By Paul J. Bradley
Manhattan by night is when the newspaper low life prowl in the American film noir Sweet Smell of Success, made by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions and released by United Artists in 1957.
One such prowler is the immoral New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who has been struggling to get the attention of a very powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) because he has not fulfilled his promise to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison) and aspiring jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).
Now struggling with late payments and losing clients, Falco conjures a plan to spread a vicious rumour to discredit Dallas and to destroy his romance. The plan may seem desperate but J.J. is interested.
Although Sweet Smell of Success is now recognised as a major work and has received huge acclaim throughout the years, the film had received mixed reviews on release and failed at the box office. It seems that audiences then were not ready to watch their two popular matinee idols, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, playing nasty individuals.
The scheming Sidney Falco grovels low to J.J. Hunsucker’s every whim. J.J. Hunsucker is a powerful and feared bully whose obsessive protectiveness of his sister borders on incest. The character of J.J. Hunsucker was based heavily on gossip columnist who was notorious for destroying the careers of people he did not like.
The performances from all the cast are electrifying, especially the leads. Lancaster is brilliant as J.J. Hunsucker who does not appear until twenty minutes into the movie, yet his name has been mentioned and whispered everywhere.
J.J. Hunsucker’s first appearance does not disappoint. His weird spectacles make him look intense and intellectual, yet he is full of vicious glances which accompanies his killer verbal attacks. Tony Curtis is also brilliant as the slimy Sidney Falco and is completely convincing as a dark opportunist behind the “boy with the ice cream face”.
Their characters contrast sharply with some of the others, such as Susan Hunsucker, the fragile sister of J.J. and the musician Steve Dallas, Susan’s kindly boyfriend (both touchingly played by Susan Harrison and Martin Milner). Steve’s band includes prestigious jazz performers Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz who also have minor roles in the film.
Desperate and vulnerable, Rita the cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) is regularly used and abused, especially by Falco.
The corrupt cop Lieutenant Harry Kello (Emile Mayer) is as nasty as J.J. and Falco, showing that the law itself is as morally dubious as the lead characters.
The sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay is completely absorbing. Every line is clever, with venomous retorts and whiplash dialogue which are deliciously dished out by the two protagonists, most memorably when Sidney Falco reveals to J.J. that “the cat’s in the bag and the bag is in the river”.
James Wong Howe’s stunning monochrome cinematography of nocturnal New York is a visual delight and is also an important visual record of the lost New York theatres and nightclubs of the era.
Wonderfully directed by the Ealing Studio maestro Alexander McKendrick and boasting a classy score from Elmer Bernstein, Sweet Smell of Success is a masterpiece that works on every level. The themes in this very memorable film noir is still relevant today because those morally dubious journalists and nasty columnists are still scouring for and gathering explosive information under the city’s neon lights.