“Every dog will have his day,” snarls up-and-coming, New York publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who hustles up bits for his clients in the daily-news column and television show of Manhattan's most poisonous culture vulture, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Omnipotent, tyrannical Hunsecker can make or break anyone from stage, screen or even political office. In spite of his reputation for smear campaigns, Hunsecker's long-reaching, well connected hand is still the city's most influential, and Falco is ready to do anything to impress him. Lately, a shadow has fallen over Falco. It has been five days since Hunsecker has plugged one of Falco's clients because Falco has not seen to one of Hunsecker's demands. Hunsecker has a problem over the dating of his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison). Susan is seeing a jazz musician, and her angry, disappointed brother is doing a slow burn because Falco promised to put a stop to the affair but failed.
Slippery Falco tumbles across the city's hot spots, from diners and dives to jazz clubs and restaurants, spreading rumors, looking for leads and settling scores. Friends and enemies on every corner, Falco grooms and circles his stomping grounds like the junk-yard hound he is often accused of being before finally entering posh supper club “21,” where Hunsecker holds court at a private table. “Sidney,” hisses Hunsecker, “conjugate me a verb, for instance, to promise. You promised to break up that romance — when?”
Falco wants a lot more from the columns in exchange now because he has just been told the couple is engaged. Furious, Hunsecker considers this and cautions him not to be a two-time looser. Smirking, Falco, who has terrible plans to destroy the couple, assures Hunsecker: “The cat's in the bag, and the bag's in the river.”
The novella of former New York press-agent-turned-writer Ernest Lehman, Sweet Smell of Success, originally appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1950. The caustic tale, based on then powerful New York gossipmonger Walter Winchell, seemed too hot for a nervous Hollywood, and it was not until the mid 1950s, as controlling columnists were beginning to lose their grip, that Hollywood took a closer look. The independent production company Hecht, Hill, Lancaster optioned the material, and Lehman went to work on a script he hoped to direct. Toward the end of the writing, Lehman fell ill and producers replaced him with scribe Clifford Odets in order to polish the screenplay and selected British director Alexander Mackendrick, whom the company had hired for another project. With Lehman out, Mackendrick and Odets fine tuned the material, adding much of the film's patently venomous and quotable dialogue. Also key for MacKendrick was the film's visual style since he believed the images should have a crisp, threatening, noir-like life of their own.
Veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC (Hud), came on board to photograph the project. Howe had a solid working relationship with star and producer Lancaster, who admired Howe's Academy Award winning work on an earlier collaboration, The Rose Tattoo. Making the most of the film's few weeks of Manhattan location time, the crew shot from midnight to 6 a.m. Howe agreed with Mackendrick that the film needed the crisp blackness of the city at night, illuminated by the stark lights of Broadway and Times Square. Recreating the feel of still photography by artists like Weegee, Howe's noir-like work on Sweet Smell of Success is instantly recognizable and a highlight of his lengthy and diverse career.
The Criterion Collection has recently debuted this nocturnal classic on Blu-ray. Rendered from the film's original camera negative, the image transfer was digitally scanned with 4k resolution. The result restores excellent nuance and depth of field to the beautifully seedy, vibrant nightscape of midtown in the late 1950s. Blacks have excellent depth, and there is a fluid grayscale on display. The transfer seems uniformly sharp, with little evidence of debris. This fresh, high-definition image carries just the right touch of film grain and feels natural, with no trace of DNR. The equally impressive LPCM 1.0 audio track is free of distortion and nicely balances the film's blistering dialogue with Elmer Bernstein's cracker-jack score.
Packaged in a sturdy sleeve, slickly illustrated by Sean Phillips, containing a book with more than 50 pages of writings by Lehman, Gary Giddons and others, the feature is accompanied by a line-up of supplements. Film scholar James Naremore offers an excellent audio commentary culled from his book on the film, and historian Neil Gabler offers an absorbing, 29-minute segment about Winchell. Also included is Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, the 45-minute documentary made for Scottish television in 1986, and the excellent 22-minute documentary from 1973 James Wong Howe: Cinematographer that features interviews and a tutorial with the legendary artist.
The trailer and a 25-minute segment with director James Mangold fondly remembering his mentor, Mackendrick, fill out the supplements on this excellent new Blu-ray. Sweet Smell of Success, a memorably cynical drama, is an irresistible addition to any collection. Dressed up in its crisp new package, this “cookie full of arsenic” looks truly good enough to eat.