Once again, I bring you a Film Ignorance post on the same day that you can read about the same film over at MovieZeal for noir month. And the person at MovieZeal probably even liked the movie. Go support noir month!
Film: Sweet Smell of Success
Director: Alexander MacKendrick
Stars: Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it
Ignorance Rating*: 40 (54 Votes)
Let me be upfront about a personal preference: I hate Tony Curtis. I think he's a hack who could never act in the slightest little bit. Now, I especially hate that this quintessentially 20th century ass clown was repeatedly cast in period pieces like Spartacus and The Vikings, which admittedly isn't the problem here. But man do I hate Tony Curtis. That guy sucks.
Sweet Smell of Success probably offers the best Tony Curtis performance I have yet seen, but you'll pardon me if I don't think that's so special. Tony plays Sidney Falco, an unbelievably slimy press agent whose only skill is being friends with J.J. Hunsecker, a gossip columnist who can change a nightclub's fate with just a few lines of text. When the film starts, Sidney is on the outs with J.J. because he has failed to break up J.J.'s sister's relationship with one of his clients. Thus, Sidney has to get slimier than ever to slander his own client to appease J.J. while preventing J.J.'s sister from finding out about J.J.'s involvement.
This is a pretty good premise for a movie, and when it's focusing on Sydney's wheelings and dealings, it actually works pretty well. Curtis may not have been a competent actor, but he's quite convincing as an asshole who's no good at his job but has managed to succeed based on his looks, connections, and inexplicable previous success (which we find out he sometimes fakes). As a desperate and failing man, all of Curtis' failings are rewritten as strengths; it's easy to believe that this guy has no idea what he's doing, and will sell his soul to keep his embarrassing career alive.
Unfortunately, as machination piles up on machination, the film's tone shifts and becomes more serious. Eventually, it seems to be aspiring towards Shakespeare - both with its incestuous and tragic themes and some dramatic irony of the type that always strikes me as charming in Shakespeare but clumsy and sitcomish in 20th century film. It doesn't help that Burt Lancaster plays J.J.; I like Burt, but I consider him something of an overactor. The overacting serves him very well in the film's first act - he's playing a god-like columnist, after all. When the business gets more serious and fate hangs in the balance, Lancaster's overacting combines with Curtis' natural hamminess to seriously hurt the movie.
There are really only three things I can unreservedly praise in Sweet Smell of Success. First, ace cinematographer James Wong Howe's work is absolutely superb - it reminded me of Gordon Willis' later vision of the same city in Manhattan. Second, Elmer Bernstein's score is, as you might expect, not just a pleasure to listen to but far better at conveying the emotions at hand than Curtis or Lancaster. Finally, Lancaster's reverse mullet (party in the front, business in the back) is one of the most awesome haircuts I have ever seen. But you don't need to watch the movie to appreciate it.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.