The media evolves at such a furious pace that it's often too late to realise when a particular facet of it is dead. Ten years ago social media was in its infancy and only a limited amount of people had access to it via smartphones, with the initial iPhone launches. Now everyone is connected and the world is infinitely smaller for it. Now everyone knows the news.



"I love this dirty town"



It wasn't always this way. In the bustling streets of New York during the 1950's, the newspaper was king and publicity agents held all the power. Realising the reach of columnists, screenwriter Ernest Lehman -famously known for his later work on Hitchcock's North by Northwest(1959) - recognised the potential for a short story and started writing what was to eventually become one of the greatest pictures of the 1950's and a cornerstone of noir, Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Helmed by a Scotsman - Ealing veteran Alexander Mackendrick making his American debut - and with the star power of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, the film initially bombed at the box office. But time does strange things to films.



The film is notoriously scathing and cruel. JJ Hunsecker (Lancaster, all vicious glances and horrible dispatches) was based heavily on Walter Winchell, a gossip columnist of heft at the time. Winchell was notorious for destroying the careers of people whom he disliked. Lancaster commits wholeheartedly to this cruellest of men who, in a quite brilliant move, doesn't appear until twenty minutes of the picture have passed. Yet his influence is all over those initial twenty minutes. Hushed mentions and the dogged determination of the films protagonist (Curtis lapdog slime-ball Sidney Falco, played brilliantly by Tony Curtis) to assert his allegiance to JJ.



We know that Hunsecker has weight from Falco's glance across his column, and then binning of the whole newspaper. Falco is consumed with the power of JJ -after all, he's a guy whose press agency sign is taped to his door. He wants that power and is willing to sacrifice all moral integrity to get there. It's a neat inversion of Curtis pretty boy looks. "The boy with the ice cream face" as one of JJ's crooked cop friends refers to him. Behind that cute smile is a man willing to sink to terrible depths just to get what he wants.



But Lancaster is something else. Behind glasses so tinted that you can barely see his eyes, his fierce intellect and utter ruthlessness -as he commits to Falco's plan- is intense and brilliant to watch with his obvious contempt for Sidney, as the two of them combine to do horrible things to good people. The good people? Hunsecker's sister Susan (Susan Harrison), the only person who he cares about but in a possessive and suffocating way and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a jazz musician in Chico Hamilton's band -the jazz score that Hamilton provides for this picture alongside Elmer Bernstein being another highlight, perfectly accompanying the visuals. Steve also happens to be Susan's boyfriend and JJ will stop at nothing to separate the pair. Perhaps the only slight misstep the film makes is in the casting of this pair as they are stereotypically nice looking - not to detract from their solid performances. They almost feel too wholesome and make you root that little bit more for the two despicable protagonists. Mackendrick brings some of the delicious verbal wit and irony into this picture that ran through his Ealing features, and for a director working with two massive movie stars of the period this shines through in perhaps his best work.



The dialogue is electric from the start and is by turns acidic and witty. Most of the true horror -appropriately for a film with a newspaper columnist as one of its lead characters- is delivered in words, by men of verbal dexterity and shattered morals. Adapted from Lehman's own short novella and assisted - after a medical issue - by Clifton Odets, the screenplay remains massively quotable to this day. The whiplash camera movement and editing style highlight it further. If nobody really speaks this way in their day to day life, everyone who watches this film wishes they could. Indeed, a character in Barry Levinson's 1982 movie Diner only communicates with others in dialogue quotes from this movie'



Most of the noir-ish qualities of the picture are presented by the gorgeous photography of James Wong Howe. The extreme use of shadows to highlight characters Machiavellian intent, particularly in the lighting of Lancaster who appears near shrouded in darkness, often from the rims of his glasses. Wong Howe had proven his worth as one of the great cinematographers, winning an Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and he brought his usual deep-focus imagery to Sweet Smell Of Success, combined with a realistic depiction of 1950's New York night-life. Indeed, Times Square has probably not looked as good since Wong Howe shot it, with a spectacular use of shadow definition.

The film was released to audience indifference in 1957. Tony Curtis’ teenage fan base were likely to have been horrified at seeing their idol playing such a despicable personality. Alexander Mackendrick would see his career stalled by its lack of financial success and would eventually resurface as a lecturer at UCLA, with one of his students being future Logan (2017) director James Mangold. Critical reaction was generally positive and has only increased as the years have gone by, with the film being entered into the Library of congress National Film Registry as being an 'Culturally, historically or aesthetically significant' picture.

It was an idiosyncratic picture at the time -only Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) springs to mind as something so reliant on its dialogue- and it's even more so today. In an age where special effects pictures dominate the studio's output, its own special effects -the scathing dialogue, the beautifully lit and shot imagery and the fully committed performances – stand out even further. Though the idea of printed media's power and the personalities surrounding it is of the 1950's, the themes of the film are just as relevant today. The era of media moguls and the corruption that drives the sales of content across multiple platforms are things that swing back to JJ and Sidney. Though the world might be smaller and the ways that we connect are different, the information is just as harmful and important. 60 years might have passed, but Sweet Smell of Success still stands as an astonishing motion picture and one that will continue to be watched, studied and adored for years to come.