New York City has never looked so dark and foreboding. The camerawork is rich and textured and it is fascinating to see a New York City that just doesn't exist anymore. Watching this film is like stepping into a time machine.
The DVD is a bit of letdown. The transfer could be better. I noticed scratches and dirt on the print. And the lack of extras is unexcusable. C'mon, a retrospective documentary with film historians and Tony Curtis (who is still alive) would've been nice. The studio really dropped the ball in that respect. A classic like this one deserves more respect.
on November 28, 2003
J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) writes a newspaper column that 42 million people read. He deals mainly with two kinds of persons: those who would give anything to be mentioned in his column (would-be stars and washed-up vaudevillians) and those who would give anything not to be mentioned in his column (politicians with secrets). He is absolutely merciless, but he has a weak spot: His nineteen years old sister Susie (Susan Harrison). He has her sexy Photo on his desk, when he invites her to embrace him he sounds like the spider talking to the fly, and when he sees her asleep in her bed he tears himself away from her and gasps for breath out of fear he might be doing what he knows he is capable to do...
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is J.J's press agent and his little dog. He considers J.J. as his ladder for success. He has even a conscience, but at the end he always obeys his master's orders.
Susie has a boy-friend: Steve (Martin Milner), a talented young jazz musician that any mother in law would welcome. But not J.J. He orders Sidney to separate them. Sidney's plan is very simple: he brings another newspaper columnist to write a slanderous article about Steve. First he tries blackmail, then pimping: he drives his own girlfried, a young mother, to prostitution. The article is published. Steve is denounced as marijuana-smoker and communist, and he is fired. But he and Susie understand very well who is behind this article. Sidney suggests that J.J. should use his influence to help Steve get his job back - what better way to look good in the eyes of his sister? But Steve has committed a deadly sin: He confronted J.J. In Public. J.J. wants his revenge. And this time he goes too far...
Atmospheric and brilliantly acted. Burt Lancaster reminds me of a giant snake: one does not argue with him. He would listen unmoved, then suddenly repeat a word. Any word. His antagonist loses the thread, feels ashamed, becomes inconsistent...Lancaster-Hunsecker can make even intelligent people feel dumb by sheer trickery. It you tend to look down on Tony Curtis because of the tons of trashy films he made, prepare yourself for a jaw-dropping experience. That he was not nominated for an oscar is beyond me.
on November 10, 2003
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a ruthlessly ambitious publicist in New York City of 1957. He relies upon the city's most powerful gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) to print items that publicize his clients. But it's a game of give and take. Hunsecker expects something in return for his contributions to Falco's livelihood. As it happens, Hunsecker's younger sister Susie (Susan Harrison) has fallen in love with an up-and-coming jazz musician named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), much to her brother's displeasure. Falco accepts the task of breaking up the relationship in exchange for Hunsecker's publicity,but even Sidney Falco doesn't imagine how far he might be willing to go to satisfy his ambitions.
"Sweet Smell of Success" is based on the novella of the same name by Ernest Lehman and was adapted for the screen by Lehman and Clifford Odets. I can't say if this window into the dog-eat-dog world of tabloid journalism and media hype shocked audiences in 1957 when the film was first released. I don't think that a bleak urban landscape populated by sociopathic careerists is likely to surprise anyone now, though. And I didn't find the film's famously biting dialogue to be especially hard-hitting. But the story is still a good one. Burt Lancaster's chilling performance handily stands the test of time. J.J. Hunsecker is a vile, hateful human being utterly devoid of any redeeming characteristic. He never exchanges words with anyone without making a threat. His character didn't impress me as realistic, because he is completely lacking in tact and discretion. His threats are never veiled. My feeling is that such a person would have long ago perished at the hands of those he tries to manipulate if he had not learned to occasionally be coy in his machinations. But Burt Lancaster is able to sell Hunsecker as an imposing, threatening figure in spite of the man's over-the-top behavior. Lancaster endows the character with such presence that the audience believes Hunsecker might be realistic. It's a great performance. The character of Sidney Falco was essentially a self-obsessed yuppie poseur before such a creature had a name. Tony Curtis' fine performance gave birth to a stereotype that we continue to see in many films today. So I'm recommending "Sweet Smell of Success" for the performances in particular.
The DVD: Subtitles are available in French and Spanish, and dubbing is available in French. One theatrical trailer is included.
on August 12, 2003
There's no profanity. No blood. No guns, knives, or bombs. But the lack of these things doesn't keep 'Sweet Smell of Success' from being one of the most wicked, hateful, spiteful, vicious, murderous portrayals of how people can act toward one another.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a two-bit New York press agent trying to reach for the big time. He's such a small time operator that his name is taped to his office door (which is also his apartment door). He makes promises he can't keep and ignores anyone who can't help him in stepping on others on his way to the top.
