Looking at the last few weeks of my column, I'm realizing that entirely by accident, a theme has emerged in my choice of titles in the new year: namely, many of them have focused on different generations of the media – if not turning points, then at the very least accurate chronicles of the atmosphere during a certain time. 'Broadcast News' was first, examining the shift in television news from hard-hitting journalism to well-sold empty-headed punditry. Then came 'All the President's Men,' about the shoe leather and tenacity that it once took to break stories that truly matter. And this week, we have 'Sweet Smell of Success,' Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 film about the poisonous relationship between a press agent and a gossip columnist.
Suffice it to say that in mainstream terms, Mackendrick's film is decidedly less well-known than the other films listed above. But this week, Criterion Collection is releasing a truly glorious new Blu-ray set for the film, featuring a stellar transfer, loads of extras, and packaging that reflects the film's pulpy gravitas. But is 'Sweet Smell of Success' worthy of being in the company of its fellow films about the media? That's what this week's "Shelf Life" intends to determine.
The Facts: Released on June 27, 1957, 'Sweet Smell of Success' was not a box office hit upon its initial release, owing in no small part to the film's casting of actors Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in roles that were by all accounts profoundly unsympathetic. Nevertheless, the film was received well critically, earning favorable reviews in 'Time' and 'New York Magazine' among other publications. Curtis' performance was nominated for Best Foreign Actor at the 1958 BAFTAs, but its biggest award came some 40 years later, in 1993, when 'Sweet Smell of Success' was inducted into the National Film Registry. Meanwhile, the film currently maintains a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Like all great films, 'Sweet Smell of Success' is absolutely clear and distinctive in its depiction of the time and place where its story happens, but its ideas and its execution transcend that specificity and create something that remains timeless. Like the best of, say, David Mamet's work, the film is extraordinarily detailed in its creation of a specific world (in its case, of New York), at a specific time, and within a specific social circle. But other than perhaps the costumes and hairstyles of the era, the events of the film could have taken place at seemingly any point between 1957 and today.
Best of all, this trick is pulled off because of the specificity of one particular thing – its subject matter – rather than in spite of it; the idea of a publicist canvassing a gossip columnist for a few inches in the paper seems fairly anachronistic in a world where anyone can publish anything on the Internet at any time for free, but Mackendrick gives the sick relationship between Curtis' Sidney Falco and Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker a gravitas that escapes chronological distinction.
Speaking of Mamet, whose gift for language enhances his storytelling, the film's dialogue is one of its most powerful attributes: the characters vivisect one another with rhetoric and turns of phrase that are florid and yet accurate, evasive and yet merciless. Falco isn't just a spin machine manufacturing scoops for columnists, he's a calculating monster, manipulating any- and everyone within his sphere of influence with guile, outrage, oily charm, or any other approximation of sincere feeling he has in his bag of characters. He feeds off of others, and makes them feel like he's doing them a favor by providing him with the utensils.
On the other hand, Hunsecker is the T-1000 to Falco's indefatigable but clearly outclassed Terminator. Although he doesn't always see every angle immediately, he certainly knows how to play them, and manages to control his sister in such a terrifying way that we actually almost understand how he does it. So often there seems to be such a transparent level of deceit in these kind of cinematic relationships, but Lancaster gives Hunsecker a more convincing sincerity, and a sort of paternal authority that one imagines it would be hard to escape as his younger sibling.
Overall, however, what works best is its propulsive rhythms – the momentum of the characters and story and dialogue and acting, all working in concert with one another to give the film real dramatic weight. The finale is at once empowering and tragic, earned and unfortunate, and while I won't give away each character's fate, each receives the one that he or she deserves – except one, although he indirectly ends up with the one that he should have always had. But there's an urgency to the direction and storytelling, an expressiveness – such as when the camera whips around to show Hunsecker's point of view as he observes a young lady at the table with him – that runs much deeper than the surface of this often superficial world. Hunsecker and Falco's lives are rich with power and affluence, but only a kind earned through backbiting, hurtfulness and insincerity- rendering it valueless when they realize what it has cost them: not just money, but meaningful relationships, and finally, their own dignity.
What Doesn't Work: Really, nothing. There isn't one frame of film that I think detracts or undermines the impact of this story, or the completeness of its rendering of the world. While I suppose it's possible to argue that the characters are extremely unlikeable and therefore unsympathetic, the film's expose of this world is more meaningful because these characters aren't redeemable in virtually any way, and showcases with an unflinching honesty the depths of substancelessness that comes from living a life like theirs.
What's The Verdict: In short, 'Sweet Smell of Success' is f*cking awesome. Criterion's Blu-ray does the film more justice certainly than any previous DVD iteration has, featuring a commentary track, a 1986 documentary about director Alexander Mackendrick, a 1973 documentary about its cinematographer, James Wong Howe, and additional featurettes and interviews. But it also highlights, rekindles, and properly celebrates the enormity of the film's achievement in a way that feels largely new, since it has always survived as a critical favorite to many but never found the mainstream success it deserved. Of course, a Criterion Blu-ray may not accomplish that considerable task either, but at the very least, it offers existing fans the best possible presentation and context in which to watch 'Sweet Smell of Success,' and provide newcomers a glimpse at a bittersweet sort of film that isn't a product of a single genre or star filmography, but a truly special and unique piece of work that deservedly continues to inspire today.