J.J. Hunsecker, the most powerful newspaper columnist in New York, is determined to prevent his sister from marrying Steve Dallas, a jazz musician. He therefore covertly employs Sidney Falco, a sleazy and unscrupulous press agent, to break up the affair by any means possible.
Burt Lancaster ... J.J. Hunsecker
Tony Curtis ... Sidney Falco
Susan Harrison ... Susan Hunsecker
Martin Milner ... Steve Dallas (as Marty Milner)
Sam Levene ... Frank D' Angelo
Barbara Nichols ... Rita
Jeff Donnell ... Sally
Joe Frisco ... Herbie Temple
Emile Meyer ... Lt. Harry Kello
Edith Atwater ... Mary
The Chico Hamilton Quintet ... Themselves
It is amazing the number of different ways a great film can weave its alluring web and pull you into its story. Of my 100 favorite films, this one's journey into that rarefied status is unique, based on but a single viewing. I saw "Sweet Smell of Success" when I was too young to really grasp the subterranean motivations of the characters who so vividly populate the film. I did not understand, for instance, why this powerful, loathsome gossip columnist, Burt Lancaster's JJ Hunsecker, who so clearly despised Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco (press agent), nonetheless tolerated his presence. There was much that I DID appreciate--the brilliant and daring acting of the two leads, the beautifully oppressive cinematography, and the scintillating dialogue--but after that single viewing, the film slowly faded from my consciousness. Twenty-five or 30 years later, I decided to make a list of my favorite movies, and came across the title of this film. Apparently, memories of seeing this production had been roiling around my unconscious all this time and now, triggered by the little blurb in the Leonard Maltin book, these half-forgotten images came bounding back into mind, now concatenated with a quarter century of life and movie-going experience. Honing my list over the next few months, and considering this film's merits, I more and more began to realize what a truly marvelous work this was. This was a study nonpareil of two creatures wholly wrapped up in themselves and their ambition, yet bound together in a mutual parasitism (the term symbiosis sounds much too nice to describe their relationship). I understood, finally, why JJ tolerated Falco's presence. He NEEDED Falco. It wasn't just that Falco would occasionally offer up tidbits that he could use in his column. It wasn't that the fawning Falco could be manipulated into performing certain . . . uh, tasks that were too dirty for JJ to touch. No, as a ruthless power-monger, he needed the treacherous sycophant as a constant reminder and test of his superiority. Falco could be demeaned and ridiculed, but he also represented a danger, a challenge. Falco might be a toady, but he was also a cobra waiting his chance to strike, and Hunsecker relished his role as sadistic snake charmer. Watching these two play at their oppressive games of perfidy, and dealing dirt, provide a fascinating character study perhaps the equal of the more famous examination of one Charles Foster Kane in an earlier film. There are many other characters in the movie, such as JJ's sister and her lover, and some are played with great aplomb, but they are all pawns in this disdainful dance between JJ and Falco, and it is their personalities that stay with you long after the lights come back on.
Everything about this movie seems to be nearly perfect (some have criticised the film for the relatively weak portrayal of the two hapless lovers, but a stronger emphasis on these two would only detract from the real focus--JJ and Sidney) even to the choice of names. JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco seem perfect monikers, by themselves conjuring up images of despicable parasites. Unfortunately, for the team that put together this masterpiece of film-noir, "Sweet Smell of Success" was no success, and critics and movie-goers alike left the theaters convinced that the "smell" generated by the film was far from sweet. Amazingly, this film not only failed to garner an Oscar, it failed to receive a single solitary nomination--not for Alexander Mackendrick's direction (this abject failure truncating his promising career), not for the incisive, endlessly quotable screenplay (Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odets), not Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score, nor the tremendous performances of Curtis and Lancaster--not even James Wong Howe's gritty cinematography, beautifully capturing the seamier side of New York City. Fortunately, history has stepped in to provide a more accurate critique of this once ignored masterpiece. I can hardly wait to see it a second time.
There are three reasons that movie fans should check this film out, if you haven't seen it yet:
1 - Outstanding dialog. I can't recall a film in which I heard so many clever film-noir lines as this one. Almost everyone in the movie has a unique way of expressing their feelings. It makes the movie one that you want to go back and HEAR again. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay and deserve special recognition as well as the people below.
2 - Fabulous acting, led by the two male leads: Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis is the star of the film with many more lines than anyone else, and many consider this to be his greatest acting achievement. I have no quarrel with that. It's one of the finest acting jobs I've ever witnessed by anyone. It's that good.
Lancaster is memorable and plays to his strengths as a tough guy, not only with his physical presence but his tactless and cutting verbal assaults. He has the best and most brutal lines in the film.
