Criterion Corner: Sweet Smell of Success 1957

The Criterion Collection for years have been releasing the best versions of movies on DVD and Blue Ray. They are hands down the ultimate praise a film can receive,and while many claim the Oscar to be the ultimate recognition. Having the work and praise that goes into a Criterion edition. Shows that it was put together by film lovers for film lovers. This section is going to be dedicated to some of the great movies in this growing collection.

Sweet Smell of Success.  (1957)

              Cast:  Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harris

Writers: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

It’s a really good thing that the internet and blogging came about, because trying to get a story published in the late ’50’s was really tough.  The main character in this tale goes through a lot and puts people he knows into things that shouldn’t be done in order to become a success.   Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent who makes a deal with a very popular newspaper columnist, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), to help him break-up his sister Susan (Susan Harris) from jazz musician Steve (Martin Milner).  In return JJ will make sure that Sidney’s clients are listed in J. J.’s publication.  . What follows next is Sidney’s quest to become just as successful and as morally questionable as Mr. Hunsecker himself.

This was a very dark movie about the lengths some will go to in order to become successful.  Sidney has no problem using the people in his life, if it will help get him what he wants.  In one scene he is shown talking an old girlfriend into sleeping with one of his clients.  If she does, he’ll help get her job back, but all he wants is to become successful with his client.. Nothing more. .   It’s unclear why J. J. Hunsecker wants to break up his sister’s relationship with Steve.  Is it just a control issue?  Or does he have some sort of incestuous feelings for her?  It’s never brought up, but it does make for some interesting conversations after you watch it.

The whole cast is good, but the two stand out performances are from Burt Lancaster and Tony CurtisMr. Lancaster’s performance is the one of the quiet villain.  The one that will kill you quickly without you knowing, and can do it without any weapons.  Mr. Curtis is great as Sidney, because even though he wants to be like Mr. Hunsecker and does horrible things.  At the end of the day only one of them will have any regrets about what they have done.  The only character I had issues with was the sister, not because of the performance by Susan Harris, but the whole problem could have been solved if she just stood up for herself.  I don’t care how influential or scary her brother is, there is no way that he would do any real physical harm to her.  That is why her choices at the end don’t make much sense.

The visuals in this are very good and the score by The Chinco Hamilton Quintent helps bring it more to life.  The dialogue is spoken in a fashion that seems to come straight from the pulp noir novels of that time.  It’s very cool to hear, but I had to watch it with the subtitles so I could understand where the plot was going.  It’s an enjoyable enough movie, but it wasn’t that memorable.  It doesn’t have any characters to empathize with, and while that wasn’t a big problem for me.  I can understand why it might bother others.

Special Features

  • Exclusive new digital restoration from the original 35 mm camera negative (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
  • New audio commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore
  • Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, a 1986 documentary featuring interviews with director Alexander Mackendrick, actor Burt Lancaster, producer James Hill, and others
  • James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, a 1973 documentary about the Oscar-winning director of photography, featuring lighting tutorials with Howe
  • 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
  • New video interview with filmmaker James Mangold about Mackendrick, his instructor and mentor
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • 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


About The Vern

I love movies and I enjoy writing about them too. They both go pretty much hand in hand with each other and it's fun to discover new classics. I co host the podcasts The Film Pasture, ScreenTrax, and soon Cinema Recall. While also contributing reviews and articles to other great sites when I can.
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2 Responses to Criterion Corner: Sweet Smell of Success 1957

  1. What a classic… great review and a great movie. I went to a 2 day workshop a couple of years ago about Mackendrick and his methods – he was brilliant guy.

  2. The Vern says:

    Thank you very much for the comments. That must have been great to go to that workshop about Mackendrick. I need to read more about this guy

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