J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is the King of Gossip. His newspaper column is read by 60 million people a day. He is truly the master of all he surveys, making and breaking celebrities with the stroke of his typewriter. He can see right through you and cut you to pieces in the time it takes you to light his cigarette. Yet you light it anyway. That's how powerful he is.
Falco is little more than a minor annoyance to Hunsecker, until the day that Falco learns that Hunsecker's sister is engaged to a musician that Hunsecker hates. Falco sees his opportunity to get in good with Hunsecker by wrecking the musician's career. That's when the sparks start to fly and they never stop until the end of the film.
Ernest Lehman's script is sharp, biting, and relentless. Curtis has never been better. And Lancaster, who has had many great roles in his brilliant career, is perfection. 'Sweet Smell of Success' is just as powerful today as it was in 1957. Tough, gritty, hard-hitting...without any four-letter words. Can anyone make 'em like this anymore? Not hardly.
1 hour 36 minutes
This is among the nastiest of films about a world which few of us ever experience: The highly competitive world of publicity-seekers in Manhattan. At its center is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a character reputedly based on gossip columnist Walter Winchell who attacked the film viciously when it was first released in 1957. Ernest Lehman wrote the short story ("Tell Me About Tomorrow") on which he based his screenplay. Hunsecker has a constant need for material to include in his newspaper column. He is fed by ambitious and (when necessary) unscrupulous publicists such as Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who earn their living and sustain their influence by placing items in Hunsecker's columns. There are several sub plots which include a romantic relationship between Hunsecker's beloved daughter Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a young jazz musician of whom her highly-protective (if not psychotic) father thoroughly disapproves. Lancaster is brilliant as Hunsecker but so is Curtis as Falco, fawning over the columnist who can make him or break him at any time. Or have his personal thug Harry Kelso (Emile Meyer) do so. How interesting that Alexander MacKendrick (renowned for his direction of Alec Guinness in two masterpieces of nuanced comedy, The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers) agreed to direct this film. The cinematography by James Wong Howe is first-rate. As indicated in this film, the "Great White Way" can also be dark and dangerous for those who do not understand how and why the "sweet smell of success" can so quickly become the stench of failure...if not of their own decomposition.
on November 9, 2002
This is a nearly perfect 1950s meatgrinder of a film. I saw it about 20 years ago when I was a teenager, and just "liked" the movie. But, rewatching it, I sat awestruck by Alexander Mackendrick's fast-paced direction, James Wong Howe's simultaneously sumptuous and repulsive photographic portrait of 1950s Manhattan, Elmer Bernstein's street-smart jazz score and a screenplay by Ernie Lehman and Clifford Odets that's so cynical it makes Billy Wilder come off like Frank Capra -- what more can I say? Wow!
Burt Lancaster as the caustic and ruthless gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker is one of his greatest roles. The ever-present horn-rimmed glasses that span his eyes and bridge his nose are somewhat off-putting on the screen idol at first, but they grow on you. Lancaster is droll and owlish as Hunsecker -- who's based on real-life dirt maven Walter Winchell -- and the glasses are so much more appropos for the wiseacre Hunsecker than Winchell's trademark newspaperman's hat.
As immutable as a force of nature, Lancaster plays Hunsecker ramrod-stiff-and-straight, a man so consumed by his own megalomania and self-righteousness that his blinding certainly in his own infallibility radiates brilliantly and deadly. No one can rival Lancaster in this type of role, which was followed by equally stirring performances as Elmer Gantry (1960) and Gen. James Matoon Scott in "Seven Days in May" (1964).
Constantly about the immovable mover Lancaster is Tony Curtis as sleazy publicity man Sidney Falco, a scurrying rat of a satellite whose sole purpose in life is to revolve around Lancaster, scrounging for crumbs along the way. It is fascinating watching Curtis plead, cajole, manipulate, self-efface and backstab just to get his clients' names in Hunsecker's column. Curtis' mind, soul and being are so accustomed to the gutter that he cannot even contemplate the stars. Like Hunsecker, Falco is a force of nature, but on a much smaller scale, sort of like the flu, or syphillis.
One day, though Falco finally sees daylight as Hunsecker offers him the opportunity to guest-write his column while Hunsecker is on a cruise. The price, though, is to destroy an up-and-coming musician played by Martin Milner, who is wooing Hunsecker's sister. Falco barely flinches as he sets about setting the boy up, causing Hunsecker's sister to attempt suicide.
An engrossing indictment of the insatiable quest for celebrity, "Sweet Smell of Success" is a wonderful companion piece to Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" and Sidney Lumet's "Network."
