Lenfest Center for the Arts, 615 W. 129 St., New York, NY 10027 Katharina Otto-Bernstein Screening Room (Second Floor)
1957 / 96 mins / b/w
Dir. Alexander Mackendrick / Sc. Ernest Lehman, Clifford Odets / Cine. James Wong Howe
Cast: Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Burt Lancaster
35mm print courtesy of Park Circus
Introduced by Jason Stevens, independent scholar
“Lie for it...Cheat for it...Drink to it...the Sweet, Smell of Success!”
“I love this dirty town.” That sentiment, uttered by J.J. Hunsecker as he watches a drunkard get ejected from a Manhattan bar, captures in one neat phrase the giddy immorality that fuels Sweet Smell of Success. The film is one of the great depictions of New York as a den of depravity. As shot by James Wong Howe and penned by Clifford Odets, the city intoxicates – with its neon lights, its jazz clubs, its booze, and its fast-talking hucksters – only to leave you broke, broken, or both. The film belongs within a cinematic tradition that continues to this day (see: the charismatic NYC hustlers of 2019’s Uncut Gems).
The film’s aggressively unlikable leads and cynical newspaper narrative recall another film from this year’s program, Ace in the Hole. Like Wilder’s indictment of American culture, the film bristled audiences upon release; one viewer remarked after a preview screening: “Don’t change a thing; just burn all the prints.” Both films depict a media ecosystem defined by exploitation. There’s no room for “good” people in Sweet Smell, only useful people. The noir ethos pervades the film, even with nary a gangster, gun, or femme fatale in sight.
Lehman and Odets, both Jewish, based Hunsecker in part on Walter Winchell, an influential Jewish columnist known for his ruthless personal attacks. Both writers have a history of telling Jewish stories: Odets with his breakout play Waiting for Lefty, Lehman with his (disastrous) screen adaptation of the novel Portnoy’s Complaint. Factor in a career-best performance from Bernard Schwartz, a.k.a. Tony Curtis, and you’ll see how Sweet Smell of Success brought together a range of Jewish artists to tell one of the quintessential tales of dog-eat-dog America.