What makes New York City the most interesting metropolis in film is its dark side and Sweet Smell of Success opens up the 1950s underbelly of the place in all its fascinating ugliness.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is an unscrupulous press agent who wants to get "way up high, where it's always balmy." Right now he's one of the little guys; the nameplate on his office door is cheaply printed and taped on. He's tired of being a lapdog and trolls his talents to J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the city's most influential columnist and gossip monger. Hunsecker wields his power, making or breaking men with a few words, from small-time comics to senators. He relies on sleazebags like Falco for the only commodity that counts in his trade, information. But he's smart enough to keep his own hands clean, at one point telling Falco that his right hand hasn't seen his left hand for thirty years.
|Curtis as Falco -- his greatest performance.|
It's hard to say who's slimier, Hunsecker or Falco, but Falco is willing to pimp a girlfriend to get copy for a client, saying, "Come on, baby. Do it for me." Hunsecker dotes over his kid sister like a father. When he learns she is involved with a jazz musician, he engages Falco to dig up some dirt.
|"Come on, baby. Do it for me."|
Falco knows all the tricks of his dirty trade. He can be charming one minute—he's described as having a half dozen faces for the ladies—conniving and demeaning the next. He will even plant drugs on the unsuspecting boyfriend.
The film's most famous scene takes place at Club 21, where Hunsecker presides over the city. In turn he humiliates a U.S. senator and Falco. It's the first time the two main characters are thrown together. Their relationship, rotten and symbiotic, is the heart of the film. (Their actors' ages work perfectly for relationship: Lancaster was 43, Curtis, 32).
|Curtis and Lancaster at 21 Club - rotten to the core.|
Hunsecker knows he's the dominant partner and enjoys ripping into the sycophantic Flaco. Here's a sample of some his best lines of dialog:
J.J. to Falco:
"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
"I love this dirty town."
"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."
Another revealing sequence occurs at Toots Shor's, a leading celebrity hot spot in New York during the 40's and 50's. Falco attempts to blackmail another columnist to incriminate the boyfriend. He fails miserably when the man rebuffs him. A chilly exchange takes place, ending when the man tells Sidney he's got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster. A few minutes later Falco uses those same words as if they were his own as he tries to ingratiate himself with another columnist.
Director Alexander Mackendrick has fashioned an alluring but disgusting world of corruption. It is a fascinating look at how newspapers peddle scandal and insinuation to titillate readers. You can't help but take a peek. Unfortunately, the subject matter must have been too grim for American audiences at the time, resulting in poor box office and the curtailment of the director's career. It also failed to garner even a single Academy Award nomination. Today it is considered one of the best American films of the decade.
Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's script seems charged with electricity. Its great dialog is full of innuendo. A frightening example is when an old-time cop on Hunsecker's payroll threatens Falco with, "Come back here, Sidney... I wanna chastise you." Falco wisely keeps his distance—the man looks like he'd enjoy breaking a few bones. Emile Meyer plays the menacing cop. He starred in Shane four years earlier as the main antagonist.
Tony Curtis mostly kept to costume dramas and romantic comedy his whole career. His time at the top was brief, less than ten years. He'd never remotely approach this level of performance in any other film, a perfect match of an actor to a role. It is a startling turn. When he says to his girlfriend, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway...," you know he means it. Lancaster is nearly as good as the ruthless, but lonely columnist.
|Susan Harrison as Susan Hunsecker - J. J.'s sister.|
Lancaster's character is loosely based on real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell. At the height of Winchell's fame, his newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s. He famously said: “I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret."
The film is one of the best of the 1950's noirs. As such, you know it won't end well for Curtis and Lancaster, whose rotten character eventually knock them down a peg.
Other films shot by James Wong Howe:
- The Rose Tattoo 1955
- Picnic 1955
- Hud 1963
- North by Northwest 1959