Imagine if Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson gave up their dreams of world domination and instead took roles as press agents, newspaper columnists and police in 1950s New York. You’d end up with something like Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success.
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WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Tony Curtis as slimy press agent Sidney Falco is exactly as mean-spirited and cynical at the end of the film as he is at the beginning. It’s probably a matter of taste whether you consider this a strength or a weakness in the film. His lack of development feels realistic but if change is what you look for in a film, you’ll be disappointed.
The demonic dance that Falco plays with Burt Lancaster’s J.J.Hunsecker, an influential newspaper columnist, drives the film. Hunsecker seems to have sway over the whole city, from who goes up and who goes down, to who gets or loses a job, to who gets roughed up by the police. His calm manner contrasts with Falco’s rodent-like scurrying around as he desperately tries to climb the food chain. Having chalk and cheese characters is an effective way to add tension to a story and these two couldn’t be more different, even in height.
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Falco has a job where payment only comes for results. His clients are prepared to hold their noses and pay him, providing he produces the goods in free publicity through the newspaper columns. The columnists in turn rely on agents like Falco for stories.
When you have such scumbags together the nuances of their characters become more noticeable. One of them shows a moment of kindness, another is forced into admitting an affair to his wife to avoid Falco’s attempted blackmail, then they’re back in the gutter again.
J.J. wants Falco to split his sister and her boyfriend so that he doesn’t come across as the bad man driving them apart. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. Everyone ends up knowing everyone else’s motives.
It will be the grimy scenes of New York – the shadowy corners, the drunks, the crowded jazz bars – that will stay with you from this film: the perfect backdrop for the comings and goings of the reptiles who live there.
Personal Score: 7/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.