Background: A noir film directed by Alexander Mackendrick, ‘Sweet Smell of Success‘ is regarded as a cult classic by those aware of the film, and much like other cult classics such as ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’ was poorly received by audiences and critics at the time. However, over the years its popularity has grown and the films stands out not only as one of Tony Curtis’s best performances on screen, but the film has also aged quite well in its profound depiction of seedy men and corrupt business.
Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker
Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco
Susan Harrison as Susan Hunsecker
Martin Milner as Steve Dallas
Plot: Set in Manhattan, Sidney Falco is a press agent struggling to gain notoriety for his client’s by having their names appear in J.J. Hunsecker’s newspaper column. J.J., as he is referred to in the film, is a highly influential writer with connections all over the city, his column is extremely popular, J.J. is the top man in journalism.
Sidney and J.J have had a disagreement, Sidney was supposed to end the relationship between Susan Hunsecker, J. J’s sister, and Steve Dallas, a Jazz musician. However, Sidney has yet to achieve this and so his client’s names are not being published in J.J.’s column. Meaning Sidney’s business is not only losing money but also clients, while those few remaining are becoming increasingly angry.
Sidney is given one last chance and hatches a conniving plan, he plants a false accusation in the paper that Dallas is a dope-smoking communist. Sidney then encourages J.J. to rush to Dallas’ defence and restore his reputation. Sidney is correctly convinced that Dallas will turn down the offer and will, therefore, look bad in front of Susan. Note: Susan and Dallas live together and Dallas is unusually controlling of her. For instance, in one scene he watches her through a glass divide as she sleeps in bed, in a scene designed to make J.J. appear as a peeping tom rather than a loving brother.
A confrontation takes places between two sides, with insults made from both. Sidney and J.J. on one side, whilst Dallas is against them torn between his defiance over J.J., and his frustration at Sidney’s presence in the matter, all of which is conflicting with his love for Susan. The argument concludes when both Dallas and J.J. turn on Susan, forcing her to make a choice between the two men. Susan, unable to cope, runs into the corner upset. Dallas takes his leave whilst Sidney rejoices in jubilation at the success of his plan.
Susan ends her relationship with Dallas over coffee, with the pair sharing one last kiss before Dallas turns and leaves a deeply hurt and upset Susan to stand alone. However, J.J. cannot overcome the many insults Dallas said at his expense and decides to ruin Dallas’ reputation once and for all. Against Sidney’s earnest advice, he wants actual Marijuana planted on Dallas one night and orders the police to beat him.
Sidney wants no part of this plan and tries to distance himself from J.J, that is until J.J suggests that once this business is concluded he may take a holiday, leaving his column to Sidney to run. Sidney agrees to perform the deed, and on the night in question watches from afar to identify Dallas to the police. Sidney then celebrates by drinking with some colleagues, he is now a popular man, promising all manner of things he will do once he is running J.J.’s column. At this moment he receives a phone call from J.J’s apartment requesting his presence.
Sidney arrives to find the door open and no sign of J.J., instead he finds a suicidal Susan. After a brief conversation between the pair where we discover Dallas is now in the hospital, Susan attempts to jump from the balcony, only to be stopped at the last moment by Sidney. J.J. arrives, spired by Susan’s silence, he believes that Sidney has just assaulted her and begins beating him. Sidney explains the phone call summoning him to the apartment, a call J.J. clearly did not make. J.J. finally understands that Susan orchestrated this affair in order for the two men to fight and presumably destroy one another.
In the last moments of the film, Sidney tells Susan that J.J. is the one responsible for destroying Dallas’ reputation and her relationship with him. J.J. phones the police to arrest Sidney for planting the drugs on Dallas. Meanwhile, Susan has gathered her belongings and leaves to be with Dallas. As she leaves, Susan acknowledges that she did indeed try to kill herself, explaining that death would be preferable to living with J.J. who is now left with nothing other than his work. Sidney is beaten and arrested in the streets, and in the very last shot of the film, Susan is seen walking down the street to freedom.
Awards: 1 BAFTA Film Award Nomination for Tony Curtis. 3 Wins & 2 Nominations.
Trivia- Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were good friends in real life and appeared in a number of films together.
One of the film’s writers, Ernest Lehman would go on to write many cinematic classics such as, ‘North by Northwest’, ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘West Side Story’.