Before we are introduced to J. J. Hunsecker in the flesh his influence is felt as we see a close-up of his eyes adorning the sides of a fleet of newspaper trucks dispersing into the dark streets of Manhattan. All the action in Alexander Mackendrick’s film seems to take place at night: business meetings are scheduled for 2:30 am, deals and double-deals take place in jazz clubs and cocktail bars. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is an influential newspaper columnist at the top of his murky profession. In permanent orbit around him is a pack of press agents hungry for scraps from his table, the most cunning and desperate of the lot being fast-talking Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Falco lives out of an office with his name sellotaped to the door but gets by on his wits, always staying one step ahead of creditors and clients he hasn’t come through for. Even he cannot escape the gravitational pull of Hunsecker, who has assigned to him one simple task: to break up the budding romance between his sister Susan and musician Steve Dallas, a young jazz guitarist portrayed in the film as “the next big thing” but cuttingly described by New York Times critic A. O. Scott as “the whitest and squarest jazz musician in the history of cinema”. We accompany Falco as he strides around Broadway after hours, unceasingly looking for opportunities to play people off against one another. In one scene he blackmails a rival columnist to do his bidding by threatening to inform his wife of an affair with a cigarette girl; the man calls his bluff (“You have the morals of a gangster”) so he promptly moves on to next columnist on the other side of the same bar where he gets his precious column inches by pimping the same cigarette girl.
Curtis gives an incredible, energetic performance which is for my money the best he ever gave, though the studio warned that participating in the film would do irrevocable damage to his image. The same warning was issued to Lancaster who is also magnificent as one of cinema’s most unscrupulous bastards, although if some reports of his personality in real life are accurate it may not have been that much of a stretch for him. The other star of the show is James Wong Howe’s amazing cinematography which infuses the Manhattan backdrop with the same desperate energy that Sidney Falco possesses. The director Alexander Mackendrick is more widely associated with Ealing where he directed the classic comedies WHISKEY GALORE! (1949), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951) and THE LADYKILLERS (1955). On the face of it, the American film noir SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS might seem like an unusual choice for him, but it’s difficult to think of a blacker fifties comedy than THE LADYKILLERS, and even the eponymous man in the white suit’s motivations are just as self-interested as those of his industrial overlords, which seems to be a theme running through Mackendrick’s films.
The dialogue is sharp enough to cut glass. Every thirty seconds a great one-liner comes along that will stay with you long after the film finishes (“You’re dead son, get yourself buried”, “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years”, “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”). Screenwriter Clifford Odets’ style seems like a precursor to David Mamet, with all the characters talking at a mile-a-minute and having answers for everything: in particular with its frenetic jazz soundtrack it reminds me of the film version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992). The character of Hunsecker was based on famous and reviled gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who used his column to attack a man who wanted to marry his daughter. In the film there are strong incestuous undertones to the relationship between Hunsecker and his sister: the only time he reveals a human face is when he over-compensates by being fiercely protective of her. Lancaster portrays a man who has grown to regard himself as the ultimate arbiter of truth and justice, a man for whom the end will always justify the means. It makes me wish that the film had been compulsive viewing for every News International employee.