Blu-ray review: Sweet Smell of Success

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis
Director: Alexander Mackendrick

sweet-smell-of-success 3“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, powerful newspaper columnist, sneers at Sidney Falco, the boyishly charming but endlessly corruptible press agent played by Tony Curtis. It’s an apt description, too, of this masterly film – sour to the core, yet wrapped in the gorgeous glitter of Elmer Bernstein’s swaggering jazz soundtrack, James Wong Howe’s glistening nocturnal cinematography of Times Square and Mid-Town Manhattan and the gutter poetry of Clifford Odet’s stylized, wise-cracking dialogue.

At its heart are two of cinema’s finest monsters – Hunsecker, paranoid, megalomaniacal, able to make or break careers with a word, and his ambitious minion Falco (“The best of everything is good enough for me”), for whom pimping, conning and blackmailing are all in a night’s work. The way he bites his nails hints at a restlessness and inner unease on Falco’s part – perhaps he’s a tiny bit redeemable – but Hunsecker is Genghis Khan with a typewriter, a towering figure of implacable malevolence, whose twisted, near-incestuous interest in his sister and his determination to break up her relationship with a jazz guitarist drives the plot to its explosive conclusion. A high point for all concerned, this is one of those classic films that lives up to its reputation and then some. 10/10

The 4K transfer from the camera negative looks outstandingly silky and clean in 1.66:1 sweet-smell-of-success 2aspect ratio – a few of the exteriors retain some grain because of fast exposure times, presumably, but the ominous high-key lighting that accompanies Hunsecker everywhere, giving a cold glitter to his glasses, has a delicious crispness and sparkle. Subtle effects such as the uplighting on Rita the cigarette girl’s worried face in the jazz club are captured beautifully, and even the the monochrome greys of Sidney’s crummy apartment have great presence and solidity. 9/10

sweet-smell-of-success 1A slightly odd-looking but very interesting 26-min appreciation by Philip Kemp – he goes through director Alexander Mackendrick’s bio, talks about the source of the film in a semi-autobiographical short story by Ernest Lehman (who was himself a press agent) and Odets’ mammoth 4-month rewrite of Lehman’s script. Philip Kemp returns for a selected scenes commentary looking at some of the film’s classic set-pieces, with discussions of the use of noir imagery and the brilliance of Odets’ scene construction. Best of all, though, is a 54-min documentary about Mackendrick made for Scottish TV. It offers a very detailed look at his career, with Burt Lancaster chipping in a few barbed remarks, and it also gives some glimpses of his later occupation as a teacher at a film school. The man himself tells funny stories in a soft Scottish brogue. A delight for Mackendrick’s many admirers. 10/10


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