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THE BIG C! Nordling's New Criterion Column Shoots Out The Gate With SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS!

Nordling here.

I have one column percolating right now, for YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS! that I'm writing, and that should be in sometime this week.  Can't give you a firm date on it because starting next week I'll be at South By Southwest for a couple of days and then taking the family on a vacation in New York.  It's going to be a crazy next couple of weeks at Casa De Nord, so I'm trying to get the bulk of my writing in now and I'm still fairly new at this.  I appreciate all the feedback, good and bad, I've received so far.   Believe it or not, I do read talkbacks and I do take many of the criticisms into account.  All I can say is that I will do my best to improve as a writer and as a moviegoer and I hope you keep reading as I adjust.

As most of us know by now, Criterion is the pinnacle of DVD and Blu-Ray.  We likely have at least one on our shelves, even if it's ARMAGEDDON.  I remember my first Criterion, a gift from my friend Joe, of my favorite film of all time, SEVEN SAMURAI.  My friend had a laserdisc player and collected Criterion titles avidly.  I remember us opening up the AKIRA Criterion, putting it on, and just marveling at the colors, so much richer than any videotape.  And that was just the laserdiscs.  There's something about holding one of those discs, knowing that so much care and dedication and flat out film love went into it, that each and every Criterion release is something special.  I know many other sites write about Criterion, including Moises Chiullan at Badass Digest and the wonderful guys at Criterion Cast.  They do fantastic work and I urge you to go and check them out.

I don't often blind-purchase movies any more.  It's just too much money.  But with Criterions I often make an exception, especially if it's a title I've heard about for years and never got around to seeing.  Most of the films I write about here will be films I've experienced for the first time.  I'm embarrassed to say many of the titles; just know that it's too freaking many, and the one I'm going to write about today I should have seen long ago.  But that's part of why I'm doing this.  My reactions to many of these films will be first-time ones, and if you're willing as a reader to follow me on this, then I'll do my best to accommodate.  You'll find that many of these columns won't dive into the technical aspects of the Blu-Ray.  That's intentional.  I'm more interested in the film being presented, although as we all know Criterion releases almost always have great special features.  But it's the film we want the most, so without further delay...

Alexander Mackendrick came from Ealing Studios in England, having made a couple of films with Alec Guinness, including the classic THE LADYKILLERS.   SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was his first Hollywood film, and if there's a meaner, more caustic film from that era I haven't seen it yet.  SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS has dialogue so sharp and jagged that it often wounds the characters who have to hear it, whether it's coming from sleazy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis, just oozing here), or his master - and J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is Saruman to Falco's Wormtongue, for lack of a better analogy - a columnist whose words make or break many of the hopeful actors, musicians, and club owners of the city.  Those people come to Falco because he has an in with Hunsecker, and hope to be mentioned in his column.  He claims to be Hunsecker's friend, but Hunsecker doesn't have friends.  What he has is a web, and he's the spider, enjoying, feeding off all the flies within his grasp.  The only person who has gotten any kind of access to Hunsecker's inner soul is Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and Hunsecker cares for her very much, but it's more of an obsession than it is anything else.

Susan is in love with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a jazz musician in an up-and-coming band, and Hunsecker doesn't like it one bit.  As the film starts, Hunsecker has given Falco a task - do whatever you can to break them up.  Since Falco needs the publicity for his clients that Hunsecker's column provides, and he's in debt, he has to comply.  What follows is manipulation, greed, a little sex, drugs, jazz, and the underbelly of the human heart.  Where does a man's conscience draw the line?  How much is truly enough?  In a world where integrity is "a pocket full of firecrackers - looking for a match!" who will be the one to light the fuse?

They don't get scripts better than SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.  They just don't.  Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman's novella) wrote a script dripping with wit and cruelty.  Every line is smart, bitter, mean, and funny.  But it wouldn't work if Mackendrick hadn't directed his actors to mean every word that they say.  Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster's work here is extraordinary, every line dripping with venom and veiled threat.  I don't know how they got along behind the scenes, but the way Curtis and Lancaster play off each other here is more like dueling than acting.  Falco grabs every crumb off Hunsecker's table greedily and Hunsecker dispurses those crumbs like a king to his peasant subject.  Lancaster digs into Hunsecker with aplomb, and it's remarkable.  He plays Hunsecker as almost bored with the ease which he manipulates everyone around him (except his sister), knowing in his heart that he will never find anyone who can match wits with him.  I don't think Lancaster has ever been better in any of the other roles I've seen him in.  You would think that a character like Falco wouldn't achieve any sympathy, but Curtis, who before SUCCESS was mostly known for his nice guy roles, found the heart, small and shriveled as it was, in the role, and he's brilliant.  He has the more difficult role than Lancaster.  Curtis puts it behind the eyes - he knows very well what he does and the repercussions of those actions, but you can see it killing his soul, little by little.

The cinematography by James Wong Howe is remarkable as well, showing the seedy, darker side of New York, gritty and full of life.  Elmer Bernstein's score is tremendous, one of his best, and that's saying something.  The jazz, the horns, all of it build up the tension in the film and it gives us a sense of New York, alive and breathing, even as the darker aspects of the corruption underneath work their manipulations.

