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One of the most original and off-beat films to be labelled a film noir, The Sweet Smell of Success takes a cynical bite at the underbelly of the New York publicity game. As Sidney Falco, a thoroughly ruthless and utterly amoral press agent scrambling for his place in the sun, Tony Curtis gives the performance of his career—charming yet sleazy, ingratiating yet duplicitous. Falco aspires to a position of influence in the orbit of J. J. Hunsecker, king of the gossip pen. As impeccably played by Burt Lancaster, Hunsecker is a smooth, coldblooded mudslinger; crewcut, single and implicitly gay; more ruthless than Falco, yet completely unsullied. The bittersweet irony of the film is that, for all of Falco's slimy dealings, it is he (and his type) who ends up doing Hunsecker's dirty work.
To curry Hunsecker's favor, Falco sets out to break up the relationship between the columnist's sister (to whom Hunsecker has more than a brotherly attachment) and a young jazz musician by circulating accusations that the musician is a Communist and a drug
addict. It is a premise which provides screenwriter Clifford Odets the perfect opportunity to mount a scathing exposé of the lying, blackmailing, pimping and full-fledged witchhunting involved in the daily abuse of media power. It also provides the material from which British director Alexander Mackendrick is able to render a taut, suspenseful film in which the violence is more psychological than physical; and to create the ambience of a glamorous nocturnal world which is rotting at the core. These elements alone are enough to make The Sweet Smell of Success one of the most cynical film noirs of the 1950s; but it is the superb black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe which earns the film its place among the classics of the genre. Shooting much of the film at night on the streets of New York, Howe manages to combine expressive lighting with a kind of vérité realism, anticipating by several years the crystalline location cinematography of Henri Decae and Raoul Coutard in the early films of the French New Wave. If the subject of The Sweet Smell of Success seems unusual for a film noir, its biting tone and duplicitous characters represent the form at its most scathing, and its visual style points ahead from 1940s expressionism toward the direction of Alphaville.
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