Even more so than Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success rips the veil off the idealistic newspaper movie, if one could even call it a newspaper movie. Sweet Smell of Success fits into too many holes, its mash-up of paper film, jazzy pre-verité, even theater (Clifford Odets adapted the novelette upon which the film was based) making easy categorization next to impossible. Today, the movie tends to find itself situated in film noir, but that may have less to do with its plot than its unremitting pessimism and moral entanglement.
The opening credits of the film capture the tone of New York — in both cinematic and realistic terms — better than any film I can recall from the period. Brassy jazz blares over shots of teeming urban life, the hustle and bustle of Times Square captured in full and unstaged. At a newspaper press, workers load bundles of broadsheets into paper trucks and tear out of the building with such speed one mistakes them for fire engines rushing out to quench a blaze. The energy crackles, to the point that the credits cut out almost as soon as they appear as the impatient narrative jumps the gun.
Tony Curtis plays well against type as Sidney Falco, the protagonist of the film. A seedy, bitter press agent, Falco spends the first moments of the film in a rage at seeing his client passed over in the influential column of one J.J. Hunsecker, whose power precedes his presence. Curtis, normally the charming, dapper comedian, digs deeper into his upbringing in the Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx, digging into the neurosis beneath the humor. His Falco is sarcastic and demeaning, cutting down his innocent secretary for daring to ask why he’s so upset. She asks if she can do anything and Sidney viciously responds, “You could help with two minutes of silence.”
Elsewhere, Curtis’ crinkle-faced smile had an endless charm to it, a disarming child-like quality that made him so effortless a presence. Here, though, that smile contorts his face into a ratlike sneer, a plastered-on rictus that simultaneously fools not a soul and everyone. Falco receives a call from his client demanding to know why he has yet to appear in Hunsecker’s trend-setting column and shoots down Falco’s excuses and alibis. He differentiates between two kinds of liars, those who lie to promote, and those who simply lie like cowards. Sidney, he says, is both. But Falco doesn’t let these insults get him down: he focuses too much on shaping his rise up the ladder. “Where do you wanna get?” asks Sam, unable to understand why Sidney can’t be content with his more than comfortable life. “Way up high, Sam, where it’s always balmy.”
Falco soon proves himself to be more resourceful than his dour demeanor suggests. He has a keen eye for detail and body language, and he can read any situation almost instantly. The jazzy score harmonizes with Sidney’s improvisational prowess: Curtis does not trace Falco along an arc of development but shifts by the second. He always adjusts to the beat, speeding up or slowing down to the syncopation of the other characters who deal with him. Never has such a memorable character been able to rewrite himself at a moment’s notice.
Before Hunsecker himself appears, Falco gradually works out how he knows the man. Despite his role as lackey, Falco does have some sort of personal bond with Hunsecker, even escorting J.J.‘s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), home and chatting with her with a frankness that makes obvious his connection with the family. But Hunsecker also tasked Falco with breaking up his sister and her boyfriend, a rising jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas. Why he refuses to let the two wed remains unknown, but Hunsecker seemingly will not part with his sister for any man, and poor Dallas just happened to be the sap to make the mistake of asking for her hand. Falco failed to split them up, so Hunsecker suddenly cannot find the inches in his column to promote Sidney’s acts.
At last, 20 minutes into the film, Falco finds his way back to his — for want of a better term — friend, carrying with him news of Dallas’ proposal to Susie. After being rejected on the phone, Falco bursts into Hunsecker’s meeting with a senator anyway, and at last the camera reveals the mystery man to be…Burt Lancaster. Then known for being one of Hollywood’s top athletic hunks and even for acrobatic skill in such films as The Crimson Pirate, Lancaster’s appearance as a bespectacled writer instantly plays against type. Having come to Lancaster backwards through his canon, the imposing quality of Hunsecker seemed more familiar to me, but for those who remembered him as the heartthrob in From Here to Eternity, this must have been a shock. Even I had difficulty processing Lancaster’s virility as caged by his suit and rimmed glasses.
Yet the actor found subtle ways to let his intimidating presence seep through, especially when placed with the wiry, short Curtis. Sitting in a banquette talking to Sen. Walker, Hunsecker calls over a man to remove Sidney from the room until Falco worms his way in with teases of Susie updates. Even then, Hunsecker does not move an inch to give Sidney a place to sit, so the man grabs a loose chair and plops down just behind and to the side of him. It is a brilliant move, one Lancaster sparked by rightly observing that Hunsecker would never move for anyone, Falco least of all. The placement puts Falco in an openly subservient position, and the blocking allows for creative aiming of dialogue, all of it spoken to the senator yet aimed at Falco. Not content to sit there and take this trick-shot roast, Sidney tries to hit back in futile gestures of defiance, such as not lighting J.J.‘s cigarette the second he asks. But his shamefaced digs amount to nothing more than the yaps of a trained poodle, as Susie later describes him, trying to assert independence before cowing at the hand that feeds.
The entire scene masterfully integrates simple editing, deliberate composition and perfectly paced dialogue to add shades to Falco and properly set down J.J.‘s character. J.J. exudes authority, capable of making or breaking careers and lives with a few clacks of his typewriter keys. He almost reminded me of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” physically towering but intellectually unstoppable, marking down everything in his ledger, or in this case, his column. Scanning his eyes quickly over the man’s companions, J.J. surmises the truth of the young chanteuse sitting at the table and slyly lets on his knowledge. The senator does not fully catch his meaning, but Hunsecker makes it plain at the end: he knows Walker is toting around that woman as his plaything, not so his friend can manage her career.
