June 03, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success (USA 1957)

Think New York in the 80s was a greedy place? Think again because New York in the 50s was even worse. At least judged by its depiction in the 1957 classic "Sweet Smell of Success".

Some things were a bit different back then though: newspaper columnists still had real power and could make or break a career with their written word alone. And in Hollywood, they still made films that were both realistic and entertaining.

The film was not a big success on its initial release but unlike many other films from that time, it has aged very well. The reason may be that its cynical worldview fits quite well to our money-focused modern world. "Sweet Smell of Success" can be seen as a direct predecessor to modern classics like "Wall Street" and "The Social Network". Like in those films, the only characters that qualify as good can be found in small supporting roles while the lackluster ambition of Sidney Falco is at least on par with the one of Bud Fox and Mark Zuckerberg. And like those films, the main character is based on a real person, in this case on famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell.

But what sets "Sweet Smell of of Success" apart is that it combines this real-life story with old Hollywood charm. Above all, the film is wonderfully cinematic: the noirish city landscapes and the great jazz score contribute to a vivid portrait of late 50s Manhattan. Despite all this movieness and wonderfully exaggarated dialogue, the film still feels realistic. This is partly the achievement of British director Alexander Mackendrick but the two lead actors deserve equal praise. Burt Lancaster and especially Tony Curtis (who has his birthday today) are not just their typical movie stars personas here, they are really into their characters. Both their performances are among the best of their entire career.

The film is quite negative and shows the bitter consequences of ruthless ambition. Its underlying suggestion is that in order to get ahead, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything. New York City is shown as a place where you have to kill if you don't want to be killed.

If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

True. But if you don't watch out, it might cost you nothing less than your soul...


Match me, Sidney!

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