Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

As powerful as film can be at expressing heroic, noble and beautiful ideas, as often as films craft stories about the triumph of hope, love and beauty, there’s something about film that makes evil even more compelling to watch. Whether it’s the mafia film classic The Godfather or the latest heist film, there’s something inherently fascinating about watching the badguys on film.

As the sniveling press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) walks through a seedy club, scouting out the men he so heavily relies on to print his sordid little pieces of “press,” he’s just another fiend scurrying about in the rat race, hoping to make it big. One such man who has already made it to the top is J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a columnist who has a dirty little job for Sidney to pull off that will take the work of the sleaziest man of all time.

And who better to play such a scumbag than Tony Curtis. It sounds like one of the most misguided casting decisions of all time. After all, he’s the man of comedic farce, well known for such films as Some Like it Hot. But in this film, he’s a revelation as a desperate man willing to do just about anything to get what he needs. Every look, every face and every bitter word that passes through Tony Curtis’ lips crafts one of the most compelling performances of unrestrained evil captured on film.

His foil is the excellent Burt Lancaster, who is coolly reserved, meticulously calculated and downright ferocious. His smug smile exudes the arrogance of a man who thinks far too much of himself, and while in most shots his horn-rimmed glasses keep his eyes obscured, one can practically see the devil dancing in them with every dark pleasure the man feels with every bit of pain and suffering he inflicts on others.

The levels of excess, the descent of depravity leave little ambiguity for the audience feelings for these characters. Tony Curtis may be pathetic, but he’s far from sympathetic, his weakness only makes him a more desperate and conniving devil. Likewise, Burt Lancaster’s self-righteous air only makes him an more sinister and revolting character.

And yet the film finds sentimentality and identification for the audience, characters that come along which do the right thing and demonstrate a side of humanity the two leads could never understand. In fact, their entire goal is to make it end, to see that the world is just as messed up, dark and depraved as they are.

As much as this is a film of the word, the nuanced manipulation of lies, the visual mood speaks just as loudly. The heavy shadows often obscure the faces and, at some point, consume characters. When J.J Hunsecker talks about the depravity of the town, it’s easy to see it in every rough shadow, dark alley and blazed street sign he passes.

It’s as revolting a picture of humanity as they come. Such dark, relentless motion pictures could be condemned as a glorious display of rampant cruelty but it serves as a reminder of the dark and sinister shadows that loom not so much in the streets and alleys of the city, but in the hearts and minds of men who know not grace, pity nor love.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing