The vicious hierarchy of the animal kingdom is sometimes difficult to fully grasp as we humans are thoughtful creatures with characteristics exclusive to humanity such as compunction and empathy. Conversely there is another side to man that may mirror the bestial ruthlessness of the animal kingdom. This alternate aspect transcends beyond the animal’s savagery to a darker dimension of mercilessness. Where the hostile law of the wild may seem brutal, it is instinctual genetic programming that’s essential for animal survival in such an environment. With man the cruel and inhumane treatments of others are conscious choices made from dark recesses of the mind; often fueled by greed and malice. In Director Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, New York City is the jungle and intoxicating success in the entertainment industry is the game to be hunted and devoured by the kings of this food chain. Only predators with the sharpest teeth, the loudest roar and the greatest cunning will successfully catch and devour their prey, feeding off its fresh carcass till the next warm blooded meal comes along. Sweet Smell of Success follows two such carnivores, one of whom is trying to claw his way to the top, the other making sure he remains leader of the pack and nowhere within the landscape they prowl is clemency found or wanted.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a New York City based entertainment press agent whose success is marginal judging from the cheap sign “Sidney Falco – Publicity” crudely taped to his office door. We first observe Sidney on the streets of New York City anxiously awaiting the latest edition of the fictional New York Globe newspaper. Sidney’s bread and butter comes from his clients garnering favorable PR: the best type being a mention in J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) nationally syndicated newspaper column titled “The Eyes of Broadway.” From this famous column, and his weekly national radio show, careers are launched, sustained or destroyed due to Hunsecker’s potent influence. For someone in Sidney’s profession, having J.J. Hunsecker bestow some positive words in his column about a client will eventually garner fame, respect and money for publicist and client alike. At one point Sidney did have some favor with Hunsecker, but Sidney’s clients haven’t received one mention in J.J. column for nearly a week (practically years in publicist time.) Sidney had done his best to help out the newspaper columnist with some dirty work involving Hunsecker’s little sister Susan. The young Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) has fallen hard for a promising young jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner.) Her controlling older brother J.J. recently demanded Sidney break the two love bird’s nest in half. Unsuccessful first, the film follows Sidney’s manipulation of a cast of predators to keep the two apart by resorting to pandering, blackmail and character assassination.
Falco manages to get a competing columnist of Hunsecker to smear Dallas’s name in print (which also insulates J.J. Hunsecker from the appearance of having a hand in the deed) by insinuating he’s a marijuana smoking, card carrying commie. The dirty rumor gets Dallas fired from his gig at a prominent night club, but Dallas sniffs the stench of Hunsecker’s lapdog Sidney Falco clandestinely orchestrating the public sullying of his name. He confronts Sidney, who denies any part in the smear, however, Dallas is simply walking into the tiger trap Falco and Hunsecker have laid for him. Hunsecker confronts Susan about Dallas and she belays the truth to her brother that Dallas is none of the things he’s being accused of. In front of Susan, J.J. Hunsecker then calls the night club owner who fired Dallas and wields his influence to get his job back and repair his reputation. This maneuver now puts Dallas in a position of owing Hunsecker, who he despises due to his creepy possessiveness and impossible standards for Susan. Hunsecker knows Dallas’s self-respect and ill feelings toward him will get the best of the young musician. A meeting arranged by Dallas’s agent between the two men right before Hunsecker’s weekly radio program goes poorly as Hunsecker’s integrity is questioned by Dallas in lieu of the obsequious gratitude he is used to receiving from everyone. Hunsecker forbids Susan to see Steve Dallas again and she breaks up with her paramour to protect him from inevitable retaliation by her brother.
When the payoff from Hunsecker’s devious manipulation could have endured, his pride gets the best of him as he decides to ruin Dallas against the advice of Sidney Falco. He orders Sidney to plant marijuana on Dallas and tip off corrupt police detective and Hunsecker goon Harry Kello (Emile Meyer) to arrest Dallas. This subversion of Dallas destroys his reputation while simultaneously alienating Susan from her brother and leaving her in a state of utter despair. She gleans Sidney is somehow behind the plot to tarnish Dallas and she summons Falco to the Hunsecker penthouse where she attempts suicide. Sidney successfully stops her from killing herself, but the scene looks dubious to J.J. as he arrives home to see Sidney with the sobbing Susan sprawled on her bed in a revealing nightgown. J.J. Hunsecker believes Sidney has taken advantage of Susan and when Sidney begs her to tell J.J. what actually happened, she chooses spiteful silence instead. J.J. Hunsecker begins beating Falco who in turn sprays some desperate verbal venom by blurting out to Susan it was her brother who ordered him to plant the pot on Dallas. Sidney flees the penthouse and Hunsecker calls Detective Harry Kello informing him it was Falco who framed Dallas with the marijuana and tells him to arrest Sidney. Susan has dressed and packed a bag while J.J. is making the call and decides to leave her brother for Steve Dallas. Susan tells her brother she pities him and walks out into the street where Sidney has just been roughed up by Kello and arrested.
