Despite it being one of my favorite movies, I've never written much about THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. I often grow distracted by the behind-the-camera achievement of journeyman director Alexander Mackendrick, who went from making the cinematic highpoint of postwar British comedy in THE LADYKILLERS straight across the Atlantic ocean to helm the last great American Film Noir on the streets of 1956/'57 New York City, and was rewarded for his excellence with a decade's worth of stalled projects and producer antagonism/indifference until he retired from directing to teach filmmaking at California Institute of the Arts.
The Hill-Hecht-Lancaster company assembled an all-star crew for SWEET SMELL: A screenplay/story by Ernest Lehman, punched up by Mackendrick and the mighty Clifford Odets; a brassy, bold score from Elmer Bernstein with a few musical cameos by The Chico Hamilton Quintet, John Pisano dubbing in some fleet guitar lines for actor Martin Milner's "Steve Dallas" guitarist/romantic anti-antagonist; and cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose startlingly clear images of 1956/1957 NYC and its inhabitants remain an enduring pleasure even after you've seen the movie a few dozen times.
As for the cast, Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are wisely used, never placed in danger of having to do more than they were able to do as actors. Curtis in particular is well-framed dramatically -- Sidney Falco is just as much of a grasping, desperate lightweight around such formidable company as Curtis clearly was, and this out-of-his-depth-and-over-his-head quality establishes a foundation for viewers to sympathize with such a deeply repellent man from almost the first scene.
Lancaster, in comparison, is creepily still and powerful in a way that makes it seem like he was born with Broadway/Manhattan culture already wrapped around his finger [or under his thumb]. In my cranky old age, I've really come to loathe what I call "the DEXTER effect," where an anti-hero protagonist is put-over with the audience by placing an even more loathesome character next to him. It's probably a good ethical litmus test: Who's the nastier piece of work, Falco or J.J. Hunsecker? In the snake pit of show-biz backstabbing and skulduggery, I would worry more about running into the small, bitier rattlesnake on the streets than the king cobra that holds court in the private back room of a club that wouldn't admit me in the first place.
Susan Harrison is cute as a button and does well with a role that probably should have been meatier but may have been crafted, much like the leads, to the very edge of her theatrical ability. On second thought, it's better for Susan [never a good sign when an actor shares the same name as hir character] isn't a bigger player in the story; she's barely more than a pawn.
The only obvious clam in the piece is Martin Milner, who's far too upright and square to be in the audience of a Chico Hamilton gig, much less be Chico's guitarist -- and this is a seat held by that more-animal-than-human rage-generating machine, Jim Hall. I mean, look at the guy:
Have you ever seen a man who radiated "WHO WILL BE THE NEXT TO FALL TO MY HISSING BLADES PAPA WANTS MEAT FRESH DELICIOUS BLOODY MEAT THE BLADES WANT MORE BLOOD FOR PAPA BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD" more? Milner was reportedly a late replacement for a very young Robert Vaughn, who undoubtedly could have sold the idea of a straight-arrow musician who just wants to play jazz and love his girlfriend, who just so happens to be the only relative of the most powerful newspaper columnist in New York. Milner doesn't do a bad job, but he never transcends his type the way that most of the other characters do at some point. He's as blonde, handsome and wooden as the totally sweet D'Angelico he's pretending to play. The cigarette girl projects more pathos and humanity in a fraction of screen time.
Complaint aside, this is one of those movies that rewards multiple viewings with just the fine-tooled cool of its construction. Enjoy:
R.I.P., Bernard Schwartz. Let's all hold hands and pray this is the slow-motion clip that awards producers use for next year's "In Memoriam" montages:
Tony Curtis really was a brilliant movie star whenever he wasn't forced to act.