Movies We Like
Sweet Smell of Success
I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”
Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.
J.J. has Sidney tailing his kid sister and her Jazz musician boyfriend. J.J. has a weird, sweaty obsession with his sister Susan and doesn’t like her seeing other guys. He’d rather Susan play house with him in the penthouse apartment they share. Susan (played by Susan Harrison) is a screwed up girl in love with the first decent guy to ever come along, but she lacks the nerve to stand up to her scary brother. Her boyfriend Steve, however, tells Sidney and J.J. where to go. Nobody humiliates Hunsucker and gets away with it and J.J. makes it his mission to destroy Steve, with Sidney - still salivating at the chance to be a big-shot - orchestrating all the rotten deeds on his behalf.
Sweet Smell of Success is one of the true Noir classics. The dialogue crackles with a predatory wit that verges on camp, much like All About Eve but with a lowdown masculine rough-and-tumble quality in place of Eve’s high class bitchiness. Lancaster wields his gossip empire with a steely-eyed sense of total control, while Curtis squirms and darts around him desperate for some of the Hunsucker power to rub off on him—he’s all ambition. The young lovers are a paragon of innocence and virtue and thus the least interesting aspect of the story. But even Susan finally has enough of her big brother’s obsessive meddling in her life and she gets back at J.J. and Sidney in an impressively vindictive way. Still, it’s the film’s depiction of New York that resonates most vividly and romantically as a Noir kind of town, where the people are hotwired with dreams of success, even as failure and moral compromise seem to abound at every turn.