J.J. Hunsecker’s eyes watch New York night life like God. In fact, J.J is God for anyone who wants to make it big in show business. A name in his column can make a fledgling comedian into a headliner or just as easily destroy a politician’s career. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to go through J.J. Hunsecker. If you’re so inclined you can find him sitting at a corner booth in the fashionable and exclusive club “21” in New York City. He’ll be hobnobbing with starlets, judges, movie stars, and third wheels, while always keeping his hand glued to the telephone placed on his table, ready to snatch any juicy story or tidbit that comes his way.
Everyone is a minnow in J.J’s world. J.J. is a physically imposing presence towering over his friends and enemies. As portrayed by Burt Lancaster the threat of violence is always present. But he uses his sharp tongue to intimidate and not his fists: “Son, I don‘t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?” Lancaster’s jet black eyes are accentuated by a pair of incongruous dark rimmed pair of glasses that sit on his square severe face.
The latest minnow to curry favor with the giant predator is Sidney Falco a bit press agent that wants his clients’ names and his own in J.J’s column. Asking nicely won’t get their names in the column; he has to serve his master. Falco has been assigned to break up the relationship between J.J’s sister, Susan and her fiancée Steve and finds J.J. at 21 to report on his progress. Falco as acutely described by J.J is a “cookie full of arsenic.” Falco as portrayed by 1950’s heartthrob Tony Curtis looks handsome but boy can he sting. Falco isn’t successful as a press agent, he slithers around in clubs, fulfill J.J’s wishes and avoids his angry clients. He charms his way in convincing, Rita (Barbara Nichols), a cigarette girl at a local club to prostitute herself to a male columnist in order to write up a smear about Steve and his purported dope use and Marxist leanings.
Compared with J.J. and Falco the other main relationship in the film is between the naïve and innocent Steve and Susan (Susan Harrison). The 18 year old sister of J.J has lush brunette hair and big expressive puppy dog eyes for which you can’t help but feel sympathy. Susan is soft spoken and rarely airs her views when contrary to her big brother. J.J has an Orwellian system of keeping tabs on her sister with eyes and ears in the city watching her moves and those of her fiancée Steve. Steve (Martin Milner) is an All-American up and coming chamber jazz band leader. The four collide only once when Steve confronts J.J. on his machinations to destroy the relationship.
Alexander Mackendrick known for British dark comedies like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers directs his first American film with an intentional sense of uneasiness, claustrophobia, and violence. Helped by James Wong Howe in combining his trademark realism in photographing the wet glimmering New York streets and German expressionistic lighting when accentuating the details of characters faces and their smoke filled indoor surroundings.
The Sweet Smell of Success is set apart from other noirs by the unique screenplay written by Clifford Odets. Based on the short story written by Ernest Lehman of the same name that was a barely veiled portrait of gossip columnist Walter Winchell and his incestuous obsession with his sister (hinted at in the film). Odets language has the rhythm and nihilism of a Nathanel West novel:
J.J. Hunsecker: [referring to Sidney Falco] Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one-none too pretty, and all deceptive. You see that grin? The, eh, that the charming street urchin face. It’s part of his helpless act: he throws himself upon your mercy. He’s got a half-dozen faces for the ladies. But the one I like, the really cute one, is the quick, dependable chap. Nothing he won’t do for you in a pinch- so he says. Mr. Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table tonight, is a hungry press agent, and fully up to all the tricks of the trade.
Many of film’s contributors were victims of the post-World War II Hollywood blacklisting such as Odets, and composer Elmer Bernstein. Burt Lancaster was threatened by the House of Un-American Activates (HUAC) to renounce his criticism of HUAC or be indicted. He relented and wrote an apologetic letter. The film condemns phony patriotism and the Faustian deal many made for success. The film ends with Falco being condemned by J.J and hunted by the police who are paid off by J.J’s payroll. Susan, after an attempted suicide, stands up to her brother and stares into his eyes hiding behind his spectacles; states, “I’d rather be dead than live with you” and leaves; J. J.’s worst fear realized. The last image we see of the mighty J.J. Hunsecker is one of a King overlooking his domain which seems a little less great, a little less bright, and a whole lot lonelier.