Sweet Smell of Success (1957): Mackendrick’s Top Film Noir, Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis

Alexnader Mackendrick’ Sweet Smell of Success, a taut psychological thriller, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, is one of the best film noirs of the 1950s decade (or any decade).

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The film is based on a screenplay by playwright Clifford Odets (The Big Knife) and scribe Ernest Lehman (Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), boasting  dialogue that’s punchy, pungent, swift and nasty.

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Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, both at their most handsome and powerful, reteam for the second time, after their circus melodrama Trapeze, of 1956.  Unlike Trapeze, which was a blockbuster, Sweet Smell of Success was initially commercial flop, later rediscovered and reevaluated by a new generation of critics and viewers.

 

Lancaster play J.J. Hunsecker, a forceful New York newspaper columnist, is strongly opposed to his sister’s marrying a jazz musician. Curtis is Sidney Falco, a sleazy PR man, will do anything to get publicity for his clients. He therore sees Hunsecker’s situation as an opportunity to win the writer’s favor. So, he sets out to break up the affair anyway he can. He succeeds—at a heavy price to all involved.

Detailed Plot

Losing money, Press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is unable to get stories about his clients in J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) influential, nationally syndicated newspaper column, because of his failure to deliver.  He promised to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a good-hearted, decent and gifted jazz guitarist

Given one last chance by the bullying Hunsecker, he schemes to plant a false rumor in a rival column that Dallas is a dope-addicted Communist, then encourages Hunsecker to rescue Dallas’s reputation, certain that the moral boyfriend will reject Hunsecker’s favor.

Dallas insulting Hunsecker’s methods, and, forced to choose between them, the timid Susan breaks up with Dallas in order to protect him from her brother. Hunsecker, however, is enraged by Dallas’s insults to him in front of other people. He decides to ruin the boy after all and wants to have marijuana planted on the musician, then have him arrested and roughed up by the corrupt police Lt. Harry Kello (Emile Meyer).

Falco hopes to take over Hunsecker’s influential column during his long vacation. At a nightclub, Falco slips the marijuana into Dallas’ coat. At Hunsecker’s penthouse apartment, Falco finds Susan about to attempt suicide. He grabs her just as her brother walks in, but Hunsecker accuses Falco of trying to assault Susan. Falco pleads that he only came to the apartment at Hunsecker’s request, prompting Hunsecker to tell Falco that he never called him. As Susan stops Hunsecker from further harming Falco, Falco realizes it was Susan who placed the call.

In a climactic confrontation, Falco reveals to Susan that it was her brother who ordered him to destroy Dallas’s reputation. Hunsecker makes a call to Kello to kill Falco, who tries to flee but is caught in Time Square. Susan admits that she contemplated suicide, because she prefers death to living with JJ. She walks out on her brother, after telling him that she feels sorry for him.

Running time: 96 minutes

Released: June 27, 1957

DVD:  June 19, 2001

 

Cast

J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis)

Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison)

Steve Dallas (Martin Milner)

Frank D’Angelo (Sam Levene)

Rita (Barbara Nichols)

Sally (Jeff Donell)

Robard (Joseph Leon)

Mary (Edith Atwater)

Harry Kello (Emile Meyer)

 

Credits

UA (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Production)

One of th

Produced by James Hill

Directed by Alexnader Mackendrick

Screenplay: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman (based on the short story “Tell Me About It Tomorrow,” by Lehman).

Camera: James Wong Howe

Editor: Alan Crosland, Jr.

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Art direction: Edward Carrere