Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success is a 1957 film noir drama starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster as two men working in the sleazier side of the media in New York, a gossip columnist and a press agent.

The film tells the story of powerful and newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker, portrayed by Burt Lancaster and based on Walter Winchell, the syndicated American newspaper gossip columnist and radio news commentator.

Playing JJ Hunsecker with a huge amount of control and menace, Burt Lancaster creates a character who uses his connections to ruin his sister's relationship with a man he deems unworthy of her.

The character of JJ, an unrepentant manipulator in a world of unrepentant manipulators, is based on the real life figure of Walter Winchell, who was well known for this kind of activity.

As a columnist Winchell uncovered both hard news and embarrassing stories about famous people by exploiting his exceptionally wide circle of contacts, first in the entertainment world and the Prohibition era underworld, then in law enforcement and politics.

Winchell was known for trading gossip, sometimes in return for his silence. His outspoken style made him both feared and admired. Novels and movies were based on his wisecracking gossip columnist persona, as early as the play and film Blessed Event in 1932. 

Breaking up the party; Susan Harrison, Martin Millner and Tony Curtis in
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

As World War II approached in the 1930s, Winchell attacked the appeasers of Nazism, then in the 1950s he aligned with Joseph McCarthy in his campaign against communists. He damaged the reputation of Josephine Baker as well as other individuals who had earned his enmity. 

However, the McCarthy connection in time made him unfashionable, and his style did not adapt well to television news. This is the background to the story of Sweet Smell of Success, although it is in and of itself a miracle of a movie that travels through time, untainted.

You don't need to know about New York of the later 1950s to enjoy Sweet Smell of Success, although watching it will teach you plenty about the era. 

Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Here at the tail end of the film noir cycle, Sweet Smell of Success does not on the immediate face of matters appear to be the more obvious style of film noir. Out there on the empty critical mudflats they class it as a film noir drama, whatever that is.

Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

This classification likely comes from the fact that there are so many film noir elements here, including the paranoia and the underbelly of the American dream, that it would seem mad not to. 

For film noir to exist in its purest form, there does need to be a stream of fantasy throughout, and that is not the case in Sweet Smell of Success, which ships as a realistic treatment of life on the edge of Broadway, with its perils being largely financial and social.

There is no murder in Sweet Smell of Success, an aspect which perhaps worth noticing. This means something unusual in the film noir canon, and  raises the film from the magical and dreamlike feel of a true film noir, into something which is harder, which delivers a personal and social message.

Look out for it. Is there a murder in your film noir? There usually is and so when there is not, there is something big going down, and you'dda better catch it.

The lack of murder and the lack of psychology, as well as the lack of shadows, horror, melodrama and paranoia, make of Sweet Smell of Success as realistic to life film noir as you might find. It can be difficult to face such an unrepentant cast of villains as these, and somewhat uncomfortable to consider that the message about personal relations and the media industry is this real.

Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

In the favour of this classic film noir movie, the urban jungle was rarely better presented at the time, than it was in Sweet Smell of Success, and Tony Curtis' adventure in particular carries him down a variety of city streets, many around Broadway, as well as the bars and clubs and offices where he peddles his trade. This is film noir, at least its familiar territory.

Barbara Nichols as Rita in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

However what normally happens on these corners is somewhat mundane, taking he viewpoint of the weird madness that exists beneath and around the entertainment and media industries. The sophistication with which this is presented is staggering, and every character and every shot, and every action shows more and more of a society struggling to be happy, it seems. This business however hurts, and that is what we're reminded of. The power of the press within this system of stars and glamour, is shockingly revealed.

Tony Curtis - street life in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

As a moment in time, Sweet Smell of Success is a triumph, an enjoyable and artistic vision of New York in particular. As well as the bars, theatres, restaurants and jazz clubs where the characters ply their interlinked trades, there is a vital slice of street life that is not to be missed.

Corners and alleys and major thoroughfares were never better shot, perhaps, in this era. The quality of the script and acting has meant that Sweet Smell of Success has been preserved for the ages, and so these continue to look great. Film noir, of all the styles of the 1940s and 1950s, specialised in location shooting, and brought the cameras and the actors to the streets with more gusto then did any other genre.

It's the street life that makes classic film noir what it is.

At the heart of Tony Curtis' business as Sidney Falco, are the performers and minor celebs who are making up the gossip columns, the chief of which is written by Burt Lancaster's character JJ Hunsecker. Hunsecker is an incredible creation, a powerful and wealthy individual whose entire trade seems to consist of gathering gossip for a significantly important column in The Globe; a position which affords him what passes for power amid the bright lights and dramas of the New York theatre and music scene.

New York never looked so good. The crowning achievement of Sweet Smell of Success is the photography, an absolute triumph. It is film noir cinematography at its most realest, capturing so much real life that it hurts.

