It is pitch black, both visually and metaphorically, in Alexander Mackendrick’s SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, his first American film, the former blackness is prominently reflected through director of photography James Wong Howe’s cracking night-view of a bustling NYC under the sharp panchromatic hue, the camera slides and breathes like a restless animal, tailing our protagonist, the amoral Manhattan press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis), into a crammed restaurant as he circulates from one character to another, even inside his office/apartment, facing sympathetic secretary Sally (Donnell), Sidney rarely stay still, he is hot under the collar.
It is all because Sidney is on the wrong side of influential newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), after the latter asks for a simple favor to break up the romance between J.J.’s younger sister Susan (Harrison) and a whippersnapper Steve Dallas (Harrison), the axeman in a Jazz band (the cameo by the Chico Hamilton Quintet), which he hasn’t delivered yet. But to what extent will he do to pull that off? Sky might be the limit.
Sidney is an out-and-out hanger-on to J.J., who openly despises him yet, as a fixer, Sidney becomes his go-to option as there is not a scintilla of moral boundary in him, J.J. in his first scene, is seen dining with a senator (Forrest) and overtly scorns the presence of the latter’s female companion, arranged by one of his associates, so he advises the senator to get rid of the compromising situation, a point taken that apparently J.J. has a high moral attitude, yet the complexity lies in that, for his perverse obsession with Susan and paternalistic manipulation of her life, he has to debase himself into that type of man on the same level of Sidney, and J.J. proves that he can even descend lower, after he is offended by Steve’s vitriol, simply splitting the pair of lovebirds is not enough for his vengeful temperament, he wants ruination for Steve, and Sidney is the perfect enabler, however, Susan’s desperate action will sidetrack the course of events, a chink of daylight only peers in the coda, at least, there is one innocent survivor on sight.
Curtis, second-billed, but hogging the lion’s share of the screen-time, pristinely reinvents himself as an unscrupulous go-getter, who can smell blood instinctively and go whole hog to get things done, one particular moment involves him buffaloing a hapless cigarette girl Rita (a mostly poignant Nichols) into putting out with a rival columnist Elwell (a brazen David White in his celluloid debut), to cinch a deal of smear, as we audience involuntarily root for Rita’s integrity, Curtis’ Sidney gets the upper hand through a steely combination of coercion and goading, under which Rita cannot help but buckle. Flexing his muscles with immediacy, urgency and celerity, Curtis is beyond doubt, at his top form here.
However, Lancaster is no slacker either, his J.J. emanates a high-toned agglomerate of cruelty, snobbery and sheer contempt, that his threatening gaze and harsh articulation can pierce through any viewer’s skin like a sharp-edged knife, the toxic symbiosis between him and Sidney is so mesmerizing to behold enclosed by the shadowy atmospherics where any residue of humanity is chipped away into a cynical void.
Starlet Harrison, braving herself in Susan’s unfortunate shoes, swaddled by a mink coat until she needs to deep-six it, sinks her teeth into her first film role (her career actually stalled definitely after movie no. 2), she has the heavy-lifting to undertake as the sole character we can relate to and sympathize with, and to her credit Susan doesn’t easily fall into a one-note ingénue, her torment and anguish is quite palpable; then there is Milner, holds fast in his open-faced bluntness against a formidable Lancaster and smarmy Curtis, by and large, the ensemble is a winning combo to couch the rapier-like diction from Ernest Lehman’s source novel, and Mackendrick and co. fabricates a slick, eloquent moral tale to plumb the abysmal bottom of immanent turpitude infesting a capitalistic world.
referential entries: Mackendrick’s THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951, 7.6/10); Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952, 7.8/10).