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Sweet Smell of Success

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

USA, 1957

Cornerhouse, 29 December 2013

Sweet Smell of Success

A supremely dark film, unnerving and disturbing still, possessing absolutely no moral centre or heart at all; it is completely disenchanting.

Half-mad at least, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is a columnist who rules over a hellish city where corruption and hypocrisy are rife.  His domineering hold over a much younger sister is suggestive of incest or worse.  Only the sister’s musician lover (‘the Dallas boy’) is in any way admirable, but he’s a victim, easy pickings for Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis in perhaps his best ever performance).  Sidney is a publicist for sale, a lackey, a creep, a blackmailer and a pimp, but at least he’s a survivor.  A city rat, he looks like he’s crawled out of a Jim Thompson novel.

The cinematography is superb, as evocative as Weegee’s photography.  Here it is almost always night; neon signs offer loans and liquor, traps for the weak and the unwary; skyscrapers and subways frame a world weirdly out of kilter.  Everywhere there are shadows and pools of darkness.

But, unlike as in Weegee’s world, the law here are agents of evil and none are saved.  There’s a perfect ending, with no hint of justice or redemption.

Sweet Smell of Success was shown as part of the My Noir season, further details are here.