Lying at the cold calloused heart of “Sweet Smell of Success” is an acidic but thoroughly intriguing relationship. There are a number of things that set this film apart and distinguish it as something special. I’m talking in front of and behind the camera. But the driving force and its lasting aftertaste comes from the pungent and destructive relationship between a powerful New York newspaper columnist and a smarmy press agent.
The film is based on a story by Ernest Lehman that first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine. Film rights were acquired by Burt Lancaster’s production company and Alexander Mackendrick was brought in to direct. By that time Lancaster had a lot of pull in the film industry and was considered an intimidating presence. Lehman had turned down an offer to direct the picture because of Lancaster. Even Mackendrick found filming to be stressful.
Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker. The character is said to be inspired by renowned syndicated columnist Walter Winchell. The film came out while Winchell still held considerable persuasive power. His daily columns were read by over 50 million people and were carried by over 2,000 newspapers. But Lancaster also had clout and wasn’t afraid to push the project. The film unquestionably stresses the bad side of Winchell by giving us a character so intensely self-centered and morally repugnant.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a small-time struggling press agent who basically lives on whatever scraps Hunsecker feeds him. In Hunsecker eyes Falco is an expendable source for information; a desperate and disposable puppet. Hunsecker knows that Falco isn’t above shady deals or unethical practices and he uses that to his advantage. Falco looks at Hunsecker as his meal ticket. At times he shows what looks like puppy dog admiration, but in reality Falco is just as devious, just as opportunistic, and just as unlikable.
As the film starts Falco is upset because Hunsecker has left him out in the cold and refuses to take his calls. We learn that Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) has fallen in love with a local jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (played by Martin Milner). Falco has been tasked with breaking up the relationship but so far has failed. Hunsecker has refused to promote Falco’s clients in his column until Dallas is out of the picture. This simple thread of plot makes up the main story, but the true focus is on the relationship between two repugnant individuals.
Lehman and Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay which is as brilliant as it is toxic. The dialogue is rich with razor-sharp discourse and verbal jousting. The characters talk with a twisted poetic flow especially Hunsecker. He constantly speaks as he writes – in cruel and piercing metaphors. Lancaster gives us so many memorable lines my favorite being “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
This was a big film for both Curtis and Lancaster. Up to that point Curtis had made his way as a Hollywood pretty-boy. He fought hard for the role of Falco in hopes that it would earn him respect as a dramatic actor. That’s exactly what happened. Lancaster’s films had given him the reputation of a true all-American boy. “Sweet Smell of Success” was a striking departure much like Henry Fonda’s vile, villainous turn in “Once Upon a Time in the West”. It left audiences shocked.
Watching the film you notice so many impressive touches and striking details. It was shot by James Wong Howe who utilizes the city in a variety of ways. Howe incorporates strategic lighting, clever camera tricks, and an amazing visualization hectic New York City life. Much was shot on location during extremely busy times and also at night which adds to tone the story is shooting for.
There is nothing pretty or uplifting about the story “Sweet Smell of Success” is telling. There is nothing redeeming and respectable about its cruel and shameless lead characters. But in terms of wickedly smart and thoroughly compelling filmmaking “Sweet Smell” is top of the line. Even more impressive, the film is nearing 60 years-old yet it’s still as potent today as it was then. The performances, the direction, the cinematography, the script – they all still sparkle which is a testament to the film’s greatness.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS