DVD: Sweet Smell of Success Still a Cookie Full of Arsenic
One of the amusing running gags in Barry Levinson's Diner is a character who wanders through the movie, constantly muttering lines from Sweet Smell of Success, newly available in a snazzy new Blu-Ray edition from The Criterion Collection. And with dialogue this good -- courtesy of Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on Lehman's story -- who can blame the guy for wanting to recite these delicious lines over and over? "The cat's in the bag, and the bag's in the river," "You're dead, son; get yourself buried," "Your mouth is as big as a basket, and twice as empty," "In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me" -- this is staccato word jazz of the most delicious variety.
And it's not just the amazing script that makes this 1957 drama an American classic; from the opening shots (the extraordinary cinematography is by the great James Wong Howe) of newspaper trucks covering New York City, bearing the all-seeing eyes of Walter Winchell-esque columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) -- set to Elmer Bernstein's urgent, this-is-the-naked-city score -- Sweet Smell of Success never loosens its grasp.
Tony Curtis gives one of his greatest performances -- don't be surprised to see it pop up in the Oscar death reel this weekend -- as "press agent" (what we would nowadays call a publicist) Sidney Falco, a climbing rat desperate to stay in Hunsecker's good graces, even if it means perpetrating any number of sleazy moves to break up the romance between Hunsecker's sister (Susan Harrison) and a guitarist (Martin Milner, notably unconvincing as a jazzbo). Falco's underhanded moves also extend to foisting a hapless cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols, one of the screen's great bruised floozies) onto another columnist (played by, of all people, Bewitched's David White).
Movies don't get darker and more cynical about the media, and like many misunderstood films (Sweet Smell wasn't not exactly a box-office success), it's a film that improves with age, one that feels more prescient every year. And once again, Criterion knocks it out of the park -- the digital restoration looks and sounds stunning, and the DVD comes loaded with documentaries about Howe and director Alexander Mackendrick, as well as an exceptional booklet of essays and fiction.
In Sweet Smell, Hunsecker famously holds out a cigarette and taunts Falco with, "Match me, Sidney." But after five decades, this film remains matchless.