Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success” is a noir thriller that focuses on the cutthroat world of New York City Columnists and the Press Agents that supply them with articles designed to praise or attack their subjects to the whim of those in power. This is the third film of Mackendrick’s that I’ve seen thus far and while he may not have been the auteur “personality” filmmaker of his day, he was a damn good filmmaker that got the job done with efficiency and skill, and I admire that. This film, is a different caliber of quality than “The Ladykillers” or “The Man in The White Suit” however, it’s got an edge to it that his previous films lacked. There’s an urgency about our protagonist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent whose voracious appetite for power and status propels the film’s momentum along swimingly. However it isn’t Falco alone that holds our interests, for Falco is but one half of one of the more interesting symbiotic relationships in film history. That other half is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most powerful columnist in Broadway whose ability to crush or knight stars, musicians, and performers alike keeps him atop the throne.
The crux of the conflict in “Sweet Smell of Success” is a fascinating evolution between both Falco and Hunsecker who both admire and despise each other. Sidney starts the film trying to recapture J.J.’s favor- as he’s failed to disrupt the relationship of the powerful J.J.’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a local Jazz Musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Renewed with fresh tenacity Sidney gets to work from his apartment/office by biting at leads and brainstorming a way back into Hunsecker’s column, if he can’t get his clients work into Hunsecker’s column, his bills don’t get paid. Eventually Sidney gets creative and blackmails J.J.’s rival to publish a character assassination on Dallas by claiming that he’s a marijuana user and a commie, but Sidney goes one step further and plants a joint in Dallas’ jacket to further complicate the young lovers’ predictament. Once J.J. hears of Sidney’s plan, the two work together with their slimy aggression in the third act and it’s almost scary how efficient and ruthless the two men are when they have shared goals. In the end though both men lose, with Sidney getting a beatdown in the streets for his sins and J.J. losing the only connection to his family left when his sister utterly rejects him. Sidney’s “Dog-Eat-Dog” mantra comes full circle by the time the film’s final scene ends, quite fitting for world established in the film.
What really stood out to me with this film wasn’t just the stellar direction choices (everything feels highly analytical but yet authentic for the later 1950s), but rather the characterization paired with the writing. These characters aren’t only memorable, they’re realistic. Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is only a Column organizer on Broadway- but the way he’s depicted and how he manuvers through his world makes him feel as threatening as a mob boss or a calculating killer. Not to mention Sidney Falco, Tony Curtis’ acting choices and snappy, snarling, nature make him feel both charming and yet as dangerous as a sniper in war. You may not see him from his point of attack, but his accuracy is deadly. I also have to take the time to mention Mackendrick’s particularly sharp blocking choices. Even when he’s got Falco darting through his office like a shark as he’s working the phones, he has Falco’s secretary working as the foil character, asking him all of the questions any audience perspective character might be asking- but Falco barely acknowledges her questions as he works, giving only half answers and nods. It’s like Mackendrick’s telling the audience, “Don’t worry, I know you’ve got questions but just trust me”.
If you’re after another classic American film and haven’t caught this one yet, I highly recommend it. As with most of my older film watching habits, I caught this one through the Criterion Collection’s streaming service as they had a recent collection of Burt Lancaster films, and I again must endorse the Criterion Channel and their many offerings. It’s an especially fun film to throw in the mix if you’re going through a Noir phase. Check it out!
Final Score: 1 Press Agent, 1 Columnist