This makes the request list via the “almost made my Facebook Fifty” movies, which someone said early on I should write about. Sweet Smell of Success was #60 on my list.
Phil Dellio had it at #6, and his comments were on target. He drew attention to the importance of words in the movie: “Sweet Smell of Success is about Clifford Odets’ words--a torrent of them, so caustic and acerbic and insanely funny that you’ll be quoting them for the rest of your life” (after which he quoted quite a few of them). He adds, “The dialogue in Sweet Smell of Success mesmerizes--while you’re dimly aware that nobody you’ve ever met or ever will meet in your life actually talks like that, you enter the film’s world and it washes over you.” It’s a bit like Damon Runyon, except Runyon really stretched the boundaries of realism with his dialogue constructions. As delivered by Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and the rest, the dialogue in Sweet Smell feels immediate and, yes, realistic … it’s not until afterwards that you appreciate what Odets (and everyone else involved in the script) has done to make stylized words sound like very witty people speaking like you or I, only better.
The dialogue is propulsive ... it drives the picture forward, and stomps all over any problems with the plot or the acting of the star struck young lovers. It might work as a remake of My Dinner with Andre featuring Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker, except you need the young lovers to give the two stars a reason to send their vitriol beyond themselves. Lancaster’s Hunsecker is built up gradually; before he actually appears on the screen, we get to know the man by the way others speak of him. Tony Curtis’ Sidney is like an open wound, and you almost sympathize with him at first. Meanwhile, Lancaster probes everyone, finding and exploiting their weak spots. It’s a movie with two awful people at its core … if it played on a double bill with All About Eve, you’d have to shower for a week afterwards.
Watching it again, I was struck by some of the supporting players, especially Barbara Nichols, giving real depth to her stereotypical character. And the movie is more than Lancaster and Curtis … New York, as shot by James Wong Howe, has an appealing sleaze that fits perfectly with the noir-meets-gossip-column milieu. #180 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.
Burt Lancaster is one of my favorite actors. I had From Here to Eternity at #37 on my Facebook list, so you know I’d recommend that one. I’d also point to Visconti’s The Leopard, a tremendous film. And, of course, Lancaster is so wonderful in Atlantic City. I’m not as high on Tony Curtis, but I’d recommend Spartacus.
(A final trivia note: I mentioned, when writing about Night Tide, “The flute player in the jazz club is Paul Horn, who later gained fame for his album recorded inside the Taj Mahal (and who did the music for Clutch Cargo … I could go on, I better stop).” I bring it up again because Horn was a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet when Sweet Smell of Success was filmed, and the Hamilton group, including Horn, are in this movie, as well.)