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'Sweet Smell of Success' has classic aroma

Louis B. Mayer warned anyone who made a movie at MGM: "Be smart, but never show it."

The still-subversive thrill of "Sweet Smell of Success" — an independent production released through United Artists — is that it's unabashedly smart in every possible way. It's smart as in glamorous and smart as in fresh. And as drama it smarts and refreshes, like an icy jet of water on a fevered brow.

In 1957, this spirited debunking of a Walter Winchell-like columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), and the publicist-toady who feeds him items, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), rode a wave of middlebrow and highbrow revulsion for the manipulations and sensationalism of the popular press. (Not surprisingly, it was a critical success and a box-office flop.) Hunsecker makes or breaks show-biz and political careers because he uses his "eyes on Broadway" column to mold the opinions of (in his words) "60 million men and women of the greatest country in the world!"

Lancaster's Hunsecker is an unshakable megalomaniac, but underneath his stolid mask he's quick and fluid — he doesn't miss a trick. In the charged, expressive Clifford Odets-Ernest Lehman script, he inventively describes Falco as "a man of 40 faces, not one, none too pretty and all deceptive." Then he caps a lengthy, shriveling description of those faces by commanding that Falco light his cigarette: "Match me, Sidney."

Curtis creates a Roman candle of a character out of a man without qualities. Any glints Falco gives off of sympathy or fellow-feeling are overwhelmed by his desperate need for success. He thinks he has his eyes on the prize — a permanent seat at Hunsecker's table, even his writing desk. He doesn't realize that his view is limited and his ambition blinds him.

"It's a man's nature to go out and hustle and get the things he wants," Falco says. His statements of desire startle and sting the audience as much as any of Hunsecker's putdowns.

Alexander McKendrick's production doesn't just marry the swinging virtuosity of James Wong Howe's camerawork and Elmer Bernstein and Chico Hamilton's score to the verbal be-bop of Odets and Lehman's script. It's also brilliant because it maintains a balance between Hunsecker and Falco as an immovable object and an irresistible force.

When Barrry Levinson, in "Diner," had a Baltimore kid spout lines from "Sweet Smell of Success," they weren't just Hunsecker's stinging reprimands and streams of sarcasm. This character, who'd memorized the whole movie, spewed lines from Falco and Hunsecker in turn. "The man in jail is always for freedom!" "Except, if you'll excuse me, JJ, I'm not in jail!" Levinson caught the dynamism and black humor of the movie. It still has the power to give viewers a pleasurable form of whiplash.

'Sweet Smell of Success' screens at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Wheeler Auditorium in the central Pratt Library, 400 Cathedral St. Go to prattlibrary.org.

—Michael Sragow

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