The minor characters in here, from the cop to the comedian to the cigarette girl to the young romantic couple are all top-notch.
3 - The cinematography. A big name in the film business, James Wong Howe, more than lives up to his reputation. This is beautifully photographed and looks absolutely stunning on DVD. I have watched hundreds and hundreds of black-and-white films and this ranks with the best of them. He captured nighttime New York City as well as anybody ever has done.
"Well," you might ask, "if this movie is so great, why haven't I heard more about it?"
Maybe because it never did well at the box office. It wasn't promoted a lot, from what I heard, and the storyline is not a pleasant one. Basically, this is about two immoral people who smear a nice guy so that it will ruin the romance between he and Lancaster's sister.
Lancaster plays an absolutely ruthless newspaper columnist who makes and breaks careers and Curtis plays his slimy press-agent who will do anything to please his powerful boss, including doing the worst of his dirty work.
Furrther details of the film can be read by many of the other fine reviewers here on this website, so no need to go into that.
I am not one who generally likes films that feature mostly nasty people but this was done so well that it fascinates me every time. A final tip of the hat to director Alexander Mackendrick. Why he wasn't given more films to direct is a mystery to me. Highly-recommended.
his is the kind of film that could coin an expression like "They don't make 'em like that anymore," except that people have been using that line for every piece of crap that was made more than two years ago. Go ahead and say it to yourself, and I'll say that David Mamet's Glengarry, Glen Ross comes close. Both feature snarling, biting dialog. Both have irredeemable characters that will do anything for success. Mamet's characters are mostly down-and-outers who are scrapping at each other to find some sampling of their former successes. In Sweet Smell of Success there are successful characters and losers, both of which need each other to survive. It is a tale of a successful columnist and his need for a low life press agent. It is a bitter, bleak story of power, success and the desire to have more.
Burt Lancaster plays JJ Hunsecker, a powerful, successful columnist who is at the top of his game. He gets what he wants, when he wants it with no questions asked. He can make or break celebrities with a quick blurb in his column. He dines with politicians and gets any girl he wants. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a low rent press agent who needs Lancaster's blurbs for his clients to keep in business. Problem is, Hunsecker has cut Falco out of his columns because Falco hasn't delivered on a deal they made. Though Hunsecker can garner the love and admiration of anyone he chooses, the one woman he cannot win over is his own sister. As he repeatedly says throughout the film, she's all he has. Problem is she is in love with a jazz singer, and they plan to marry. Hunsecker can't bear the thought of losing his sister, so he forces Falco to get rid of the boy by any means necessary.
The film is relentless. From beginning to end it never stops its pounding. There is never a breath of kindness. The two characters with some redeeming characteristics Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Susan Harrison) and her boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), are so overshadowed by the continual foul play by Hunsecker and Falco that they come away with a foul stench.
Tony Curtis pulls a performance that reminded me of his turn as the Boston Strangler. It is not difficult to see his Falco turning to murder if it helped him succeed. Though as the strangler, he seems to have found some remorse for his actions, where Falco is irredeemable to the very end.
There is a seen in the middle of the picture where Falco pulls a trick to convince a mid level performer to make Falco his press agent. At this point Falco needs all the clients he can get. Later the performer comes to Falco, ready to sign him as his agent. Falco, now feeling some signs of success brushes the performer off without a second thought. It is a telling scene of just how heartless and uncaring Falco has become.
Where has Burt Lancaster been all my life? Sadly enough, the only film I can remember watching him in is the 1986 toss-off comedy Tough Guys. His performance here is nothing short of astonishing. He is the king of his castle, never stepping off his high throne, treating everyone as servants. Even his shows of affection for Susan are grotesque and menacing.
This is a story that his hard to watch. It is brutal, and menacing with nary a redeeming aspect. But it is a film that must be watched. The craftsmanship of the filmmakers and the performances of the actors elevate it above so many others. It is nearly a morality tale of the horrors that befall humanities greed.
* The character of J.J. Hunsecker is based on famed New York columnist Walter Winchell.
* Hunsecker's apartment building is actually the show-business office tower at 1619 Broadway, also known as the Brill Bldg., a famous part of Tin Pan Alley.
* One of the musical refrains that is continually repeated throughout the film was taken and used nearly note for note in Boogie Nights (1997).
* This film's shoot was filled with macho tensions and at one point, the temperamental Burt Lancaster threatened to punch the film's writer, Ernest Lehman. The witty scribe replied, "Go ahead, I need the money."
* The movie's line "I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic" was voted as the #99 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
* Orson Welles was initially suggested for the role of J.J. Hunsecker.