“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” – J. J. Hunsecker
“In the swift, cynical Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Burt Lancaster stars as the vicious Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the unprincipled press agent Hunsecker ropes into smearing the up-and-coming jazz musician romancing his beloved sister. Featuring deliciously unsavory dialogue, in an acid, brilliantly structured script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and noirish neon cityscapes from Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, Sweet Smell of Success is a cracklingly cruel dispatch from the kill-or-be-killed wilds of 1950s Manhattan.” – The Criterion Collection
1. Meet Mr. J. J. Hunsecker, a man who can make or break you just by snapping his fingers. The picture is telling; Falco looks at him with jealousy and disdain, but only because he is behind his back. Of course the moment he comes into Hunsecker’s sightline, Falco puts on one of his “forty faces.” In this frame, Hunsecker is dishing out harsh criticism (a common occurrence) to a philandering senator, though not in the typical overt fashion. As the most powerful person in the microcosm of this film, he is too good, strike that, too great a man to engage in such petty exchanges. Instead he coats his message in a drizzle of linguistic maple syrup; sweet and complex, but sickening in high doses. I also want to call attention to the lighting in the frame. The film does a truly masterful job of depicting the sleaze and immorality of its characters through very high contrast, and indeed noirish, lighting.
2. There are a lot of things being said in this frame, and I’m not talking about the dialogue. Four faces, each strong and calculated, shoot daggers at Sidney Falco as he takes it all in his usual, manipulative stride. Falco is placed under similar fire in more than one other occasion in the film, as he tries to wheel and deal his way up the ladder of “success.” One of the films minor characters tells Falco that he has “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.” It’s an amusing if not entirely accurate picture of a man who smiles only if it can get him somewhere.
3. This image tells the whole story of J. J. Hunsecker. A domineering character that looks down upon the city and everyone in it, for he knows and truly believes himself to be God. We only see this shot for a short time, maybe less than 5 seconds, and so it can easily be overlooked. It is for that very reason that I have included it here; in reality it is one of the most essential shots in the whole film. Rarely are we afforded the opportunity to see J. J. alone, and even less are we shown his point of view. Here we get to see inside his head, through his eyes, and feel what it’s like to be “successful.” The feeling we are left with is not one of inspiration or admiration but of pity.
The Credits: It could be noted that the film seems to overexaggerate the inhumanity of Falco, Hunsecker and the rest, but that’s simply too naïve an observation. The truth of the matter is, many people equate power to success, and don’t care what it takes to get there. Sweet Smell of Success is an incredibly appropriate title for the film. Success, when viewed in this way, surely can smell sweet, but it tastes bitter. Sidney Falco is a warning to us all what can happen when we lose sight of ourselves. Hunsecker is meant to represent the type of empty success that so many strive for, and when (as Falco illustrates) you hate the man you want to become, where does that leave you? I’ve seen this film three or four times over the years and it is one of my all-time favorites. The acting is superb, the dialogue sharp and intelligent, and it puts life into perspective. This movie is often overlooked, which is unfortunate, but at the same time it provides us all the chance to see a hidden gem.
Reel Rating: 9.4