How many noir films have no murder in them? Even Frank Borzage’s anti-noir, Moonrise, has a murder at the center of it. But Sweet Smell of Success has no murder and very little physical violence. All the jabs are verbal. And awesome. This is the best script out of the 8 or so 1957 films I’ve seen. Each character is well written and quick on their feet. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s looking to become as influential as his idol and sometimes-employer J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist for the Broadway scene and the biggest guy on the block. He’s got senators and singers sucking up to him every night, just hoping to get mentioned in his column – in a positive way, of course. Hunsecker tells Falco he’ll write up something nice about Falco’s uncle’s night club if Falco will break up the affair between Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) – his sister – and a young leader of a lounge band, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Complicated, yes, and it took a good third of the film to figure out who was who and why they mattered, but that’s part of the fun of a film like this.
Sweet Smell of Success is about ambition, obviously. It’s nothing new to see how far people without morals (or people who will repress their morals) will go in order to to achieve their goals. That’s the gist of about 1/4th of all movies. Maybe 1/5th, I haven’t checked the updated numbers. Either way, it’s not the plot that matters here. It exists just to get our characters to show their true colors. Most of these colors are dark and twisted. Like an inverted rainbow. The beleaguered beau, Steve Dallas, and his girlfriend, Susan Hunsecker are the only two main characters that have some kind of goodness in them. They aren’t manipulative at their core, though in the end even they must play the game in order to get out of it. It’s a cynical, messed-up world, but it’s fun to visit because everybody is so witty.
I’m just going to lay out a few examples of the dialogue and japes here, because anything else wouldn’t get at how wonderful the script is.
J.J. Hunsecker: What’s this boy got that Susie likes?
Sidney Falco: Integrity – acute, like indigestion.
J.J. Hunsecker: You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.
Sidney Falco: If I’m gonna go out on a limb for you, you gotta know what’s involved!
J.J. Hunsecker: My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.
Steve: Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!
J.J. Hunsecker: Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?
Sidney Falco: The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.
J.J. Hunsecker: I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.
J.J. Hunsecker: Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance, “to promise.”
Sidney Falco: Dallas, your mouth is as big as a basket and twice as empty!
Ok, enough cheating. The movie looks great, as most noirs do. Full of deep shadows and glaring lights. There’s no gray area here, not in grimy New York City. You’re either in or you’re out. Up or down. Left or right. Right or wrong. A success or a failure. But if you’re a success at being a dirtbag what does that get you? A whole lot of bad feelings and friends that aren’t friendly. That Sweet Smell of Success reeks.