A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for Elwell printing a blind item linking Dallas with marijuana use, not to mention being a card-carrying Commie! Of course, none of it’s true, and Dallas confronts Hunsecker and Falco. For daring to stand up to him, Hunsecker goes for the jugular, and gets Falco to plant some weed on the musician, siccing his psycho-cop friend Kello on him. Falco’s reward will be to take over Hunsecker’s column while he and Susie take an ocean cruise. But as in any good film noir, the best laid plans of rats and men go horribly awry…

Burt Lancaster made his name in 40’s film noir (THE KILLERS,  BRUTE FORCE CRISS CROSS ), but nothing tops his turn as the malicious J.J. Hunsecker. He’s got ice water in his veins and a razor-sharp tongue (when Falco first fails to breakup the romance, Hunsecker tells him: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried”). Cold, cruel, and callous, J.J will do anything to save his twisted relationship with his sister. Wrapping himself in the American flag and wound tighter than a coiled spring, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is said to be based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.  Whether this is completely true or not, J.J. Hunsecker stands tall in the noir pantheon of heels.

Good as Lancaster is, Tony Curtis runs away with the film as the self-loathing publicist Sidney Falco. Sidney will do whatever it takes to get in J.J.’s good graces (and get his clients in J.J.’s column). Sid’s a real shit, a sniveling sycophant with the morals of… no, below an alley cat. The duplicitous, brownnosing Falco is a far cry from Curtis’ 50’s good-guy roles, and his best screen performance by far. Though nominated for an Oscar the next year in THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis should’ve won for this (Red Buttons took supporting honors that year for SAYONARA). The film wasn’t even nominated; apparently, even Oscar was repulsed by these characters!

“Match me, Sidney”

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is dense and filled with some quotable poison-pen dialog. Besides the famous “cookie laced with arsenic” line, here are a few venomous samples:

Sidney to J.J. about Dallas: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”

Sidney to Elwell after hooking him up with Rita: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That leaves a lot of leeway”

Rita, upon finding out Sidney’s set her up: “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”

J.J., on New York City: “I love this dirty little town”

Barbara Nichols as Rita

The supporting cast is equally good. SWET SMELL OF SUCCESS is also Martin Milner’s  finest hour on the big screen as earnest young Steve Dallas; he of course went on to smell success with TV’s ROUTE 66 and ADAM-12. Susan Harrison (Susie) didn’t; she’s best remembered as the ballerina in the TWILGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Barbara Nichols shines as not-so-naïve Rita, a small but standout role. Barbara’s other credits include THE KING & 4 QUEENS, PAL JOEY, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and the cult sci-fi flick THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS. Another small part cast David White as the lascivious Elwell; he’s known to TV viewers as BEWITCHED’s Larry Tate. Other Familiar Faces among the denizens of this dirty little town are Sam Levene , Edith Atwater, Jeff Donnell, Lawrence Dobkin, John Fiedler, Bess Flowers Emile Meyer , Queenie Smith, Lurene Tuttle, and Phillip Van Zandt . Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton plays himself, and vaudeville veteran Joe Frisco plays a comedian.

“I love this dirty little town”

The choice of director was an unusual one. This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, after helming such Ealing Studios comedies as THE MAN IN THE WHTE SUIT and THE LADYKILLERS. It turned out to be a good one; the British director, aided and abetted by the great James Wong Howe as DP, perfectly capture the grittiness of Times Square nightlife in the 50’s, making the area a character itself. Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score (along with some  Chico Hamilton Quintet bebop numbers) add to the flavor of the film. SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS did not do well at the box office upon release, as audiences were undoubtably turned off by it’s repulsive main characters. Only later has it become a classic, one of the best in the noir canon, certainly one of the decade’s best movies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower!

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8 Replies to “A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)”

  1. Thanks for a great and insightful review, Gary. I watch this film every time it’s on (lots of showers.) It’s especially nice to see your recognition of Tony Curtis’s masterful performance as Falco, a roll he was born to play.

    Lancaster and Curtis perfectly portray the most truly, and believably, vicious pair to ever appear on screen, in my opinion anyway. And all without guns, superpowers or explosions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gary. I enjoyed reading this very much. This film really gets under my skin. J.J and Sidney are two of the vilest characters ever created. J.J obviously has some issues. I think Sidney is the worse of the two though, because he knows what he is doing is wrong and yet he still does it. Powerful performances all round and good location work. The dialogue is unlike any I’ve heard before and there’s so many memorable lines. One of the best films from the 50’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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