The next step in my quest to watch and review the iCheckMovies imdb film-noir list, was “Sweet smell of success”, a film focused on the struggle for power, influence and money, played out on the gossip columns of a New York newspaper.

Tony Curtis plays Sid Falco, a press agent paid by wannabe stars to get their name known around town. Burt Lancaster plays J.J Hunsecker, the most influential columnist of New York with a readership of millions, who can make and break careers with a simply flurry on his typewriter. Both men endure a symbiotic, parasitic relationship which destroys lives for their own gain. Though they obviously despise each other, the smooth-talking, slimy Falco needs Hunsecker to promote his latest clients, and the domineering influential Hunsecker likewise needs Falco for the latest crumbs of a story, and to carry out his dirty work, which in this film is to break up the relationship of Hunsecker’s sister (Susan Harrison) and her lover Steve Dallas (Martin Millner).

Standard twisty-turny noir faire? Well yes. Although the relationship between the two lead protagonists is written masterfully, the underlying structure sometimes feels a little familiar and formulaic, but there are a few things that make this film stand head and shoulders above others of the genre.

Firstly – and this film’s biggest selling point – the snappy, cutting dialogue is just about the best I have ever heard in film-noir. Sweet Smell of Success uses words like other films use bullets, quick-fire putdowns between Curtis and Lancaster akin to blazing firefights. This is old-school, unrealistic but effortlessly cool-as-ice noir dialogue the likes of which have never been seen before or since in such a relentless form. While most of the cast have their moments, the best lines fall to Lancaster and Curtis, and they both produce in spades, never faltering from perfectly delivered, poetic, metaphor-littered lines.

“Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?”

“The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.”

“Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney – you may wanna get back onboard.”


Next, is the cinematography. Legendary noir cinematographer James Wong Howe produces some of his best work here, as he brings New York to life. The on-location shots are breathtaking, and while the shoot doesn’t have the gritty realism of a film such as The Naked City, what Wong Howe captures is the bustling, romantic essence of New York only seen on the silver screen, and probably only since captured as beautifully in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. This is complimented by Elmer Bernstein’s frenetic and energetic Jazz score, which further helps to capture the spirit of New York in a golden age.

Finally, the performances of our two main protagonists. This is essentially Curtis’ film, and a role which he handles well, reeling out the film’s fantastic lines with a sly, natural smirk and proving he was more than just a pretty face – but in the scenes with Lancaster he often loses out. Lancaster’s powerful screen presence is embued with pitch-perfect arrogance and confidence to define one of the great screen bad-guys.

Sweet Smell of Success is a movie-lover’s film. While the structure is nothing especially out of the ordinary, the film liberally applies so much “movie-magic” it is hard not to like. A very enjoyable film.

4/5

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