It’s unusually thrilling whenever a major motion picture takes on a living, influential public figure, the way Citizen Kane did with William Randolph Hearst, The Social Network with Mark Zuckerberg, or Sweet Smell Of Success with Walter Winchell. In the latter, Burt Lancaster—who also co-produced the film with James Hill, Harold Hecht, and co-star Tony Curtis—stars as a Winchell-like columnist who publishes political opinions, gossipy smears, and star-making “items” in The New York Globe under the heading “The Eyes Of Broadway.” The audience feels Lancaster’s presence long before we see him in the movie. We see his picture in the papers, and plastered on the side of big trucks rumbling through the city. We also hear how he makes life miserable for desperate press agent Curtis. In order to get his clients into “The Eyes Of Broadway,” Curtis does distasteful favors for Lancaster, including trying to break up the romance between Lancaster’s sister and a young jazz guitarist. As everyone around Lancaster bends to his will—lest they lose their livelihoods—Sweet Smell Of Success shows how media bullies like Winchell wield power capriciously. Even now, more than 50 years after the movie was released, it feels like everyone involved with it was getting away with something.
Sweet Smell Of Success was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, a Scottish-American who made his reputation in the early ’50s with a handful of comedies for London’s legendary Ealing Studios. It was shot by veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe, who turns a seething New York City into a suitable-for-framing piece of realist art. Ernest Lehman created the main characters in a novella and a pair of short stories, but because of health problems and creative differences, he turned his script over to Clifford Odets, an activist playwright and screenwriter who’d been on the receiving end of Winchell-style smears during the heat of the HUAC era, and had bowed to the pressure. While Odets’ script is somewhat sympathetic to the weasely Curtis, there’s more than a little self-criticism in the way it depicts the press agent as a debased, spineless individual. There’s also more than a little sting to Odets’ dialogue, which is packed with now-classic patter like “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river,” “I’d hate to take a bite out of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic,” and “Everybody knows Manny Davis… except Mrs. Manny Davis.”
Sweet Smell Of Success is a tough film to pigeonhole: It looks like a two-fisted noir, but has the snap of a newspaper comedy, and is awash in melodrama. The movie’s mood turns on a dime, too, from jazzy and hard-hitting to more melancholy and romantic. (It’s like the city itself, changing with every block.) And where most Hollywood films hold viewers’ hands while leading them into unfamiliar worlds, Sweet Smell Of Success presumes we’ll figure out who’s who and why it matters. Instead, the cast and crew focus on the precarious relationships between people who depend on each other, observing the way they shift from acting cool and fake-friendly to hissing demands, and the way they can barely contain their disgust with each other when they share a table. Lancaster and Curtis’ characters are two of the greatest in the history of American cinema—the former for his terrifying savvy, and the latter for the way he boasts that he “don’t want tips from the kitty” even as he’s heading out the door without an overcoat, because he doesn’t have enough money to check it. Watching Lancaster and Curtis dance around each other demonstrates what’s really insidious about the insanely powerful: the way they can make everyone just outside their circle feel like they’re always stuck talking to the wrong people at the wrong time.
Key features: An hourlong 1986 Scottish TV special about Mackendrick, a half-hour 1973 documentary on Howe, informative interviews with Neal Gabler and James Mangold (about Winchell and Mackendrick, respectively), and a detailed, engaging commentary by scholar James Naremore.