6 October 2007 | blanche-2
It's a putrid smell after all
Tony Curtis learns the hard way about the "Sweet Smell of Success" in this 1957 film that stars Burt Lancaster, Sam Levene, Susan Harrison, and Barbara Nichols. In the pre-Internet days when the newspaper was king, the columnists ruled - Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Cholly Knickerbocker, Radie Harris, and let's not forget Hedda and Louella! But the King was Winchell, and while I don't think the Burt Lancaster character of J.J. Hunsecker is modeled on him, the power and control the man wielded certainly is.
Tony Curtis plays one of his best roles as Sidney Falco, a low-ranking press agent who is dependent on people like Hunsecker to mention his clients in their daily columns. But Sidney is on the outs with Hunsecker, a very bad place to be. Hunsecker has ordered Sidney to break up his sister Susan's relationship with a jazz musician, Steve (Martin Milner), and Susan is still seeing him. Sidney comes up with a plan to tear the two apart which probably would have worked, but when Steve stands up to J.J., Hunsecker is out for blood. He demands the plan be taken one step further and dangles an attractive carrot in front of Sidney to make it happen.
Done in black and white with most of the action taking place at night and often on the streets of Times Square, "The Sweet Smell of Success" has an atmosphere of slime and grit. The handsome Lancaster and Curtis are not particularly well photographed - it's not meant to be a glamorous picture. The dialogue is fast, to the point, and witty and the performances are breathtaking. Lancaster underplays the twisted Hunsecker so that his contempt for the people he writes about - and his sick attraction to his sister - can be clearly shown. He could have played it more along the lines of Curtis' Sidney - an obvious, manipulative rat - but it wouldn't have been as right as Lancaster's tightly-controlled J.J.
Curtis was born to play Sidney - an attractive, fast-talking man with no morals who plays both ends against the middle. He's a New York character, ideal for a New York guy like Curtis who grew up on the streets. Sidney is totally outrageous - he invites a cigarette girl to his apartment and then pimps her out to a columnist so he can get an item in his column; he tries blackmailing another columnist, but that backfires. It doesn't stop him from trying again.
The two victims of these piranhas are Susan and Steve, a young couple deeply in love who want to be married. Their simple story is told against a backdrop of scandal, revenge, manipulation and blackmail. Their situation makes the actions of J.J. and Sidney even seedier and more cruel than they already are.
"Sweet Smell of Success" has become a cult classic and was actually mounted at one point as a Broadway musical. Like "Nightmare Alley," it probably was too grim for audiences back then. Is anything too grim for audiences of today? Doubtful.