Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Release Date: June 27th, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alexander Mackendrick Actors: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Marty Milner, Barbara Nichols
he Eyes of Broadway” J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is the hottest columnist for the New York Globe. He continually cuts out Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), an underling journalist and sneaky, blackmailing press agent that aspires to be as big as his boss. Falco regularly struggles to conceal what he really thinks about Hunsecker, one of his “very best friends.” As the right-hand man, he furnishes the columnist with dirty gossip, continually digging up scandal ripe for the printing. Unfortunately, J.J. is none too grateful, with a hearty ego that helps him spin his own web of deceit and feel perpetually above the crooked politicians and seedy bigwigs that he makes and breaks in his column (J.J. assumes he represents his 60 million readers’ thoughts, even though he only really does what furthers his own quest for control).
Steve Dallas (Marty Milner), an up-and-coming musician (with the Chico Hamilton Quintet) is in love with Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison), much to J.J’s dismay. Sidney is employed to try and break it up, and uses his various clients, promises of publicity, and routine devious schemes, while promoting his own power through perceived persuasion over Hunsecker’s writings (influence that he can rarely deliver). Leo Bartha (Lawrence Dobkin) is one such blackmail subject, who runs a more respectable column; he’d rather expose his own infidelity than print one of Falco’s slimy write-ups – this time concerning Dallas’ drug-and-communist-riddled smear campaign. Ruining the kid’s reputation is the surefire way to end the relationship – or so thinks Falco.
J.J.’s stranglehold over his sister is destined to aid the immoral man’s wounded pride. But phony Falco soon begins to learn that his shady dealings drag him down to the depths of moral depravity; others refuse to sink to his level, even when they suffer from libelous defamation. Sidney’s assertion that every man has his price leads to his own misuse of friends and acquaintances, such as cigarette girl Rita (Barbara Nichols), with her good looks proving the perfect tool for swindling and coercing rivals. Falco’s rise and fall is ultimately only amongst lowlifes, and he never truly breaks free from the inherent and destructive greed and ambition. His character doesn’t get to travel full circle, instead staying in a statically unending routine of base decisions.
The dialogue is smart, shrewd, quick, and hilariously cynical, and the subject matter is incredibly mature, despite being shrouded by 1957-appropriate insinuation rather than graphic depiction. Curtis rattles off his lines with conviction and fervor, while Lancaster matches him with commandingly wily deliveries. They spin conversations to convince everyone they’re the good guys, while simultaneously, sleazily working columns and associates to prove the opposite. Both leading men combat for the top spot of villainy, leaving the audience with no one to root for; perhaps it’s best not to choose sides as each struggles with power while sinking to the bottom of propriety. They toy with the lives of the commoners, twisting around words and ideas until they come out ahead – and not just in the lead. Hunsecker is only content when his enemies have not only lost, but are also completely crushed.
Smooth jazz and blaring trumpets oversee the conniving proceedings, with rapid percussion to increase the suspense. “Sweet Smell of Success,” with its sarcastic title, also offers up some of the best quotes: “Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!” (which about sums up Lancaster’s persona); and “I’d hate to take a bite outta you – you’re a cookie full of arsenic” (a colorful description of Sidney). Betting is called a “compensation for the marginal life we lead”; Falco is described as the “boy with the ice cream face”; his break-up scheme is referred to as “the cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”; and J.J. complains about Falco’s lighter tone, exclaiming “You sound happy Sidney. Why should you be happy when I’m not?” At the end of the day, Gordon Gekko and the cast of “Network” don’t have anything on the unscrupulous activities of these ambitious publicity moguls.
– Mike Massie