Alexander Mackendrick (director of “The Ladykillers”) may have been of British descent, but his quick-paced 1957 sardonic drama — about the symbiotic relationship between a decadent Manhattan newspaper showbiz columnist and a hungry press agent — captures America’s indulgence in greed, corruption, and aggression like none other. Drawing on the noir style and subject matter of Billy Wilder’s perfect “Ace in the Hole” (1952) “black political drama” would be a suitable moniker for the dark pitch of cynical social satire that “Sweet Smell of Success” examines, rather than the “film noir” attribution that it frequently attracts. Here lies the defective foundation of the American Dream as viewed from an American viewpoint (Burt Lancaster’s company produced the film).
The story takes place during a day and a half in the life of its New York City characters. Fey toady press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is in the doghouse with his Walter Winchell-type gossip columnist mentor-and-abuser JJ Hunsecker (emphasis on the second “J”). Mackendrick’s ravenous camera moves through Manhattan’s late '50s Broadway theater district on a nocturnal quest for truth.
According to JJ, the frequently groveling Sidney is not responding quickly enough to JJ’s orders to rev up the rumor mill to break up a hot romance brewing between Hunsecker’s adult sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a bland jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Steve Dallas isn’t exactly the next Tal Farlow on guitar, but he’s earned Susan’s romantic devotion. JJ wants to shut the whole thing down with a smear-job on Steve Dallas that sticks. “Communist” is a convenient accusation. JJ’s incestuous emotions seethe in his sexually impotent [or bound] mind. Sidney is working through an imagined apprenticeship with JJ that he hopes will eventually lead to his mentor’s place. The latent homosexual dominant/submissive subtext that exists between the two men underscores JJ’s impotent but nonetheless incestuous desires for his sister. Trouble in mind; trouble in action.
Neither man has an ounce of ethics but both fake morals to mask their true devotion — to power and money. Sidney calls everybody “baby” or “sweetheart” to get what he wants for his master. He sees though JJ regardless of how beholden to him he is. Sidney tells his de facto boss, “JJ, you’ve got such contempt for people it makes you stupid.”
Based on a novella by former press agent Ernest Lehman (“Sabrina”) and adapted by Clifford Odets, the great leftist poet of Harold Clurman Group Theatre — “Sweet Smell of Success” exists in a self-loathing urban bourgeois stratosphere where a gossip columnist like JJ Hunsecker can make or break a career depending on whether or not he mentioned it in his column.
Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker is a nasty master manipulator, but he doesn’t know his limits — and he doesn’t care because he’s been rewarded so much and so long for his ruthless tactics. He’s irresponsible. JJ’s capacious power has blinded everyone, including him. Still, his days are numbered.
Neither the antagonist (JJ) nor the film’s (purposefully) falsely represented protagonist (Sidney) has any redeeming traits. They suffer ongoing degrees of retribution, but each will carry on in the prescribed despicable methods to which each is accustomed.
“Sweet Smell of Success” flopped at the box office. It is in Time Magazine’s list as one of the top movies of all time.
Not Rated. 96 mins.
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