Of course, as a wicked finishing touch, JJ. Hunseker looks down on these streets like the overlord he is, and it s this aspect that drives the painful modernity of Sweet Smell of Success home. It was being seen again, as it had at the turn of the century, just how important the media was, and was going to be. The power of the media, was now the world's power.

Undoubtedly one of the most painful of film noir's creations, the realism of Sweet Smell of Success hurts some viewers, causes emotional reactions that are strong. Unlikeable characters in a city in a period of time that is fascinating, the fast moving city like a rolling and ever changing character itself.

The streets hurt, like Sidney Falco hurts, and the people he hurts, like Steve Dallas. The cop Kello played by an Emile Meyer at his best, leaves the movie Sweet Smell of Success with no resolution of his character and nor is there punishment for the violence he dishes out, and his solid corruption. He walks away with it, walks away from the unwarranted and sudden street beatings of Steve Dallas, and then Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis.

Broadway - street life in film noir Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) always walks, stands or is seated behind JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in Sweet Smell of Success. Neither are likeable in anyway, and unsettle the audience. This is most especially true of Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, who was used to by 1957 playing nice guys and fun guys.

The fans were not pleased, and neither much were the critics and other audiences that saw Sweet Smell of Success. For a film that was supposed to cost $600,000 and ended up costing more than $2 million . . . Sweet Smell of Success bombed.

But the detail and effort are significant, and a lot went in to these characters, who were taken seriously by everybody in the production. Hence, you will always see Sidney behind JJ.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sadist cop - Emile Meyer in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Journalism and media noir is a great subject in and of itself. More acutely drawn in the 1950s than it ever was before, the world of the press and of journalists was not by this era seen as the huge positive and full of fun profession that it had appeared to be in earlier decades. Even Charles Foster Kane's empire in Citizen Kane is portrayed as purely capitalist, with people having a lot of fun, and not seen as the insidious anti-social force it was by the 1950s.

Similarly, we do not often in film noir get a close look at suicide. Although people kill themselves from time to time in film noirs, these are usually melodramatic mad people or criminals caught in various traps so awful that suicide is their moral exit.

In Sweet Smell of Success, Susan is not portrayed as a hysterical woman, but as quite normal and healthy. The viciousness of Sweet Smell of Success is so suggestive of evil that the actions of the movie and its characters bring about her attempt at suicide, which in comparison to the normal female anxiety of film noir, is marked by her being a moral and healthy actor to begin with.

Susan Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Outrage and Jealousy - Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

In a picture that is deliberate in its cruelty, it is fitting that the ending takes place almost in the gutters of Broadway itself. The gutter has already been pitched as a suitable location for the denizens of the press, because that is where the newspapers first arrive in the morning. But for Sidney Falco, it is worse, and a humiliation that is terrifying, simply because of the realism brought to the picture.

Caring for characters is important in movies but Sweet Smell of Success does twist this up a little, in the delivery of justice in the form of Emile Meyer, the crooked cop controlling the streets around Broadway. It's good to ask as an audience how we feel about Tony Curtis' fate in Sweet Smell of Success. Perhaps by the time we reach the end of this unusually, detailed and extremely cold movie, if we do care about his character's pain.

Emile Meyer, street vengeance in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Duffed up at Dawn - Emile Meyer and Tony Curtis in
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

This is a nasty and hard-hitting punishment beating, dealt out from the scum of the city, by the scum of the city, and all taking place way down at the bottom of the rat trap.

Hope is all that is left to be expressed, and film noir does not usually make the most comprehensive job of this. For a wildly and realistically drawn world of back-stages, bars and gutters, there is no escape for anyone, so it is fitting that Hunsecker's kid sister Susan, played by Susan Harrison, should be shown as the innocent in this picture, to be making an escape. 

The cop played by Emile Meyer, the deliciously nasty 'Kello', is the only one in this city who gets away with his crimes. Given the morality of Golden Age Hollywood, and the fact of morality as a major theme in film noir, this is something of a painful smack-down to earth.

That is all that happens at the close then, in that hopeful three second denouement that the movies of the 1950s often offer. As you might typically expect, the innocent lead character, the one in fact who has been riven to suicidal action by the corruption 

In this case, as in several other films which are the same, what we are offered in terms of satisfaction is this character walking off into the dawn, with a suitcase, and with the right soundtrack, suggestive of escape and a new life. It is of course merely suggestive. That the wicked urban scene would allow one so innocent to flit away is in no way certain, but this is the cinema and hope is an important feeling around the exit point of its productions. 

While Sweet Smell of Success featuires many film noir tropes and actors, it is not always catgeorised as film noir however. In fact it is not even listed in the bible of film noir, FILM NOIR THE ENCYLOPEDIA by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini and Robert Porfirio.

This has to be an oversight, but don't hold it against us that we go so far to list Sweet Smell of Success as classic film noir. Sweet Smell of Success, noir or not, has so much to offer the style in terms of critique, flavour and is a great addition to the canon. Even though it retains a brutal and hurtful reality, and not in fact, any murder.

Escape from film noir - Susan Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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