Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie again comes from my slowly growing Criterion Blu-Ray collection, which often is filled with an array of blind buys. Risky, I know, but to be honest I have a pretty good sense just from the way people talk about movies what I’m going to like and what I’m not. It’s one of those talents you have to develop when you follow too many movie critics on twitter and want to know what to see without spoiling the whole thing for yourself. Having an ear in ‘the industry’ is often incredibly useful, but it can suck the enthusiasm and innocence right out of you. Which, if I might commend myself, is a pretty nice segue into today’s movie. (Nice seg!)
It’s the 1950s and New York City is, as every New Yorker will tell you, the center of the universe. Press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) wouldn’t have it any other way, even if it makes it hard to pay the rent when you haven’t hit the big time. He’s a two-bit mover and shaker, trying to do anything to get his foot in the door and his small disgruntled Broadway client list mentioned in the papers. Foremost among those papers is the column of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a man who can make or break the most powerful or the most obscure men with little more than a line.
Sidney Falco seems like the kind of man who would be beneath Hunsecker’s notice, but there’s a catch: Hunsecker has a problem that needs a man without scruples, and Falco hawked his scruples for a hot dog and a taxi ride to the last hot deal that he somehow just barely missed. Hunsecker’s young sister Susan (Susan Harrison) is dating a jazz musician (Martin Milner). Hunsecker wants him gone, and neither of the kids are listening. If Falco can make it happen, Hunsecker will make him happen.
Falco tries the direct approach and gets nothing but the runaround. Steve, the musician, is seemingly unapproachable and uncorruptable, dismissing Falco’s attempts with the snotty defense of the self-righteous. Needing to crack his white knight exterior to stick the knife in, Falco and Hunsecker lament how Hunsecker can’t use his influence to swat Steve away. Oh, he could, but he’d lose Susan in the process, and his jealousy over their relationship hinges upon his desire to keep her, like a particularly rebellious songbird, locked away in his penthouse.
Necessity being the mother of invention, he concocts a scheme of surprising complexity and elegance: if Hunsecker can’t touch Steve, maybe someone else would. If a rival columnist accused Steve of something… say, being a communist? Falco, trying to work all the angles, takes the plan a step further. When Steve goes and accuses Hunsecker of designing this to attack him underhandedly, Hunsecker will offer to help clear his name and save his job. Hunsecker is baffled by how that plan is ever going to work in his favor, until Steve shows up at Hunsecker’s studio.
Hunsecker, condescending in his graciousness, plays the role Falco set up for him. Steve realizes he’s being given some sort of runaround, lashing out at Falco, and bristling at the offer of being indebted to Hunsecker. As Falco cynically predicted, Steve would rather watch his career go down in flames than owe Hunsecker anything, and not only refuses but lashes out at Hunsecker in a tirade brought about by frustration but that makes him look, in Susan’s eyes at least, just as much an unyielding monster as her brother.
This was Falco’s long game, to drive Susan into being so fed up that she rejects the whole situation, trusting that the obligation of family will hold up where the attraction of romance doesn’t. And it seems like it will actually all pan out for Falco, up until Hunsecker offers one last wrinkle in an already elaborate plan–Steve pushed him too far, and now that Susan’s broken it off with him he wants Steve destroyed. Falco, then, is tasked with planting drugs on Steve so Hunsecker’s cop friend can rough him up and throw him in jail with justification.
Falco’s a guy with a very fuzzy moral line, but this seems to go way past his comfort zone. Yet, with promises of power, Hunsecker convinces Falco to plant the drugs. Returning to Hunsecker to report on his success and ensure his reward, he runs into Susan, who claims she’s about to commit suicide. Guessing that his payday goes out the window if Susan goes first, he physically restrains her from pitching herself from her balcony, only for Hunsecker to walk in and see what looks like Falco assaulting his treasured sister.
Susan, not willing to save Falco, let’s Hunsecker believe what he wants. Falco, in a panic, spills that Hunsecker was the mastermind behind this whole situation. Hunsecker lets Falco flee into the city, only to report the assault to the cop in his pocket, sending him to go take care of Falco with an ambiguity that might very well be lethal. Once he’s done that, Susan turns on him, admits that Falco saved her, and then walks out of his life for good. She steps out onto the street as the sun rises, leaving everyone else in ruins.
As far as noir films go, Sweet Smell of Success fits into that small, beautiful niche where a beautiful film pairs with rotten characters. Nobody, save for Susan, is any good at all. They have good qualities, don’t get me wrong, but they’re bright spots on rotten fruit, only meant to inspire fleeting moments of hope that are tossed casually like a cigarette butt into the gutter. Such is the essence of all noir, perhaps, but here it seems particularly pessimistic. From Hunsecker’s totalitarian influence (based on real life newspaper columnist Walter Winchell) to Falco’s endless search for the next big break that’s never going to come, Sweet Smell of Successhas no sense of nobility about humanity. Even the good people are just saps to be played by the bad.
A lot of this has to do with the story itself, straddling the dual worlds of Broadway showbiz movie and newspaper movie. Both are rife for cynical noir trappings, but paired together they create a feedback loop that encloses the entire film in a sort of moral darkness that’s shocking even for a genre that by 1957 had mostly played itself out. Thankfully, it’s paired by a movie that’s sharp and beautifully shot, full of the kind of glamour that could only come from the bright lights of Broadway in its heyday. That handsome presentation just underlines the nastiness of what goes down, but it’s worth luxuriating in for it’s own sake. I have a professed fondness for black and white film, but Sweet Smell of Success is among the best.
You’ll notice, having made it this far, that I don’t have a lot to say about the movie on a thematic level. Well, there’s good reason for that. This is the rare movie for this Criterion series that is exactly what it presents itself to be. The Criterion Collection might be rife with art films, but Sweet Smell of Success is the rare inclusion that’s simply damn good and straightforward in its storytelling.
I love the movie, but I’ve had the damnedest time trying to talk about why, outside of throwing up my hands and saying ‘It’s just good, man!’ I could mention the rapid-fire dialog, the incredible script that dances along with the kind of hard-boiled sensibilities you’d never expect to come out of people’s mouths. I already mentioned how good it looks, a glitzy New York City celebrated and condemned in each shot. But it’s not in service to a deeper, secret theme. It’s just a good movie, and sometimes that’s a rare and worthy thing in and of itself. So … y’know, go check it out. Of all the movies I talk about in this series, this is one with perhaps the lowest barrier of entry. It’s the kind of movie I wish more people have seen.