The film is raw and unmerciful in its depiction of lead characters of Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker. Sidney is a creature that has an insatiable appetite for the type of fame and power that J.J. Hunsecker possesses. Falco is like an animal (even his name sounds awful close to a particular bird of prey) whose eyes are always scanning its surroundings looking for opportunity and danger. “The best of everything is good enough for me” is the inexorable motive for this seemingly instinctual drive of Sidney's and using others to achieve such is done without a trace of remorse or thought to the people's lives he manipulates. His pandering of buxom cigarette girl/former prostitute Rita (Barbara Nichols), who owes him a favor, to the womanizing columnist that will smear the reputation of Dallas quid pro quo is simply a means to advance his place in the food chain. He does so by reminding Rita of her 10 year old son in military school and this being an opportunity for her to indirectly help him. Rita reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, but not before telling Sidney, “You’re a snake Falco.” Sidney is a somewhat clever exploiter and his hunger for success stems from his younger years when he interpreted his confessed pool-hall lackey status as being a “mouse.”
The film is rife with references to animals. From the “dog eat dog” entertainment business they live within, to Steve Dallas telling Sidney (who is sniffing around for information about the relationship status between Dallas and Susan Hunsecker) that if he wants to know he should just ask like a man and not, “scratch for it like a dog.” Even Susan tells Sidney that he resembles a, “trained poodle jumping through flaming hoops” for her older brother. Sidney is at one point assessed as having, “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.” Aside from the numerous inverted anthropomorphic allusions, the film visually captures Sidney as constantly on the prowl. The camera work (beautifully shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe) dexterously tracks him as he quickly moves from one glitzy nightclub hunting ground to the next. Never content to rest for a moment, Sidney seems to be constantly scanning his environment and assessing where his next figurative meal is coming from.
Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is a stoic and commanding presence. Loosely based on famed columnist and entertainment gossip pioneer Walter Winchell, Lancaster plays Hunsecker as an automaton with little indication of human qualities. The only hint of his humanity is an apparent affection for his sister Susan. Even so, this sentiment reads as more of a creepy obsession with her (Hunsecker keeps an unsuitably large framed picture of her on his desk.) J.J. is devoted to protecting the insular world he has contained her within - not unlike a caged bird he wants at his side to look pretty, but never let loose. Hunsecker is the lion king of this show business Serengeti in which every creature respects his power as trumping all others. J.J. is incredibly shrewd in his assessment and dealings with others, yet he only surrounds himself with powerful people looking for scraps from the latest show business carcasses he devours. In a sense he has penned himself in with his seemingly omnipotent column and radio show as the people he has contact with only respect the power of his media influence and not necessarily the man behind it. J.J. seems okay with that however, and he never lacks insight into the selfish and fame mongering motives of the players that clamor to be in his presence (or better yet his column.) Hunsecker reminds everyone he comes into contact with his position in the entertainment kingdom. From a waiter fussing with his condiments who he tells, “Stop tinkering pal, that horseradish won’t jump a fence,” to a sycophantic U.S. Senator that may become President one day, “My big toe would make a better President” he tells Sidney, J.J. relishes his rule and the environment in which he operates. The jungle of New York City is a harsh one and J.J. Hunsecker affectionately notes, while watching a drunk being kicked out of nightclub on to the street, “I love this dirty town.”
The characters considered weak in the context of this predatory terrain would be Dallas and Susan. Steve Dallas is possibly (and most humorously) one of the least hip jazz musicians ever captured on film. While he has talent in spades, he can’t bring himself to respect the hierarchy of the pack and thereby facilitating his own exile via the influence of J.J. Hunsecker. Dallas has principles, but it smells of frailty and naiveté in the business for which he is trying mark a territory of his own. Sydney describes Dallas as having, “Integrity - acute, like indigestion.” Susan Hunsecker is pathetically passive, but like her brother she has a keen enough eye for assessing the motives and capabilities of others; especially J.J. and Sidney. What Susan doesn’t realize is the capacity her brother has for cold malevolence when his integrity is called into question by Dallas.
