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United States, 1957
Directed By: Alexander MacKendrick
Written By: Ernest Lehman, Clifford Odets
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner
Running Time: 96 minutes
Sweet Smell of Success is a dense, almost impenetrable film, packed solid with machine-gun dialog, double- and triple-crosses, Wellesian cinematography, and pure, black-as-coal cynicism. It’s an easy film to admire, but arguably a hard film to enjoy. Ostensibly a journalism drama, the film is really a disturbing exploration of one man’s lust for his sister, and another’s for the titular odor. Not a shot is fired — unusual for a noir, of course — but the barbs the characters aim at each other are far more devastating than any bullets could be.
The story is set within the world of show business promotion in New York City, and makes almost no attempt to familiarize the audience with the world. (If you’re not at least a bit acquainted with it to begin with, you’ll be lost from the first frame.) Tony Curtis stars as Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s trying to make it big and would give anything to get one of his blurbs featured in the column of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Hunsecker has a different idea. Jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) wants to marry Hunsecker’s sister, and he wants Falco to smear his name in order to prevent the marriage. Falco accepts the challenge.
The plot is mildly interesting, but ultimately, this is character study — and one about a character who’s far from pleasant to look at. Lancaster, who up until this point was best-known for playing heroic leading men, plays Hunsecker with an astonishing amorality. The journalist is able and willing to manipulate anyone however he pleases. Nothing he says can be taken at face value — he trusts no one and only fools trust him. He’s nothing short of a dark god — a fact accentuated by cinematographer James Wong Howe, who almost invariably shoots him from below and lights him from above. Yet, with all this, he still has one weakness. And, appropriate to noir, it’s a sexual one.
I’m referring of course to his sister. Susan Harrison plays the teenaged waif as a fairly “normal” character — just a girl who wants to marry her true love and settle down; Lancaster’s obsession over her, however, is nothing short of bizarre. He spends much of his time holed up with her in the apartment that they share (their parents are never mentioned), consistently touches her in borderline-inappropriate ways, and even keeps an 8×11 of her (and only one of her) on his desk.
This is, of course, merely a repressed (by the Production Code or otherwise) echo of what’s going on in Curtis’s character, who serves as the de facto protagonist of the film. His deep, unbridled lust for career success (to the extent that the words of the title are actually on his lips toward the end of the film) is every bit as unabashed as J.J.’s love for his sister is buried. He would do anything to get his words into J.J.’s column, including participate in J.J.’s smear campaign and even pimp his own mistress (both of which he does, of course). His obsession with J.J. borders on the homoerotic — he simply can’t stay away from him, even when being near him puts him in direct physical peril.
Those looking to stereotype the 1950’s as an era of nothing but repression and fear (and I know there are many of you) will probably have a heyday with this film. Not only is it a showcase for flattops and horn rim glasses, it’s filled with layers upon layers of sexual repression, political anxiety, and paranoia over drug use. And yet there’s clearly much more to it than that; the very fact that this film was even made proves that nothing was truly repressed. The subtext might not be out in the open (it is subtext, after all), but you have to have your eyes (and ears) closed to miss it. The truth, as always, is a much more nuanced one — one that’s painted richly by the subtlteties of the film. Sweet Smell of Success portrays a culture obsessed with Freud and Kinsey but not knowing how to deal with them, terrified of Communism but equally terrified of the amoral ramifications of capitalism, and wondering how to stem the flow of that which is undesirable but unstoppable. As all this came to the forefront of the culture, it’s no wonder that the noir movement ended — without repression, there can be no tension.