J.J. Hunsecker, the most powerful newspaper columnist in New York, is determined to prevent his sister from marrying Steve Dallas, a jazz musician. He therefore covertly employs Sidney Falco, a sleazy and unscrupulous press agent, to break up the affair by any means possible.Written by
David Levene <D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk>
"You want information, ask for it like a man, instead of scratching for it like a dog."
The fact that in 1957 this film was made at all is proof that Walter Winchell's decline was already setting in. Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker based on Winchell and very frightening accurately portrays the columnist and the power he wielded.
For those who are interested in how Winchell got to where he was J.J. Hunsecker I would recommend Neal Gabler's biography of him which came out a few years ago. Sweet Smell of Success is the story of a day in the life of this monster who everyone on the planet it seems is terrified of offending. Like Winchell at the Stork Club, Hunsecker holds court like some monarch at a nightclub where people are obsequiously asking for some recognition in his column.
One of these is Sidney Falco, press agent and bootlicking dog extraordinaire. Hunsecker is mad at him because he sent him on an errand to break up a romance his younger sister is having with a jazz musician he doesn't approve of. The film is essentially Falco's attempts to carry out his master's wishes.
Burt Lancaster had already received critical acclaim as an actor, but this was a breakthrough role for Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco. Up to then Curtis was the handsome romantic lead in many lightweight films for his home studio of Universal. Sidney Falco was a lot of things, but heroic wasn't one of them. Next year Tony Curtis would get an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones. How Lancaster and Curtis were ignored by the Academy for nominations is beyond me.
The young lovers are Susan Harrison and Martin Milner. This was probably Marty Milner's finest screen role. As Lancaster was also the producer he personally cast Milner in the part having worked with him on Gunfight at the OK Corral. Susan Harrison strangely enough never had much of a career after a promising debut. She ultimately wreaks a terrible vengeance on one of our protagonists.
One of the ironic lines in the film is Lancaster saying that he'd fold up if he had to exist on a press agent's tidbits. But ironically that's how Winchell/Hunsecker did exist. Winchell had no real skill as a reporter as Gabler's biography pointed out. When the tidbits stopped, he dried up and blew away.
Sweet Smell of Success was a commercial flop, movie audiences did not take to the offbeat casting of the leads nor to the gritty realistic story. Today the film is a deserved classic.
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