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Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success is a scorching drama from 1957 about the power of media manipulation and how it can destroy lives.

The film stars Burt Lancaster as JJ Hunsecker, a respected New York columnist who wants to end the budding romance between his sister (Susan Harrison) and a musician (Martin Milner) and enlists the aid of a smarmy press agent named Sid Falco (Tony Curtis) to do it, in exchange for getting Falco's clients mention in Hunsecker's column.

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's screenplay sizzles with stinging dialogue and the merciless slinging of it. In 2016 it might come off as a little dated and/or cliche, but I think it still packs quite the wallop. It's never really made clear why JJ doesn't want his sister involved with this guy but once you're into the story, it really is a non-issue.

The issue here is how Hunsecker is more concerned with what he wants than with his sister's happiness and the lengths that Falco will go in order to gain favor with Hunsecker, lengths that place him just slightly above pimp.

Lancaster, effectively cast against type, is quiet and bone-chilling as Hunsecker and Curtis gives one of his best performances as Falco, nailing an extremely complex character who is trying to juggle a lot of balls and is not always successful.

The movie is moody and atmospheric and I think director Alex Mackendrick's decision to make the film in black and white has a lot to do with that. The film also features a brilliant jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein that really keeps the proceedings pumping without ever overpowering the story. Despite some dated elements and a dreadful performance from Susan Harrison, there is enough that still works here to make it worth checking out. Decades later, the film was actually adapted into a Broadway musical.