When J.J. could have let the confrontation with Dallas end at forbidding Susan to see him, she would have obeyed. Afterwards J.J. takes it a step farther and orders Sidney to frame Dallas with the help of his crooked cop Harry Kello. This scene is a revealing apex in the film as both Falco and Hunsecker show their first signs of vulnerability. J.J. lets his integrity being rightfully questioned by Dallas stick in his craw. His pride is agitated due to this lowly Jazz musician rattling his indomitable influence over Susan and the insult Hunsecker sustained from Dallas is too egregious for him to handle. More so, the perceived endangerment of what Steve’s defiance represents is in dangerous opposition to all others who bow before Hunsecker. The thought of anyone disrupting J.J.’s structure of power and respect is too much for him to bear.
Sidney understands that going after Dallas further will drive Susan and him back together. He begs J.J. not to pursue crushing Dallas for this reason by catering to Hunsecker’s ego, “Why go after a mosquito with an elephant gun?” he asks J.J., but Hunsecker’s mind is made up and he orders Sidney to put the fix in for Dallas. The weakness Sidney shows is two-fold at this crux in the story. Sidney refuses to go along with J.J.’s command of framing Dallas saying it’s going too far. While it may be the only glimmer of humanity we’ve seen from Falco up to this point in the film, it’s incongruous to the savage laws of Hunsecker’s jungle. More likely though, Sidney’s reluctance of doing this dark deed for Hunsecker is derived from fear of his own hide being skinned if the truth ever got out, or as he tells Hunsecker, “It’s one thing to wear your dog collar J.J., when it turns into a noose I’d rather have my freedom.” Sidney vows to J.J. that nothing would make him do this for him, “I swear on my mother’s life, not even if you gave me a column would I do it for you.” Hunsecker slowly cranes his head at Sidney and gives him a Cheshire cat grin at this revealing statement: Falco would in fact do anything for a column of his own like Hunsecker. Sensing this exposed soft spot in Sidney, Hunsecker tells him that he will be taking a three month steamship cruise with the distressed Susan and would need someone to write his column while he’s away. Such an enticing offer is too much for Sidney’s refusal and he gets back in line with the rest of the Hunsecker pack by framing Dallas. The alpha male Hunsecker has reestablished his position with Sidney and the pack, but it’s achieved at the price of exiling his sister and his one possible nook of humaneness.
Sweet Smell of Success is a beautifully photographed film integrating infamous landmarks like The 21 Club to many exterior location scenes shot in the urban wild of New York City. From Flat Iron to 54th Street, Mackendrick and Howe shoot the characters surroundings by adroitly incorporating the architecture, lighting and danger of the streets in which they dwell. Adding to the film’s pedigree is the fantastic score by Elmer Bernstein. Its jazz routed feel and occasional discordant mix of sounds is done deftly and without a heavy hand. Bernstein’s musical and aural choices provide the film with added tension and a distinct sense of its era and urban setting. Another pleasant aspect for jazz aficionados is screen time with the wonderful Chico Hamilton and his quintet. The casting and performances are solid all around with the most notable ones belonging to Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Their malign symbiotic relationship is a dark and gripping pleasure to watch during every frame they share.
The screenplay, by legends Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, is a wonderfully layered and complex piece of writing. Ahead of its time, Sweet Smell of Success shows a revealing side to the manipulation of the public through the media and the unscrupulous people who control it by force feeding the flavor of the month to the public’s insatiable maws. The theme mirrors the feral predators of the wild that simply devour one meal only to forget the preciousness of the once living sustenance for the short time their bellies are full - that is until it is time to ravage and consume the next. It’s remarkable that Sweet Smell of Success and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd both came out in the same year with their shared motifs and each depicted so unflinchingly. The standout aspect of the script is the crackerjack dialogue that has more electricity coursing through it than all the lights in Times Square and as many razor sharp teeth as the mouth of a great white shark. At its heart, the script is a dark study of the requisite ruthlessness needed for success in a savage business where people of values and humaneness are perceived as weak yet toothsome sustenance for the strongest predators.