The Blu-Ray's picture is crisp, but I've never had any problems with Criterion's transfers.  They take great care to preserve the film's imagery and make it look just like it did when the film premiered in 1957.  The disc is fairly loaded as well - commentary by film historian James Naremore, a documentary on director Alexander Mackendrick, a documentary on James Wong Howe, interviews with Neal Gabler, director James Mangold and Mackendrick (Mengold's instructor and mentor), and trailer.  The book also has two short stories by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, an essay by critic Gary Giddins, and notes on the film.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is the film I wanted to open up this column with because I'm not sure how well known it is outside of film fans.  But if you're yearning for some twist-of-the-knife dialogue, wonderful acting, and just quality classic work all around and you haven't seen it yet, this Criterion release is a perfect blind buy.  I've only just seen it, and it's one I'm going to have to watch many more times.  As Falco said, "The best of everything is good enough for me," and Criterion supplies that in spades.

Nordling, out.

Readers Talkback
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  • March 6, 2011, 12:37 p.m. CST

    As if you read the whole thing

    by jimmy_009

    Try again.

  • March 6, 2011, 12:39 p.m. CST

    Nordling is a good writer, but...

    by Arnold Van Seagal

    ... he reminds me of Waylon Smithers. Don't know why, though?!?

  • March 6, 2011, 12:39 p.m. CST

    I find it odd Criterion didn't release the Ladykillers...

    by Marat

    At least the BluRay is a studioCanal release. Just got my first Criterion DVD, Danton, and it's a good package. The liner notes were worth reading for once and it came with 2 discs. Granted I had to buy it from ebay to get it at a reasonable price, but it certainly was worth the amount of money I paid for it. This film looks interesting. I'd never blindly buy a Criterion film though, unless I saw it for 5 dollars at a used dvd store. Then again, I don't blindly buy things over a certain amount of money.

  • March 6, 2011, 12:46 p.m. CST

    Ah yes criterion. Let's see. Robocop laserdisc

    by UltraTron

    best criterion cover to roll weed on ever?Possibly.

  • March 6, 2011, 12:49 p.m. CST


    by Morbogast

    Someday somebody will stab you in your bath and you'll bleed out and as you expire you'll wish you hadn't been so tight all your life.

  • March 6, 2011, 12:52 p.m. CST

    Nordling, you're a great writer.

    by pushthebuttonmax

    Don't let every douchebag remark in the talkbacks get you down. Now, bring forth the next YK,FK! column!

  • March 6, 2011, 1:17 p.m. CST

    Nordling and Quint make this site great.

    by ROBRAM89

    Massa and Capone and Beaks do great reviews and interviews and everything but these features and columns show more love for film, and understanding of it, then anything else on the site. YKFK is one of the best things on AICN.

  • March 6, 2011, 1:30 p.m. CST

    Ain't It Nordling News

    by Jet Jaguar

    Seems like the ol' Nord Dog is providing most of this site's articles these days, which I for one welcome. Getting kinda sick of Harry's endless "film-gasms". There's a point when ecstatic fanboyism gets tiring and starts to smack of unprofessionalism. (When reviews from your website are quoted on movie posters, trailers, and DVD's, you're officially a professional, so act like one.) That schtick was endearing in the late '90s, but it's annoying now. BTW "Sweet Smell of Success" is a fantastic film. Maybe Curtis and Lancaster's greatest performances.

  • March 6, 2011, 2:12 p.m. CST

    Good work, bruv.

    by reni

    I watched 'Success' last night on blu-ray. Learnt more watching Criterion supplements than 3 years at uni. James Wong Howe = class.

  • March 6, 2011, 4:39 p.m. CST

    First Criterion purchase

    by kwisatzhaderach

    Robocop laserdisc, unrated version with Verhoeven commentary. Like manna from heaven.

  • March 6, 2011, 5:55 p.m. CST

    a column i'll actually read...

    by Noddy93

    i'm one of those silly criterion collectors (only 107 titles so far) so am looking forward to this series.

  • March 6, 2011, 9:18 p.m. CST

    I wonder if we will ever see a criterion "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy box set

    by Wilford_Brimleys_Diabetes_Rage

  • March 7, 2011, 12:53 a.m. CST

    "Sweet Smell" is a classic

    by njscribe44

    Lancaster and Curtis were both excellent. I always considered Burt Lancaster to be the finest actor of Hollywood's Golden Age - capable of great physical stunts and showing a fantastic range of flawed characters. I know they tried an unsuccessful "Sweet Smell" musical on Broadway a few years ago with John Lithgow.

  • March 7, 2011, 8:27 a.m. CST

    Armageddon Criterion

    by David Ortiz

    Yep, Armageddon Criterion was in fact the first DVD I ever bought. Unfortunately it's not anamorphic, so it's pretty much unwatchable now. I still can't seem to get rid of it though. Memories...

  • March 7, 2011, 12:28 p.m. CST

    Can't wait for the Criterion release of Blow Out next month

    by Nasty In The Pasty

    Already pre-ordered the Blu-Ray at Borders (only $21 after coupon and discount). They also do the best cover art in the business, considering how relentlessly SHIT DVD cover art had become over the last decade.

  • March 7, 2011, 1:19 p.m. CST

    My friends have a running joke about

    by dannyocean

    I must be on the payroll of Criterion, because of how much I post about their products. But, I don't do it for Warners or Shout! (as much as I like what they do) because Criterion is the most consistently eclectic of all of the high quality DVD/Blu Ray distributors. The only reason I can defend them having Armageddon and The Rock is because it afforded them all of Wes Anderson's Touchstone catalog. Their deal with Universal netted both Charade on Blu Ray and, not one, but three different versions of Hemingway's The Killers on dvd. A Blu Ray box set dedicated to BBS productions' output? Or most of Cassavetes? Or the entire Antoine Doinel series? Okay, maybe I do work for them. Someday... sigh.

  • March 9, 2011, 3:32 p.m. CST

    ah thanks Nordling

    by Smack_Teddy

    looking forward to this one a lot