Because “Bitter Smell of Vicious, Cynical Self-Loathing” Would’ve Been a Hard Sell at the Box Office
“I love this dirty town.” That’s the only line from Sweet Smell of Success that I quote on a regular basis, but only because I don’t quite have the presence to pull off “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.” For that, you need Burt Lancaster.
Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen that includes almost no physical violence at all; it’s just funny enough to keep you from slitting your wrists afterwards, but with humor so cold and sharp you could use it for a razor blade. Anyone who thinks of the 1950s as a Norman Rockwell era of innocence should be sat down in front of this paean to cutthroat cynicism and soul-destroying ambition, then given a nice mug of warm milk and a hug.
Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, two good-looking actors with charisma to burn, have never been less attractive. It was a brave choice by both of them (and the studio was opposed to Curtis taking the role of smoothly sniveling Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s had all the empathy, dignity, and morality burnt out of him by a lifetime of humiliations), but I think especially by Lancaster. Sidney Falco is at least occasionally pitiable, but Lancaster’s Walter Winchell-esque monster J.J. Hunsecker is one of the least redeemable characters ever committed to film. (See his inclusion on the AFI’s list of all-time movie villains, although that is, now I look at it, one terrible list — if you think Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the “villains” of Bonnie and Clyde, you missed the whole damn point. And “Man” in Bambi as an all-time villain? Please. But that’s a whole separate post).
I first remember seeing Lancaster in Atlantic City, a favorite VHS rental of my dad’s (mostly for the line “You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean back then… it was really something.”). Later I saw him in From Here to Eternity and the cheesy fun western Vera Cruz, with his magnetic appeal on full display, and in the film noir classics Criss Cross and The Killers, where he was a dark, flawed, but handsome and charismatic figure. He is still my definitive Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – which came out in 1957, the same year as Sweet Smell of Success, but takes place in a staggeringly different America. Lancaster was a gorgeous young man, and still quite an eyeful in his forties, but J.J. Hunsucker is too despicable to have even a shred of sex appeal.
Words are the weapons in Sweet Smell of Success (written by Ernest Lehman and blacklisted lefty Clifford Odets, and directed by Alexander Mackendrick), and J.J. Hunsecker is its serial killer; Freddy Kreuger and Mike Myers earn more viewer sympathy. This is all by design, of course, and the merciless screenplay doesn’t pull a single verbal punch:
It’s a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it.
The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.
Like yourself, he’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.
Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?
My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.
Match me, Sidney.
Those last three are Lancaster’s, and only a handful of the movie’s best. (For full effect, of course, the last one needs to be quoted while holding an unlit cigarette). According to rumor the script was brilliantly rewritten by Odets months past deadline, while he was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, and then rushed scene by scene directly from his typewriter to the set.
The movie was shot on location in New York, and I’m not sure you could say it has any affection for the city — really, I’m not sure you could say this movie has any affection for much of anything — but it certainly gets a jolt of jittery energy from its setting. The story could be transplanted to Los Angeles easily enough, I expect, but it wouldn’t be same without the rushing crowds its characters struggle past, or the packed bars and restaurants where glamor and power and desperation and slimy cunning are jostled together.
If Sweet Smell of Success has a flaw, it’s that the female lead, J.J.’s sister Susan, around whom the whole plot turns, is never really developed as a character, at least not compared to the devastatingly etched male leads. But on reflection I believe this is not really a gender issue – not because she’s a woman, but rather because she’s moral and kind. These are not the human facets that Sweet Smell of Success is interested in, and god bless it for that. Nice people are almost never any fun to quote.