That ability to dig up scandal exposes the hypocrisy of J.J.‘s derision of Falco’s trade and brings their camaraderie to the fore. People like Falco serve as J.J.‘s stringers and interns, doing the actual street-level observation and carefully extracting information, which Hunsecker then parades openly in his gossip column. Hunsecker might see all, but only because he has eyes everywhere, and for all the power and deadliness wafting off him, J.J. cannot work without people like Falco. Lancaster’s tall frame, accent-neutral voice and sinister delivery make him an imposing figure, but he still finds himself undone by his sister falling in love with a good-natured, supportive man with career prospects on the rise. This formidable killer of reputations and careers, someone who holds sway over whether someone lives or dies in the press, petulantly holds onto his sister because she’s the only person who truly loves him.
Because street rats like Falco do the heavy lifting for Hunsecker, Sidney gets his chance to prove his resourcefulness carrying out J.J.‘s wishes. Hunsecker is not nearly the observer of men that Falco is: desperate to get Susie’s man out of the picture to get his clients back in J.J.‘s column, Falco orchestrates a public takedown of Dallas by means that make some cinematic bank heists look less planned. And yet, Sidney rarely maps anything out. A cigarette girl at the jazz club where Dallas plays mentions losing her job and a tryst with one of Hunsecker’s rival columnists. Falco tracks the man, Leo, down and tries to blackmail him into publishing a hit piece on Dallas that alleges marijuana use. Leo lashes out at Sidney for the dirty trick and comes clean to his wife, who admires his first act of goodness in decades. On his way out, Leo insults Falco and Hunsecker in one go by giving Sidney a message for his master: “Tell him that like yourself, he’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.”
As Leo storms out, Sidney catches sight of another columnist, Otis, who hates Hunsecker. Without missing a beat, Falco turns his failure into success by walking over to Otis and convincing the man that the item he wants to plant against Dallas will hurt Hunsecker. To make Otis think he and J.J. have fallen out, Falco feeds the writer the same line Leo threw in his face a few seconds ago. Improvisation relies as much upon the ability to read a moment, riff or tone as much as it does one’s knowledge of lingual or musical construction, and Sidney is so good at playing off anything that it’s difficult to process the fact that his character is entirely reactive.
Part of the reason Falco can move so quickly, of course, is the verbal dexterity he and every other character uses. Sweet Smell of Success is one of those films that subconsciously informs the Noo Yawk ideal, the flattering self-perception of the city-slicked tongue. To be sure, this film does not capture the actual tenor of New York speech — for one thing, the word “fuck” is not used once — but Odets writes the dialogue to tempo. The dialogue flies from speakers’ mouths the way notes pour from a bebop jazzbo’s instrument: fast, ostentatious yet harmonic. Beneath all that technique is a swing, and you can snap your fingers to the words in Sweet Smell of Success.
When Sidney brings potentially bad news to J.J., Hunsecker’s secretary does not say, “J.J. won’t like this.” Instead, she drawls, ““If it’s true, J.J.’s going to hit the ceiling.” Without missing a beat, Sidney replies, “Can it be news to you that J.J.’s ceiling needs a new plaster job every six weeks?” Later, Falco describes Dallas to Hunsecker by mentioning the boy’s “integrity,” a word that confuses J.J.; Sidney elaborates: “A pocketful of firecrackers waitin’ for a match.” God I wish people still wrote screenplays like this, though today Odets would likely have been slammed for writing unrealistic dialogue. After all, how often do people overlook the wit of a Tarantino or Sorkin script for the asinine critique of the words being too fast and sharp?
The serrated edge of Odets’ writing eventually rips a hole in the posturings of the characters. Falco, convinced of Steve and Susie’s mutual love, attempts to refuse J.J., whose mad fury has grown until he has conflated Dallas’ insulting of his gossip rag into some attack on his readers. Hunsecker will not hear a word of Sidney’s reservations and tasks him with actually planting reefer on Dallas so a corrupt cop under J.J.‘s sway can arrest him. Falco balks: “I swear to you, on my mother’s life, I wouldn’t do that,” he proclaims. “Not if you gave me a column would I…” and he trails off as J.J. smiles a devilish smile, aware he needs neither contract nor blood pact to secure Falco’s soul.
And yet, in the end, even J.J. goes down. His vile machinations exposed before his sister in a final cataclysm that consumes both he and Falco, J.J. suddenly looks quite small. I cannot recall Burt Lancaster ever looking so disgustingly frail and useless as he does when Susie finally breaks from her brother. Early in the film, Dallas seductively begged Susie not to go without a kiss by cooing, “Don’t leave me in a minor key.” Sweet Smell of Success has the audacity to end on a minor key after playing a major one, giving just enough space after the final collapse to let the dust start drifting down before stopping. The anticlimax does not gel with the vibrant portrait painted of New York and the density of the dialogue, but a pathetic close to J.J.‘s schemes and Falco’s shamelessness seems all the more appropriate given the wretched pointlessness of their actions. If, as so many argue, Sweet Smell of Success captures the feel of New York unlike any other film, J.J. and Sidney remind the audience that sometimes the vastness of the city makes an echo chamber out of some individuals, making their meaningless plotting and snooping seem far more important than it is. Once that echo dies down, however, you’re left with the greedy murmurs of little men that Hunsecker hates so much. It must drive him mad to hear himself all around him.