Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
“The almighty J.J. …the columnist with sixty million believers …his wrath is feared by the great and near great who worship the sweet smell of success!”
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
Synopsis: Powerful but unethical Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker coerces unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco into breaking up his sister’s romance with a jazz musician.
Although British director Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success was critically praised upon its release and received the accolade of preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1993, it was not a box office success at the time of its initial release. Moviegoers expected to see Tony Curtis in likeable knockabout roles while Burt Lancaster was more familiar to them as an action hero. In Sweet Smell of Success they both play against type as a pair of ruthless psychological bullies feeding off the misery and misfortune of others. They also each give performances that are arguably career best, thanks to perfect interpretations of Clifford Odets’ sometimes florid dialogue which, paradoxically, suits perfectly the situations and characters on display.
The character of arch columnist J. J. Hunsecker, played with such concise attention to detail by Lancaster, was based on the once-famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell, a man whose reputation has suffered considerably since his death in 1972. Winchell was alleged to have once attempted to prevent his daughter from marrying a suitor of whom he disapproved by printing slurs about him in his column – a situation mirrored in the movie by Hunsecker’s attempts to derail the romance of his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her jazz musician fiance (Marty Milner).
Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a press agent struggling to make ends meet in the cut-throat world of Broadway theatre despite possessing a mile-wide callous streak that’s fuelled by the kind of restless energy which should usually ensure success in any chosen profession. Falco promotes his dwindling list of clientele by passing stories about them on to Hunsecker for inclusion in his column for the New York Globe, which boasts a readership of more than 60 million. However, Falco finds himself frozen out by Hunsecker after failing on his promise to bring an end to the columnist’s sister Susan’s romance with Steve Dallas, a jazz musician. To get back in Hunsecker’s good books, Falco conspires to print slurs about Dallas in a rival’s column so that Susan won’t suspect that he and Hunsecker are responsible, but his plan goes awry.
There are no likeable characters in Sweet Smell of Success. Susan Hunsecker and Steve Dallas are the innocent pawns in Hunsecker’s cruel machinations, but they are merely peripheral players, and their troubled romance simply a device which enables writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman to dissect the symbiotic relationship between Hunsecker and Falco. Hunsecker is a shark, prowling his waters, flashing his wide, malevolent grin, and revelling in the fear his mere presence evokes in those to whom he is important. Falco is the suckerfish that feeds off the shark; powerless outside of Hunsecker‘s domain, he relies on a quick-witted but morally corrupt guile to stay afloat. Falco dreams of the kind of life enjoyed by Hunsecker, but he lives in the back room of his dingy office and chooses not to wear an overcoat to avoid paying tips to hatcheck girls. He believes he can do whatever is necessary to succeed, but he lacks the near-sociopath coldness that has enabled Hunsecker to secure his position of power.
For once, Lancaster plays down his powerful physique to good effect, and hides his looks behind steel-rimmed glasses and a faintly effete haircut. His look calls into question his sexuality. He’s a buttoned-downed personality, tightly-coiled, his feelings deeply repressed because that’s the only way he can do what he does. There’s a hint of the homosexual about his relationship with Falco: ’I’d hate to take a bite out of you,’ he coolly remarks, ’You’re a cookie full of arsenic.’ And yet, for all the insults and petty punishments, you sense that Falco is important to Hunsecker, that he wants him around. But Hunsecker isn’t lying when he scornfully dismisses Falco’s claim that he needs him for material for his column – simply because there are hundreds like Falco, while the likes of Hunsecker come along only once in a generation.
The only thing that can truly part this odd couple is Hunsecker’s overbearing and vaguely unsavoury love for his younger sister, Susan. The whiff of incestuous attraction on the part of Hunsecker is never far away in the scenes they share. He calls her ’dear,’ as if they were an old married couple rather than brother and sister, and his fierce determination to part Susan and Dallas is fuelled not by a fear that the boy is wrong for her, but because he fears Dallas will take Susan away from him, like a lover stealing a wife.
Sweet Smell of Success can be regarded as a Noir movie, even though it bears few of the hallmarks of a classical film of the genre – no major crimes are committed, there are no femmes fatales, no real foreshadowing of doom – however the biting cynicism that drips from every line, and the greed and selfishness of its protagonists make it a perfect candidate for the brooding shadows and claustrophobic angles common to Noir movies. Director Mackendrick, whose output up to that point had been confined mostly to quaint British comedies, was savvy enough to realise this, and the manner in which he and cinematographer James Wong Howe shot Sweet Smell of Success enhances the brutality and despair of the story and its characters.
Sweet Smell of Success provides a dark view of the human condition, but it remains relevant today, even if the scandals Falco and Hunsecker conspire to engineer are not. Accusations of marijuana smoking amongst relatively unknown jazz musicians wouldn’t even make it onto the back pages of the scuzziest of today’s celebrity magazines…
(Reviewed 28th June 2012)