No. You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.
The hook is simple: Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) are in love, but big brother J.J. (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t approve. He hasn’t supported her with penthouses and fur coats to watch a young guitarist whisk her away, but he can’t be caught stopping them with his formidable clout to make and break people on a whim as New York’s premier lifestyle columnist either. Putting his name on the boy’s metaphorical death certificate would risk losing Susan further than it already appears he has. So he enlists the only person he knows that’s more conniving and unscrupulous than him. J.J. asks his friend Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to work his magic instead with the pair perhaps learning too late the price of their costly game.
Based on the novelette of the same name by Ernest Lehman, Sweet Smell of Success arrived with a lot stacked against it. There was Lehman’s recusal, Alexander Mackendrick‘s addition as director fresh off the dissolution of his contract with Ealing Studios in England upon their sale, new screenwriter Clifford Odets needing four months of rewrites that meant many pages were shot the day they were written, and the unknown effect of casting Curtis against his usual “nice guy” type and Lancaster in a dialogue-heavy drama. It all spelled disaster at the box office—something many films reappraised as masterpieces often share in common. Watching it today with its black and white cinematography, break-neck conversational rhythm, somber plot turns, and complex performances, however, makes you wonder how audiences were so wrong.
The entire story surrounds this single example of young love with each new thread and character proving a direct result of the behind the scenes machinations meant to destroy it that are led by an opportunistic charlatan doing Manhattan’s ever-feared narcissist king’s bidding. Why does Falco agree? As a press agent whose career literally hinges on his ability to get clients into columns like J.J.’s, he must as a means for survival. My use of the word “friend” above is therefore not quite accurate since the dynamic they share is less about mutual respect than a perpetual tit-for-tat transactional union wherein squeezing the other for a little extra blood with each new pact supplies enough joy to sustain them. They’re users, abusers, and blind to their collateral damage.
This means the acting is crucial to its melodramatic twists. We need both Curtis and Lancaster to embody the smugness and hubris that drives their every move. The former’s Falco masks it with a charming grin able to win over his prey; the latter’s J.J. a menacing stare that could kill with a single glance earned by one wrong word. They stand as though immovable from an infinite wealth of energy and unparalleled intensity respectively. We see Falco’s failures on his face, his never-ending series of missteps and over-played hands causing him to look around the room to see how many bystanders witnessed his latest defeat. And we see J.J.’s in the face of his sister. While he remains pompous and invincible, Susan’s poise gradually shatters to pieces.
The film never forgets that she’s at the center of everything while Sidney and J.J. always do. They think themselves the stars—that Sweet Smell of Success is about them and how shrewd they are at setting down elaborate traps like invisible Rube Goldberg machines ensnaring everyone in their path as pawns to play their individual roles. These men use the dirt they have on high profile figures and the connections they possess to plant new, false dirt when applicable for these means. On the surface you see them as polar opposites with Falco hustling for scraps and J.J. calmly decreeing, but underneath they’re both insecure monsters desperate to retain control. And the more they eclipse their seemingly extensive reach, the shorter its breadth becomes.
Here’s where that simple tale of love expands into an intricate character study of stereotypes often used as one-dimensional supporting props in films with a real hero to play against them. By not having that “good guy” to pull for, Lehman and company must provide their villains the necessary layers to feign compassion if not actually find it under specific circumstances pushing them closer to their threshold for evil. Curtis embodies this duality with perfection because his back is against the ropes from frame one. He talks a good game as far as pretending to care about those around him. He even looks at times like he’s unsure if he has the stomach to perform his next devious act, knowing his soul won’t recover. Can his Falco evolve?
One could call Lancaster’s role more nuanced because he appears to be one-dimensional until those moments when he’s not. This notion that J.J. is the smartest man in the room forces us to see him as the true antagonist pulling the strings. He’s so entrenched in that identity that it’s impossible for him to fathom being caught in a lie. This is why his potential fall from grace can prove more devastating to watch. Falco is forever stumbling over his own feet, weighing this against that to resign himself to whatever fate his volatile actions earn. J.J. doesn’t believe in risk. His position has insulated him from it as his minions climb over each other to shoulder it instead. So when plans are inevitably foiled, he’s wholly unprepared.
But it isn’t one instance of seeing their hopes squashed. It’s many. And while it’s a joy to see Falco flounder under the pressure of his gaffes, it’s tragic to watch the pain of J.J.’s fall upon Susan. Hers is a character that begs for our dismissal. The film sets her up to be the victim—the innocent, naïve child caught in the center of a game outside of her control—with purpose so that we underestimate her leverage. We forget she holds all the cards if she’s able to find the courage to use them as we assume she’s always hoped she could. It’s therefore only right that this trio convenes to deliver a finale worthy of the suspenseful tightening noose that led towards its bitter justice.
Watched in conjunction with Season Two of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills.