July 1, 1957 [Sweet Smell of Success]

Sweet Smell of Success is one of those strange near-perfect movies that no one likes. It’s risky--not only its script, which Clifford Odets seemed to carve out of discarded blocks of the Empire State Building--New York all the way to its core. No, the real risk was in making everything so beautiful, from Tony Curtis’s eyelashes to the streets themselves, passing through James Wong Howe’s camera like Pound’s wet, black bough, while bright lights stream over the gleaming putrescence of every medium, from television to newspapers to the movies themselves.

The story is a fast-talking exposé not only of the dark side of show business but of the American urge toward greatness--with, in passing, a viscous king-sized dose of Freud. And again, its NYC, both on the street and in its smoky nightclubs and bigshot eateries--a giant, glistening snake in perpetual midnight--is the perfect setting for the story of J.J. Hunsecker, make-em-and-break-em columnist--played by Burt Lancaster with a clipped glee, arch and almost prissy, but sharp as a serpent's tooth--and his uncomfortably close bond with his sister. Her relationship with a jazz musician sends J.J. into sinuous rage, and to break up their romance he enlists the help of Curtis’s seedy but seriously beautiful publicity agent, Sidney--a starlet takes him for an actor because he’s "so pretty"—but he’s also deeply fed up with being Hunsecker's toady.

The clash-by-night between Hunsecker's mad love and Sidney's redemptive self-loathing provides everyone the opportunity to chew up the scenery with perfect finesse until they cool-cat their way into a kind of Beat Generation Citizen Kane: the American hero--success-driven, commanding, ruthless--implodes under the pressure of his own obsession. Kane toasts "love on my own terms." In Sweet Smell of Success, those terms come with the throbbing heft of a blackjack, as blackly ripe as the shadows Howe pulls out of the cityscape, squeezing all concerned, black fangs sinking deeply into their clean collars.


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