The US Supreme Court’s decision on 1948 Anti-Trust case is one of the pivotal moments in American cinema that marked the beginning of the end for the prodigious Hollywood studio system. The verdict declared on 1948 found seven big studios of violating anti-trust law and this subsequently gave breathing space for independent producers to fairly compete with movies made from major studios (before the verdict the studios had total control over movie distribution and in blocking theaters). And, the witch hunt unfurled by House for Un-American Activities (HUAC) along with Hollywood blacklist stirred the independent film-makers to shed light on the taboo and dark subjects. Film historians’ note that the blistering satires, made in the late 1950’s, infused with thematic preoccupations of film noir, wouldn’t have been possible in the studio system. Alexander Mackendrick’s unrelentingly dark classic “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) is one such acerbic examination of power, overweening ambition and the American Dream. The film has two of the best characters in the history of American cinema – JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco.
“Sweet Smell of Success” is about a doomed man hopelessly trying to evade the monsters that lurks in the dingy corners. And, yes that narrative structure very much lands the film in noir territory, although the noir mode in “Sweet Smell of Success” is more caustic and cynical. The movie has no heroes/anti-heroes or femme fatales, for whom we root for, despite their damned status. It never masks its evil face, which is all about the dynamic, complex relationship between a manipulative egomaniac and a despicable sycophant. The narrative is clear-cut about its primary characters’ ambitions and there are no syrupy last minute redemption. There’s a Lars Von Trier quote that goes “There are more images in evil. Evil is based far more on the visual, whereas good has no good image at all”. It somehow rings true, especially while looking at the towering performances provided by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the central dark figures. There are few emblems of innocence in the film, who are either relegated to supporting characters or less dynamic and uninteresting.
The plot is very simple, but the God (or devil) is in the details. A smarmy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) makes a living by getting his small time clients into the columns penned by hideously famous JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). But, lately Hunsecker is ignoring Sidney’s clients in the column, since Sidney haven’t done what’s asked: to break-up the relationship between Hunsecker’s caged Sister Susie (Susan Harrison) and a righteous jazz musician Steve (Martin Milner). Until it is done, JJ has decided to turn Falco’s life into a living hell. The narrative tracks how these two mean individuals use their charmful venom to separate the lovers. To better understand the character nature of JJ Hunsecker, one has to comprehend a time in newspaper history, where few columnists and their opinions single-handedly molded the public opinion. Even within the unrestrained freedom given by today’s social media, we can witness few opinioniative individuals, conjuring baseless rumors to smear people they hate. Nevertheless, the power wielded by the likes of Hunsecker is colossal because they could reach between 6 million and 60 million readers, and could use that power to either make a man or bury him.
JJ Hunsecker’s character was based on the real-life feared columnist Walter Winchell (similar to the way William Randolph Hearst influenced the character in “Citizen Kane”). A little slur in one of Winchell’s columns is said to have brought career suicides to many. Winchell was a staunch supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy and safely kept his list of enemies. The man could call in favors from Edgar Hoover (first director of FBI) as well as from the underworld. “Sweet Smell of Success”, written by Clifford Odets (based on Ernest Lehman’s novelette – Lehman worked as press agent before turning into a screenwriter) distinctly sets up the complex relationship between Hunsecker and members of law and government. In the opening shots of “Sweet Smell of Success”, we see a delivery van cruising through neon-lit Broadway streets of New York and dumping the late night newspapers on the side walk of Times Square. It is a definitive opening that quickly moves on to showcase the alluring world of Manhattan at night and subsequently the comments on all-powerful nature of column writing pugilist JJ. Through Sidney’s fears, the stature of JJ is hyped up. Then, comes the impactful full-scale close up shot of JJ and the conversation that ensues makes all the hype worthful.
“Sweet Smell of Success” possesses overwhelming lines of quotable dialogues and punch lines. Some may question the realism behind JJ spewing out punchlines at every moment & turn, but I felt the movie is all about the 'hype' and big, empty words. It is the element that drives news selling capability and one that keeps JJ smarter and quicker in forming opinions. In the diner scene that introduces JJ Hunsecker to viewers, the devilish punchlines builds up to an intense, threshold point that the senator sitting opposite to JJ says “Why is it everything you say sounds like a threat?” That entire sequence wonderfully sets up the character of Burt Lancaster, who despite his claims of friendship remains starkly unattached (may favorite lines in that conversation: “Match Me, Sidney”; “Everyone knows about Mr. Manny Davis, except Mrs. Manny”; “You’re dead son, bury yourself”). Later, in the Manhattan foot path, JJ inhales the petrol fumes and looks at the glitzy streets, clearly articulating “I love this dirty town” with a good insistence on the word ‘dirty’. The Manhattan mise en scene (composed of dive bars, backstage and jazz joints) plus the passive-aggressive assaults of JJ exhibits the idea of success in the city, which has twisted the meaning of loyalty and truth.
The world occupied by Sidney and Hunsecker is full of fake virtues that the sweet talks are often juxtaposed with hissing threats. It shows how the insidiously powerful affects the moral scruples of their subordinates. Tony Curtis’ Sidney is somehow nagged by his conscience, but since he is stuck outside the power circle of JJ, he feels that only by becoming a victimizer one can embark into that circle. What’s disturbing about Sidney’s behavior is how much he believes in JJ’s cockeyed methodologies to attain economic stability plus the noble element of democracy – freedom of expression. The bustling aesthetic sense construed by director Alexander Mackendrick and masterful cinematographer James Wong Howe paints the night life in Manhattan with brash strokes (there’s lot of marvelous tracking shots), mixing up the beaming lights, noisy vehicle horns and jam-packed street corners. The static, interior shots perfectly pins the characters while they lambast at each other with words. The quiet intense performance of Burt Lancaster is the perfect example for actors or cinephiles interested in learning about ‘subtle menace’. Tony Curtis (often banished to do ‘pretty boy’ roles) flawlessly conveys the brutal energy of Falco, always remaining on the edge for every gossip or for a little ounce of hope.
“Sweet Smell of Success” (96 minutes) is a timeless classic that deals with labyrinthine ethical choices faced by people, who are guided by fear, greed and unbridled ambition. The immaculate sheen and the poisonous words of JJ Hunsecker would ring like a siren in our mind, long after the narrative fades to black.