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>
The main characters in "Sweet Smell Of Success" are two of the most unpleasant, unprincipled and unsympathetic people imaginable. Both are utterly corrupt and would do whatever it takes to achieve their own perverse ends.
J J Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is a gossip columnist who wields enormous power in New York and has the ability to make or break the careers of anyone who features in his articles. He plies his vicious trade without any concern for those whose lives he damages and frequently influences people to do his bidding by threatening to expose some unflattering or scandalous information about them. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent who makes his living by providing material for Hunsecker's column. When Hunsecker becomes unhappy about a relationship that has developed between his sister and a jazz guitarist, he orders Falco to do whatever's necessary to break them up. Hunsecker racks up the pressure on Falco by not accepting any of his contributions for the column until he succeeds in his mission.
Hunsecker's power and threatening manner preclude him from having any genuine or meaningful relationships with other people. He is unconcerned about this but has an unnaturally close relationship with his sister, who on various occasions, he describes as being all that he's got.
In his efforts to get a smear about the guitarist published, Falco threatens to blackmail one columnist by telling his wife about one of his indiscretions with a cigarette girl and also provides another columnist with an inducement to print the story by getting his girlfriend to prostitute herself. He later plants marijuana in the guitarist's pocket and tips off a corrupt police officer who has the guitarist arrested.
Hunsecker thrives on the amount of power and control that he is able to use and it's ironic that he has such a hard time using his power successfully in the area of his life which is most personal and important to him.
"Sweet Smell Of Success" is expertly directed by Alexander Mackendrick and the story and it's characters are considerably more original in nature than those found in the vast majority of movies. The dialogue is impressively incisive throughout and some of the remarks made by Hunsecker are delivered with great panache. When he says "I love this dirty town", the comment exemplifies what he's all about and also highlights the source of his power. His remarks that Falco is a "cookie full of arsenic" and "lives in moral twilight" are typical quick-fire put-downs. These and his "40 faces speech" could seem pretentious and contrived if uttered by some characters but sound perfectly credible when said by Hunsecker, who is clearly very literate and well practised in coining such bitter and brutal insults. Lancaster and Curtis both contribute exceptional performances which must rank among the greatest achieved in their illustrious careers.
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