“The Sweet Smell of Success” is an excellent example of journalism, in film. This movie shows a cut-throat, Broadway columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, who has the world in the palm of his hands. He can create or destroy careers, as he writes for the powerful, New York Globe newspaper. J.J. Hunsecker has a monopoly on the press, but not on his sister. J.J. seemingly wants the best, for his sister. He doesn’t believe the man she’s fallen for: an up and coming, jazz musician is suitable for her. His intentions are good, but you know what they say: the path to hell is paved with good intentions! J.J. is determined to break-up the engagement, his way. The same dirty ways, he uses at his job.
Sidney Falco, played by a dashing Tony Curtis, is a Manhattan press agent. Falco has a desperate ambition and is steadily, losing clients and money. Sidney sees Hunsecker as his savior. If only J.J. would write something about his clients, they would surely keep him, as their agent and Falco’s business would be saved. Sadistic J.J. sees Falco as a peon and won’t do him any favors.
As Falco persists with J.J., Hunsecker finally strikes a deal with Sidney: ruin the reputation of Steven Dallas, his own sister’s fiancé and Falco will have all he wishes for. Sidney sees this as a dirty deal but, is willing to do anything for success. Sidney plants false rumors that Dallas is a dope-smoking, communist in a rival newspaper, causing a sensation. The plan works..to a degree. Hunsecker underestimates Dallas, as he fires back and stands up to J.J., hurling insults at him, in a great confrontation. Susan fears her brother and is forced to break off her engagement, to Steven.
Susan knows all-to-well what lengths J.J. will go, to have his own way. Steven’s insults have bruised the giant ego, of J.J. and decides to ruin Dallas for good, despite the break-up. Hunsecker enlists Sidney once again, to,plant marijuana on Steven and have the corrupt police lieutenant, bust him and rough him up. In return for the set-up, J.J. promises Falco the reigns of his column, while he takes a long, vacation. It’s the ticket to the sweet success, Sidney’s dreamed of. Falco slips some marijuana joints into Dallas’s pocket and the deed is done, just how J.J. had planned it.
Thinking he’s going to receive his end of the bargain, Sidney is summoned to J.J.’s penthouse. There he finds Susan, about to commit suicide. Susan tries to leap from the window and Sidney grabs her, just in time…and just in time as J.J. walks in, to the chaotic scene. Hunsecker accuses Sidney of assaulting his sister, as Sidney pleads with J.J., telling him, his sister was about to take her own life. Susan sees the two fighting, her brother beating the physically weaker, Sidney and remains silent, therefore in J.J.’s eyes, incriminating him. How could the arrogant J.J. believe his saintly sister would do such a thing? Surely, not because she just had to choose between her brother and the man she loves!? Surely, not because she sees the rest of her life played out that same, way. In J.J. Hunsecker’s eyes, it’s all Sidney’s fault. In the end and the climax of the film, Sidney reveals to Susan that it was J.J. who had planned, everything. J.J. calls his friend, the corrupt police lieutenant and has Falco beaten, in a gritty, Times Square on the streets, of New York.
Susan is alone with her brother, in the penthouse and tells him that she did try to kill herself, that death would have been more welcomed than being under the control of her brutal, bully brother. She packs her things, to reunite with Dallas and walks out on J.J. Rather than hurling insults or “I hate you”s, she says she pities her brother and for an egomaniac, that is the worst thing anyone could do.
The film is not only ingratiated in the world of journalism, but also a film noir. The stars shine in the darkest way, but you connect with all of them. It is one of the great roles for Burt Lancaster and for Tony Curtis. They aren’t lovers or comedians. In this film, they show their meat and bones, raw talent, and dramatic capability, that soars to the highest degree. I hope you will watch, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and enjoy it as much as I did!
Thank you, to Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings, for hosting and letting me write about one of the best films noir, in the Journalism in Classic Film blogathon!