Bracknell Film Society Selection

Second of two showings this month

Quarterly Classic

To book a ticket for this and forthcoming screenings please contact the SHP Box Office on 01344 484123 or click the logo below to book via the SHP website.
Tickets £9.50
BFS Members and Concessions £8

Thursday 26th January 7.45pm




Director: Alexander Mackendrick, US, 1957, 94 minutes
Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Martin Milne

Powerful but unethical Broadway columnist JJ Hunsecker coerces unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco into breaking up his sister's romance. This deliciously dark take on the malicious underbelly of PR remains one of the sharpest and corrosively perceptive films to emerge from Hollywood


Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is an acerbic, dynamic and intense film that exposes the diseased under-side of New York City's glamorous night life, revealing brutality, capriciousness, greed, evil, psychological violence, corrupt American ambition, betrayal and cynicism. The taut, little-seen, menacing, late film noir classic is the first American film of Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick, better known for Ealing Studios light comedies such as Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).

The sharp-edged, stylized screenplay, by Ernest Lehman (known for Sabrina (1954), The King and I (1956), and later for North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)) and the acclaimed left-wing American playwright Clifford Odets (known for Golden Boy (1939), Humoresque (1946) and The Big Knife (1955)), was based on Lehman's own original novelette (retitled as Tell Me About It Tomorrow when published in Cosmopolitan in 1950). Although Lehman was originally assigned to direct the film, he dropped out due to health reasons.

The film's quotable dialogue (extensively contributed by Odets) of the metropolitan locale is corrosively rich, slang-filled, sharply intelligent, and fast-paced, while the superb, crisp, low-key lighting of the black and white cinematography from veteran James Wong Howe emphasizes the harsh shadows and dark, unglamorous recesses of the corrupt and seamy environment of wheeling and dealing. Further realism was provided by the on-location shoot in mid-town Manhattan, capturing the restless hustle and bustle of big city life in the mid-50s when TV viewing was competing with newspaper circulation. [Both of Martin Scorsese's New York-based film Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) owe their look to this uncompromising urban masterpiece.]

The film provides an exposé of the poisonous world of NYC tabloid publicity with its attendant diseases: a witchhunt, insider trading, blackmail, deceit, double-dealing, and pimping. The urban-jazzy, sometimes discordant score by Elmer Bernstein (and Chico Hamilton's jazz Quintet) enhances the swanky, pungent underworld maelstrom of nightclubs and restaurants (the 21, the Elysian, Toots Shor's), the theatre district, brutish cops, cheap offices, crowded sidewalks, and dead-end alleys. Although the bleak film was considered a box-office and critical failure (it lacked even a single Academy Award nomination), it has gained considerable critical prominence ever since.

Since the uncompromising and decadent film is essentially an engrossing character study of unscrupulous, unattractive men in the artificial world of media power, phenomenal performances are derived from the two domineering and repugnant male leads - Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (in a breakthrough role with his greatest career performance). Both stars played their unsympathetic roles against type - it was Lancaster's first villainous role as J.J. Hunsecker - a stern, cold-blooded, morally corrupt, monomaniacal, and treacherous newspaper columnist (allegedly based, in part, on influential real-life Broadway gossip columnist Walter Winchell who could similarly make and break reputations). The film also follows the nimble exploits around the night-time city of the second ingratiating and obsequious character, Sidney Falco (a name with predatory, bird-of-prey connotations) - a success-seeking, hustling, slick, unethical and smarmy, PR press agent.

One of the film's posters succinctly describes the two major leads and their perverse, evil and interchangeable characters - and the attraction/repulsion quality of their interaction:

J.J.: who commands the minds of sixty million readers of his column - and the bodies and souls of big shots and big names who bask in the sunshine of success
Sid - who'd sell out his own girl if he could stand up there with J.J. - and suck in the sweet smell of success!

The film's central actor, Burt Lancaster, also served (with his press agent Harold Hecht) as the head of the film's production company (with hits including The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Apache (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Best Picture winner Marty (1955), and Trapeze (1956)). And this was screenwriter/producer James Hill's first film as a full member of the newly-named HHL (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster) production company (formed in 1953) - but it became the company's first major box-office failure. [Lancaster was one of the first film actors to become an independent film producer.] Homage was given to this film by one of the characters in Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), who quotes liberally from the rich dialogue. And the film played on a hotel TV screen in the room of autistic savant Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988). Unbelievably, it was remade by playwright John Guare as a Broadway musical (!) in 2002 (with music by composer Marvin Hamlisch), with John Lithgow in the Hunsecker role - but it was a doomed remake that closed a month after it opened.