Sweet Smell of Success (UK Region B) Blu-ray Review

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster star in this seedy tale of an immoral press agent wrecking a young girl’s life

Arrow Academy has released Sweet Smell of Success on Blu-ray locked to Region B.

A smarmy press agent gets more than he bargained for when doing a favor for the most powerful columnist in New York City. Director Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success has stood the test of time primarily for its unrelenting cynical tone, a huge departure from the typical fare Hollywood was pushing out in the 1950s. The noirish film has elegant monochrome cinematography highlighting the environs of New York City and a classic score by composer Elmer Bernstein. Its cast is led by two Hollywood stalwarts of the Golden Age, Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster.

Sweet Smell of Success is about a powerful columnist with an unhealthy attachment to his sister and a completely immoral press agent. J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) uses his influence to coerce Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) into breaking up his sister’s romance with a young Jazz musician. J.J. Hunsecker is fiercely protective of his much younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison). Falco is a sleazy press agent whose career is at the mercy of mentions in Hunsecker’s column. Hunsecker is read by millions daily and a single mention can make or break a career. Hunsecker wants Falco to break up Susan’s relationship by smearing her boyfriend in a rival column.

Sidney Falco is a true hustler, willing to do anything to further his career. The incredibly unscrupulous press agent lies and manipulates the people around him with frightening ease. The great trick pulled in Sweet Smell of Success is that he isn’t its most loathsome character. Everyone knows that Falco is a despicable person, he is candid about his nature. The true villain is J.J. Hunsecker. He wields his influence and power behind the scenes, pulling whatever strings he needs to achieve his goals. Forcing Falco and a cadre of other people that owe him debts to do his dirty work, he maintains a public air of respectability and prestige. In the end he proves more twisted than anyone else in the film.

J.J. Hunsecker feels threatened by his sister’s romance, afraid she’ll marry the young Jazz musician and leave him by himself. Like so many films of the period, one has to read between the lines for the subtext of their relationship. J.J. is clearly infatuated with his sister and doesn’t want to share her with any other man. That twisted relationship lies at the heart of Sweet Smell of Success and its narrative.

The real strength of this film is its sophisticated, smart script.

Tony Curtis shines as the smarmy Sidney Falco. Press agents were reviled in the hustling metropolis that was New York City in the 1950s, considered a dishonest profession that leeched off other talented people. As Falco’s desperation grows to meet Hunsecker’s twisted demands, the razor-sharp lies that roll off his tongue are delivered in some of the finest dialogue that ever graced a noir film. The real strength of this film is its sophisticated, smart script. It didn’t hurt that legends like Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster were delivering the lines but the film simply has engaging dialogue. The words are delivered in rapid-fire precision, almost like the older Hollywood comedies of the 1940s.

They don’t make films like this one anymore. A commercial failure upon release in 1957, its power and noirish beauty speaks to audiences across time. Having only gotten more appreciated over the years, it’s a nearly perfect Hollywood film combining style and substance. Sweet Smell of Success is not to be missed in this wonderful home edition.

Movie ★★★★★

Sweet Smell of Success Blu-ray screen shot 2

Criterion first released Sweet Smell of Success in the United States before Arrow licensed it for the UK. Both employ the same magnificent film transfer, a new scan made at 4K resolution. The original 35mm camera negative has been restored to nearly pristine condition for this transfer. This is simply one of the best black-and-white film transfers ever seen on the Blu-ray format. Arrow’s UK release is technically perfect, allowing the gorgeous shadow detail and inky black levels to speak for themselves.

Cinematographer James Wong Howe uses a variety of wide-angle lenses to create some of the most striking monochrome cinematography recorded on film. The reference transfer encapsulates nearly every inch of detail and resolution captured on the 35mm negative in perfect transparency. The incredibly crisp 1080P video contains precise detail and vivid clarity.

Everything has come together on this Blu-ray edition to produce one of the best-looking vintage films seen on the format. Strike a new 4K film scan from the restored negative and avoid processing it with poor digital tools sounds easy enough in theory, but rarely are the results this spectacular. My absolute highest recommendation for this must-see Blu-ray edition. It obliterates all prior home video releases of this film in picture quality.

Video ★★★★★

The monaural soundtrack has been remastered from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack. It is presented in clean-sounding 1.0 PCM audio. Elmer Bernstein’s musical score sounds lush with fine dynamics. The swift dialogue streams out in clear fidelity. Many films of this era sound a bit thin and reedy. This remastered mono presentation has a very solid presence with proper EQ and mastering.

An optional English SDH subtitle track is included, displaying in a white font.

Audio ★★★★☆

Arrow includes a couple of very extensive documentaries on the film. This is a well-rounded set of special features since the 1986 Scottish documentary is something often left off newer home video releases. Providing a historical perspective on the film’s story is necessary context for modern viewers.

Appreciation by critic and film historian Philip Kemp (25:56 in HD) – Author of Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, Kemp covers a wide range of subjects in this video essay. It’s a smart piece that fills in some necessary perspective on the movie that modern viewers may overlook.

Selected scene commentary by Philip Kemp (31:56 in HD) – Kemp provides special insight for seven scenes in total. I wish we had gotten a full feature commentary from him, but this will do in a pinch.

Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away (54:36 in upscaled HD) – Dermot McQuarrie’s 1986 Scottish Television documentary, featuring interviews with Mackendrick, Burt Lancaster, producer James Hill and many others. An essential documentary exploring why this film worked and its re-evaluation years after release.

Theatrical trailer (03:06)

  • Reversible sleeve featuring an original poster and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Walker
  • Collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Michael Brooke and Mackendrick’s own analysis of various script drafts, illustrated with original stills and posters

Extras ★★★★★

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review as a screener that may not represent the retail disc. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.