A pitiless portrait of the sordid side of Manhattan and the vile world of gossip columnists, Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success is a scorching motion picture. The 1957 movie is just on the cusp of film noir, but James Wong Howe’s beautiful cinematography melds with Elmer Bernstein’s temperamental, frictional score to sink the audience into the concrete jungle.
Based on Ernest Lehman’s novelette of the same name, Sweet Smell of Success encapsulates all the raw cynicism of the darkest noir stories while placing the action in the moral wasteland of its characters. The men of Mackendrick’s realm aren’t necessarily criminals, but they are predators and they do live without shame or compassion or even love.
Tony Curtis is the press agent Sidney Falco. He hustles his ass off in Manhattan, hoping to get mentioned by the godlike gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). A word from Hunsecker can make or break any man, woman or child in the world, so Falco has taken to doing whatever the man asks of him in hopes of getting that all-too-critical copy.
This includes breaking up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz guitarist named Steve (Martin Milner). Falco runs through the gamut of possibilities, running false columns that pin drug use and Communism on the poor sap. Eventually, Hunsecker takes matters into his own hands.
Sweet Smell of Success turned audiences against the two stars, as nobody really went to theatres thinking they would see Curtis and Lancaster as such unlikable heels. And the film, seen as a hit-piece on Walter Winchell, landed with a thud. The movie bombed at the box office and turned the producers against each other.
But Mackendrick really has crafted something special here and the casting of Curtis and Lancaster turns out to be rather inspired. Curtis is almost too perfect as the lapdog to Hunsecker, a man so devoid of any personal moral centre that he pimps out a cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) to get out of a jam and even sets up the aforementioned jazz musician for a run-in with a brute of a cop (Emile Meyer).
And Lancaster is also flawless as the sturdy, steady Hunsecker. He is a merciless man, willing to wield his power in any way he can to advance his goals. He is a square of sorts and he seems to lack sexual energy, which either suggests he pours all of his passion into his work of destruction or leans toward something more inhibited when it comes to his sister. She is all he has in the world, after all.
There are lovebirds in Steve and Susan, but they balance on the tightrope of the debauched world they’re forced to live in. Susan hears wedding bells, which causes her older brother to hear alarm bells. He may exact the world with the simple peck of his typewriter and he may love the grime crafts, but his sustenance – his diminishing moral light, perhaps – comes from Susan.
Eventually, Steve sweeps futilely into hero mode and the blistering Lehman and Clifford Odets script lets him have a taste of fiery purification. He confronts Hunsecker and tangles with the hated Falco, trying his best to unfasten the warped bonds between brother and sister. He knows he’s over his depth and notes that Hunsecker is too “shrewd” for him. It’s a wrenching scene.
The film veers through several nightspots, like 21, and places the characters as frenetic occupants of swanky but unctuous too-tall buildings. The exception is Falco. His “office” suggests the headquarters of a puckered detective, complete with a secretary (Jeff Donnell) capable of looking the other way when he farms out his digs for sinister deeds.
The Bernstein score sometimes captures the jazz floating through the various clubs and holes of New York, fuelling the smoky air of exchanges and hushed conversations and curt blackmails with the insistent thump of men on the make.
Sweet Smell of Success is a twisted film about the narcotics of power and the lengths bottom-feeders will go to for a scrap from the table. It’s hard to find “nice” people in Mackendrick’s universe and that’s precisely the point. This is a dark, dark noir about the departure of the soul, about the alacritous sale of principles, morals and whatever’s left in the grime of this dirty goddamn town.