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Sweet Smell of Success (Blu-ray Review)

28 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 two-DVD set, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner.

Before the Internet — and, for that matter, before the onset of ‘70s repertory theaters, cable movie stations and VHS — it used to take years and years for the critical/popular fortunes of movies to change. But I can tell you this about 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success: By 1975, Exxon Corporation was funding new 35mm prints of black-and-white photographic masterworks to go out on a national tour to art institutions, and this onetime box office disaster (and even critical underperformer) was among the selections along with Shanghai Express, Gilda, The Night of the Hunter and other obvious worthies. By 1982, Sweet Smell became part of the DNA in Barry Levinson’s Diner (due to one character’s verbal fixation on it), and by 1993 the Library of Congress had put it on its annual National Film Registry list.

In any event, the new Criterion release makes the movie seem more vivid and immediate than ever — even though the trenchant Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman script deals with a long-ago era and a central character based on the now rather amazingly forgotten gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Ironically, he is perhaps best known today because of this movie, the financial failure of which he trumpeted in his column — which by then had begun to wane in its formidable power to make or break careers. Of course, as long as Winchell’s staccato narration of “The Untouchables” continues to exist on DVD and reruns, he will always live for some (including the descendents of that crime show’s targeted hood extraordinaire Frank Nitti).

Sporting glasses and one of the screen decade’s severest haircuts, Burt Lancaster (as fictional New York Globe columnist J.J. Hunsecker) is nothing like Winchell in physicality or tonality. But what a foil he makes for Tony Curtis’s famously amoral press agent Sidney Falco — the performance of Curtis’s career along with his steamed-glasses comic jewel in Some Like It Hot. A good-looking slug who’s come up from the streets (and lives there as well, in a combo Manhattan apartment/office), sycophant Falco can’t find a way to extricate himself from a mess involving J.J.’s kid sister (Susan Harrison), on whom the columnist has a rather unhealthy fixation. Note the glossy 8-by-10 glamour shot of her on big brother’s desk, which director Alexander Mackendrick makes prominent in our line of vision from time to time. Too bad she has fallen for a jazz guitarist (Martin Milner in the movie’s sole instance of improbable casting).

So we have implied incest. Marijuana. The pimping out of cigarette girls. No wonder the subject matter didn’t catch on in a year when “Leave It to Beaver” premiered and Walter Brennan’s “The Real McCoys” was giving ABC-TV a rare ratings hit with even more than the overalls demographic. Yet in addition to its trenchant writing and incisive direction by Mackendrick, Sweet Smell has the most scintillating New York location photography of its era (better, even, than those street walks in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 Killer’s Kiss, which are overwhelmingly evocative themselves).

The movie was shot by a master — James Wong Howe, back from a kind of “gray-list” that had stunted his career — and it was sandwiched between his Oscars for The Rose Tattoo and Hud. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the intimacy of Howe’s work here within a confined New York setting contributed to his being hired for John Frankenheimer’s Seconds nine years later, for which he responded with some fabulous Grand Central Station footage. This Criterion release would have pleased those onetime Exxon funders; it doesn’t overdo the grain but has just enough to evoke the grittiness of the material, which highlights hot dog joints, newsstands and flashing midtown movie marquees that ballyhoo Spencer Tracy in Paramount’s The Mountain (a coming DVD release from Olive Films, by the way) and Cinerama’s monster moneymaker of the day: Seven Wonders of the World.

You’ll have to go a long way this year to find a DVD/Blu-ray with more dead-on extras. The great Gary Giddins opens with a bookleted essay, followed by a remembrance from Lehman (who initiated the project before Odets took over his script). There’s also a Scottish TV featurette on the strange career of Mackendrick (how often did you ever see Lancaster interviewed?) that explains how an American-born Scot became a star of British cinema (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers) before returning to the United States to direct one of this most definitively American of all movies. With Mackendrick himself relating much of the story, the documentary further explains how and why he left the business to become dean of and later professor at Cal Arts’ film school, where his students included director James Mangold (Walk the Line and the satisfying remake of 3:10 to Yuma). In another bonus, Mangold offers a concise on-camera appreciation of his mentor that runs about 25 minutes.

Relatively inferior to everything else is a short, color-faded filmed portrait of Howe (though even here, we get to see the legend light a shot). But it’s a supreme capping treat to see Winchell biographer Neal Gabler giving us a half hour on the differences between his own true-life subject (who did, he convinces, have a few un-Hunsecker-like good points) and the latter’s morally worthless screen counterpart. Though Gabler obviously loves the movie, he does opine that the columnist’s own family life (such as it was) was even more interesting. When Winchell’s daughter fell for a guy who wasn’t exactly a sure bet, he had her committed — then colluded with pal J. Edgar Hoover and his claque of Bureau flunkies to have the guy jailed disproportionately for a committed crime and then hounded out of the country. That smell wasn’t so sweet.

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