BFI Classics: Sweet Smell of Success Review

Author: James Naremore

Having originally seen Sweet Smell of Success when released on VHS for the first time ever a long time ago it was exciting to tackle this BFI classic book by James Naremore. Upon its release on VHS reviews were glowing about this lost cult classic that had proved a critical and financial disaster upon its original release.

The book can essentially be broken down into three constituent parts. The first provides a brief history of those involved in the making of the film and the actual pre-production phase of the project. The second part is an extended analysis of the film that deals in detail with certain sequences in the film. Finally James Naremore wraps up proceedings with a critical view of the final film and the actual reception it gained upon release.

The first part focuses on the role of Burt Lancaster in the project and his recently formed production company Hill-Hecht pictures. Early projects such as From Here to Eternity and Marty had proven to be both critical and financial hits creating an air of invincibility for Lancaster himself. Sweet Smell of Success proved to be the company’s first wrong step as it failed both with critics and with audiences. It would take a few decades for the film to finally find its feet and become possibly over estimated in some quarters in Naremore’s opinion.  This part of the book also paints a rather freighting portrait of Lancaster as an abusive philanderer which proved rather upsetting to me given how much I like the man.

The analysis of the film itself is far heavier and is much more aimed at film students who really want to delve into the workings of the film itself. Scenes are poured over with even small props being discussed in detail as to their importance and possible significance. James Naremore makes great reference to the working relationship between the established Lancaster and the up and coming Tony Curtis as the spineless Sidney Falco.  Naremore also concentrates on the dark and seedy world created in the film and focuses on the genius of Ealing legend Alexander Mackendrick and his contribution to the films look.

Following the film’s release it was clear very early on that things were going to be painful. Mackendrick noted immediately that he knew the film would be a disaster due to the total lack of any one character with any redeeming features. American audiences were far from ready to see both stars as degenerate characters that would do anything to maintain and enhance their standing within the world of show business. Naremore even has the guts to state that it’s now possible that the film has become over-rated in some quarters. This does undoubtedly happen with some forgotten classics as people feel a sense of ownership in terms of re-discovery that can lead to a type of mania.

The book itself is well written and compelling for fans of the film. Those looking for trivia and history may find the long second section a problem as the detail of the analysis requires a great deal of effort and a strong knowledge of the film itself. Plenty of tit-bits can be found in the first part which will illuminate a part of Burt Lancaster that may actually diminish the great man like it did for me. An absolute cult classic film is given the attention it deserves here thanks to James Naremore, who has delivered an excellent book for those who have an academic bent towards film and take things very seriously indeed.

Aled Jones

Share this!