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Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Showtimes: Friday and Saturday, 7:00 & 9:00; Sunday, 5:00 & 7:00. Purchase Tickets Here.

Review by Trylon volunteer David Berglund, who writes about the movies with his wife, Chelsea Berglund, at their Movie Matrimony blog.

With vibrant and confident strokes, Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success captures the concurrent excitement and angst of life in an immense, overcrowded, and treacherous American metropolis. According to Mackendrick, the allure of the city is rooted in success and power. The film deftly displays that such pursuits are fraught with the temptations of pride, and the consequences of loneliness and anxiety. It is a warning to all prospective urban socialites that the road to glory is frequently marked by the abuse of inferiors and ends with an existential void.

Success tells the story of J.J. Hunsecker (a devilish turn from Burt Lancaster), a powerful gossip columnist, who uses the influence of his position to manipulate press agent Sidney Falco (a harried Tony Curtis) into being the middleman of a plot to halt his younger sister’s marriage to a lowly jazz musician. Hunsecker finds no joy in his work. He is simply a businessman who has found a rich and limitless market–the lives of others. In the words of King Solomon, “The words of gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.” And with any such deep-seated urge, there is always a business opportunity to be exploited by those not tempted by its charms. Hunsecker’s industry is ironically impersonal, dispassionately dealing in the most personal realities of other lives. As with the darkest aspects of corporate America, his end goal is not money, but the esteem and respect this money brings.

Yet, just as Solomon succumbed to the wiles of his vices, Hunsecker also carries a fitting tragic flaw and falls into the snare of his own success. He, too, seeks for meaning and purpose in the lives of others, but unlike his readers, cannot escape the spotlight. As a gossip columnist thriving on the unseemly secrets of others, he must avoid having any secrets of his own. His attempts to control his sister indicate a deeper, more widespread dilemma – there is no rest when relying on others for contentment. For Hunsecker, this means a foolish desire for control that fuels an insatiable thirst for power, and for everyone else, this means they better watch their backs.

It is fitting that a British director would be able to tackle such an American story, for it is many times the outsider who has the best vantage point.  Mackendrick’s big city and its sensationalistic media outlets represent an insulating force that feeds on the deception of vanity and swiftly blinds its inhabitants to the needs of others.  Yet, there is something universal to learn from this – everyone, whether urban or rural, has felt the compulsion to find their worth in others.  The intrinsic sarcasm of the film’s title answers with a bold indictment – if success is defined in the admiration of others, the pursuit will only bring a bitter outcome.

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