One caveat: Lancaster speaks his trademark line "of course," but doesn't repeat it immediately thereafter.
on August 17, 2002
One critic I read touted the masterful dialogue in this movie, and after having seen it, I would say the hard-hitting and corrosive dialogue in this film literally singes the air, remembered long after the movie screen itself has faded. This classic 50's drama of the poisonous relationship between an influential and power-mad newspaper columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, and a corrupt and deperate press agent, played by Tony Curtis, still packs a considerable punch. I suspect Lancaster's character of J.J. Hunsecker was based on the life of Walter Winchell, but anyway, he portrays a manipulative gossip columnist who will stop at nothing to get his way. Curtis stars as the venal and morally bankrupt publicist, doing Lancaster's dirty work for him as he tries to get back into Hunsecker's good graces and his clients back into the pages of Hunsecker's influential and widely read column. The acerbic dialogue by Lehman and Odets is virtually over the top during much of the movie. The performances by Lancaster and Curtis are really outstanding, and it was also interesting watching them play real bad guys, rather than the good guys they normally seem to play. Set against a superbly and even menacingly realized backdrop of New York in the 1950s, Lancaster as the megalomaniacal political columnist and Curtis as the completely amoral publicist show one aspect of the soft underbelly of the Big Apple in the behind-the-scenes string-pulling dramatized in this film. All in all still a fine movie, as well as a still relevant commentary on the abuses of the mass media. Big Steve says go rent it and don't Bogart the popcorn.
on April 12, 2002
April 12, 2002
If I had to pick one American studio movie that I felt was
unjustly forgotten in surprising relation to how entertaining and
timeless it was, there'd be no contest. 'The Sweet Smell Of
Success' nearly always comes out of my mouth first when I'm asked
about my favorite movies.
Inevitably, I'm told rather pleasantly, "Never heard of it."
Try explaining to someone under forty that it stars Burt
Lancaster and Tony Curtis (two studio stars who don't penetrate
very far into contemporary consciousness) and that it concerns
newspaper columnists, and you're liable to receive a puzzled smile
in return. "That's one of your favorite films?"
By contemporary standards, on the surface, it just doesn't
Trying to explain its excellence in five hundred words or so
isn't easy, but I'll try.
For starters, we like to think that our present day is as
wise and hip a period as has ever existed. Why, this is the age
of irony. We've been there, done that. We're tougher, more jaded,
more cynical, more smart-alecky that anybody else, right?
Wrong. The flick is sharper, more adult and more vicious
than ninety percent of the stuff being made today, fifty years later.
What's more, watch this movie and you'll quickly realize that
the smarter-than-smart, hipper-than-hip dialogue of today (like all
that light weight mush from Kevin Williams and the beating-around-the-bush
repetitions of Quentin Tarantino) is apple pie easy compared to having
to do it a) without pop culture references or cursing, b) in double
time, and c) with a perfectly balanced ear. The dialogue in this movie
is like jazz: it's syncopated, it's learned, it's clever, and it demands
more than one listen.
'The Sweet Smell Of Success' tops a short list of films from
roughly the same period ('The Asphalt Jungle' and 'The Killing' are
two) that form a last hurrah for the black and white movie with bite.
Before things supposedly became so complicated in this world that
the movies forgot how to talk.
PEOPLE WHO'LL LIKE THIS MOVIE: classic Hollywood fans; hard-boiled
fans; incurable Manhattan enthusiasts (like myself).
PEOPLE WHO WON'T LIKE THIS MOVIE: it is in black and white, folks,
and Tony Curtis is in it.
on December 6, 2001
"Sweet Smell of Success" is one of the most brilliant film noir epics ever made. Burt Lancaster not only starred in this masterpiece, but co-produced through the auspices of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. The dialogue crackles. It is no small wonder since Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Clifford Odets shares screenwriting credit with Oscar recipient Ernest Lehman. Never has the internal warfare permeating New York's competitive streets been presented with more brutal reality, or with a greater sense of rapaciousness.
Lancaster is letter perfect as an unprincipled, authoritarian, syndicated newspaper columnist who holds his younger sister, played by newcomer Susan Harrison, in constant bondage. Tony Curtis is a low life publicist who, working for Lancaster, is caught in a Catch-22. When he behaves in the same sociopathic manner as Lancaster, a trait the columnist demands, he is repulsed by Curtis'absence of scruples. Lancaster's disdain for Curtis no debt stems from the mirrored reflection he sees of himself.
As someone who has written extensively about film noir and is fascinated by the genre, this is one film I glowingly endorse without qualification. The writing, the acting, and the deft direction of Alexander MacKendrick coalesce to make this a venerable cinema classic.