Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
Sometimes the best movies are the ones that don’t make compromises. They thrive on a world that’s grim and hardly ever smiles. At other times, a picture’s all about style, showmanship and theatricality. It bursts with energy. These two types seem incongruent, and yet the great 1957 American film The Sweet Smell of Success manages to combine them in an entirely convincing way. From the title’s alliteration, to the firecracker dialogue, to the jazzy Elmer Bernstein score, to James Wong Howe’s noir-ish compositions, the film is completely soaked in atmosphere, which brings to life the very real world of newspaper tycoons and press agents in New York City of the 1950s.
The world in which J.J. Hunsecker lives is an intimidating one. Played with domineering intensity by Burt Lancaster, Hunsecker is New York’s finest gossip columnist – so powerful he can break a man with words. He has a kind of ruthless pride that permeates the world he seems to dominate. The only problem is that in actuality he has very little to be proud of, which is why he explodes when he learns his young sister is planning to marry a jazz guitarist he deems inappropriate. She is the only thing he really cares about, the only love in his otherwise cold and sardonic universe.
To solve his problem, Hunsecker turns to press agent Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) to smear the guitarist’s reputation. Falco is Hunsecker’s man, wiry and grasping, like a bully’s sidekick. But he’s also artfully cruel, “a cookie full of arsenic,” as Hunsecker calls him. Like many press agents, he’ll do anything for money.
That The Sweet Smell of Success is both flashy and real is a testament to the nature of the world of New York media. Everything happens at night, where the lights flash, jazz fills the air and the important people leave their beds. As you listen to the dialogue in the film – lines like, “He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster” – you wonder if there’s some hyperbole involved. But then you learn that Hunsecker is based off real-life columnist Walter Winchell, and you realize that people like this really do own their environment.
The movie is generally labeled as film noir, and that makes sense. Visually, of course, it fits the part, since cinematographer James Wong Howe’s New York is one of night skies and heavy shadows, filled with weathered faces that have seen the worst in man. But the real reason the film is classified alongside crime classics is because of its state of mind. It shows that the post-war cynicism that pervaded the world of detectives and mobsters was also present in the glitz of media life. It all sounds fairly glum, but The Sweet Smell of Success is surprisingly fun to watch. It’s fast and snappy like great jazz, biting and pungent and true – like J.J. Hunsecker himself.