Tuesday, February 22, 2011

DVD of the Week: Sweet Smell of Success: Criterion Collection

While Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was a hit with film critics at the time, it was not a box office smash as fans of the film’s two leads – Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis – were put off seeing their matinee idols portraying unlikable characters. Based on Ernest Lehman’s novelette and adapted by Clifford Odets, Alexander Mackendrick’s film is a cynical love letter to New York City – seen as a dog-eat-dog town with a richly textured film noir look courtesy of legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Sweet Smell’s reputation has only grown over time and is now generally regarded as one of the best-written films with quotable dialogue and also one of the finest takes on tabloid journalism.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is an unscrupulous press agent, a bottom feeder who does anything he can to get his clients mentioned in mainstream publications like The New York Globe. For some time, he’s been trying to get in the good graces of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most influential newspaper columnist in the city. He’s even willing to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s kid sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up and coming jazz musician, by planting a story that her boyfriend dabbles in drugs. Falco sees Hunsecker as “the golden ladder to the places I want to get,” which is a position where he’s the one calling the shots instead of spending all of his time hustling.

Odets’ much celebrated hard-boiled dialogue crackles with energy and intensity as evident in the scene that introduces Hunsecker. “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried,” is how he casually dismisses Falco. “Match me, Sidney,” is another witty remark courtesy of Hunsecker. Falco gets his own clever remarks as he tells Hunsecker at one point, “Cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” In a film like Sweet Smell of Success, words are weapons which men like Falco and Hunsecker use to destroy people with no remorse.

The film was quite a risky venture for both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster at the time. They were popular box office draws and their roles in Sweet Smell of Success were very different from what their fans were used to seeing. Curtis, in particular, wanted to shed his pretty boy reputation by taking on more substantial material while Lancaster was a maverick within the industry and formed his own production company in order to generate personal pet projects like Sweet Smell.

Right from the opening shot, Mackendrick presents New York as a busy, claustrophobic and noisy place drenched in noirish shadows. It’s a place where heartless individuals like Falco and Hunsecker prey upon the weak. While the latter was based on infamous gossip columnist Walter Winchell, he is also a predecessor to muckraking gossip hounds of today, including websites like TMZ and feared industry insiders like Nikki Finke. Sweet Smell of Success, with its snappy acerbic dialogue, anticipates the stylized tough guy banter of David Mamet and the fast-talking characters in Aaron Sorkin’s television shows. It was one of the rare, uncompromising films from the 1950s that dared to be critical of the establishment and still get made and released within the system. The folks at the Criterion Collection have given this cinematic classic the deluxe treatment it so richly deserves.

Special Features:

Time to throw away the bare bones MGM DVD that was released years ago as this new edition features a pristine transfer that restores the Sweet Smell of Success’ exquisite black and white cinematography, and includes several wonderful extras.

The first disc features an audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore who wrote the BFI Film Classics book on Sweet Smell of Success. He offers excellent analysis of various aspects of the film and also provides biographical detail on the principal cast and crew. In addition, Naremore provides important details on Walter Winchell, the inspiration for the character of J.J. Hunsecker. He also takes us through the genesis of the film in this engaging and very informative track.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with “Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away,” a 1986 documentary about director Alexander Mackendrick that runs 44 minutes in length. Contemporaries, like Burt Lancaster, and fellow filmmakers, like John Milius, speak highly of the man. Mackendrick himself talks about his beginnings in advertising thanks to his aptitude as an illustrator – a skill he applied to his filmmaking. This doc sheds light on this often-forgotten film director.

“James Wong Howe: Cinematographer” is a 1973 documentary that features the Academy Award-winning director of photography giving a tutorial on film lighting. In addition, he also tells some entertaining filming anecdotes from his illustrious career and shares his approach to cinematography.

“Gabler on Winchell” takes a look at the columnist that inspired Hunsecker in the film. We learn of Walter Winchell’s importance to American journalism, including the notion of celebrity and the concept of personal style in reporting. He grew to great prominence in the 1930s and wielded a lot of power with the ability to make or break people’s careers.

Finally, there is a 25-minute interview with director James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line) who was one of Mackendrick’s students. Mangold recalls his initial impressions of Mackendrick and what drew him to the man. He says that in his teachings, Mackendrick stressed the ability to tell a story, an understanding of acting, and how a scene worked. Mangold speaks with obvious affection for his mentor in this engaging extra.


  1. Well, you know my feeling on this brilliant film; my favourite line has to be 'I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic'.

    It's a pure joy from beginning to end and this DVD release sounds superb; well I'd expect nothing less from Criterion, I would really love to see that John Wong Howe feature and the inspiration behind the film.

  2. God I love this movie so much. One of those rare ones where it's almost even better than its high reputation suggests. James Wong Howe's work is so brilliant, and Hunsecker is right there at the tip top as far as my favorite movie characters go. And it just goes on and on and on with the elements that make this movie so rich and elevated.

    Thanks for reviewing this new Criterion release, J.D, my blu-ray is in the mail, and I am obviously really anxious for it. It looks like Criterion compiled quite the impressive array of extras here. What an essential release!

  3. I just bought this today. Love this movie with a passion.

  4. This film and Criterion Collection were made for each other! Well, another fine one I must find a way of owning. Wonderful look this, J.D. Thanks.

  5. Ibetolis:

    I sure do. This film has so many quotable bits of dialogue. And you will really dig this DVD release. Loads of goodies and the extras, as you would expect from Criterion, are quite substantial.


    I completely agree! A rare classic that lives up to its own hype. I can only imagine what the Blu-ray image will look like as the transfer for the DVD is quite amazing. Criterion really outdid themselves on this one.


    Awesome. Glad to hear and yeah, this film is a masterpiece.


    Thanks for the kind words, my friend. Yeah, this film is a keeper and you will really enjoy this new Criterion edition.

  6. A truly great film. It's shame how underappreciated Lancaster is, he was in fine form here. He was a true master af presence, whatever character he played. Of course the dialogue is the real star her, and I enjoyed your crediting "Success" for paving the way for Mamet. How true!

  7. Brent:

    Lancaster was truly awesome in this film and Curtis held his own also - a great casting against type that really paid off.

  8. One of my beloved LA moments was seeing Tony Curtis present this at the Egyptian Theatre in 2000 -- he was such a force of life that night.

  9. Christian:

    Wow, that must've been so cool. And to see the film on the big screen as well. Sweet.