Released in 1957, Sweet Smell of Success, mocking, bitter title and all, was one of the last American film noirs. You’d be forgiven for thinking the genre would be sucked-dry by that point (after all, dozens of these movies were released every year in an era that saw rapidly-produced films like no other). Maybe it is the knowledge of this fact that allowed director Alexander Mackendrick, writer Clifford Odets, and cinematographer James Wong Howe (in a rare great film where the cinematographer is more famous than the writer or director, but then that’s film noir for you) the freedom to produce something which feels so rapturously alive. This isn’t a static film – it kicks and prods and runs at you every which way and threatens to overcome you with itself. It’s angry and enraged, teeth drawn, filled with passion, and purrs like a noirish nightmare hopped up on a drug that hadn’t yet made its way stateside ten years earlier at the height of noir popularity. but was now infecting the waters. Infecting, and poisoning at that, but Sweet Smell of Success has venom to match.
The narrative, befitting any film noir, is deceptively, cavernously complex, to the point where explaining it all would ruin a good chunk of the fun. On the surface is powerful newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) who wants his younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) separated from Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Wandering into the middle of this, almost on cue, is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent who wants to be big (and with a name like Falco, what choice have you?). Hunsecker realizes this and sees an opportunity to use Sidney for his every whim.
The film is undoubtedly noirish in many respects, but there’s a key difference in the narrative from the typical stylings of the genre. Namely, at the center of this film is a man, Falco, who enjoys flying too close to the sun, who revels in danger, and who seeks out the spotlight. Typically film noirs deal in ice. The main character always wants to stay out of things and somehow gets involved anyway – often he’s an innocent man unduly wronged, or a stoic, frigid petrified forest of stone-faced ambiguity who couldn’t care less. Here, however, Falco is desperate to become involved in the swinging, oppressive power gambles of Manhattan’s backrooms and front pages. He’s a dangerous guy, someone who courts risks, and very much someone who wants to know everything, or so he thinks. He hungers and burns and lights up the room with his grubby, unhinged, amateurish qualities and his open-faced passion – less like a noir character than a man who had grown up watching noir films and found the nightmare a dream he set his life to pursuing.
At the center of the film isn’t just Falco’s success, but his soul. We find ourselves drawn to him in spite of himself. He’s unprincipled and self-serving, but he is the underdog after all, going up against a man who is in some way far more dangerous, JJ Hunsecker. Unlike Sidney, Hunsecker revels in his principles. He’s ordered and methodical, cool as ice– this is the guy who would center any other noir film, someone who feigns a chilliness but deep-down burns with obsessive desire. Except here we’re made intimately aware that his conception of order is all-or-nothing. He’s obsession incarnate, and when he’s constructed a world where everyone suffers if he doesn’t get what he wants. Falco, meanwhile revels in his assumed open-faced lack of care for order or principles. He’s a fast talker and Tony Curtis’ performances emphasizes overflowing nervous energy to combat Lancaster’s fastidious chill. The two meet uneasily and their uneasy relationship, like a moth drawn to an illuminated stick of plutonium, commands the screen. As Falco flies to close to Hunsecker, he comes to a most-dangerous realization: Sidney may be more principled than he thought.
Any other noir that gave us a character arc inevitably would have chosen an innocent man turned bad – here we have a flipped, distorted perspective: a bad man who has to come to terms with his hidden goodness. Yet, this does not make the film upbeat. If anything, it’s more disconcerting – the idea that Sidney actually sees goodness and actively wants to resist it. Again, he plays like a human being who discovered noir, decided to live the one-note trope, and now has to come to terms with his humanity pushed right up against him. He has to come to terms with the limits of the noir character and realize what it actually entails, how far it means subsuming one’s humanity. In this regard, it plays almost like a commentary on the genre, a post-noir – not necessarily a vicious attack like the much later The Long Goodbye but a more subtle change of perspective to reveal that which many films in the genre couldn’t.
This subversion is all the more interesting because the film does have this “do-gooder” character who in any other film would have served the central role: Steve Dallas. Here, he’s a non-entity, a do-gooder with little character and someone for the others to abuse. He’s milque-toast and principled, as Hunsecker is, but Hunsecker walks all over Dallas’ principles with his own. Another film might have Dallas as the hero and Hunsecker as the villain – this one realizes Dallas, and most noir heroes, are cardboard. Instead, Falco, who would likely be a grimy, two-bit sub-villain in any other film, is the protagonist in a film that reveals an unexpected human streak even in its cynicism. If, in any other film, he’d be a loser with no potential, a villain in a genre rooted in defining heroes and villains for an era weary of emotional complexity, here he has a soul. He acts villainously, but we come to realize the tragedy of his villainy and the way he’s being abused in a world that defines success for him in certain ways – the ways found in a film noir, and the unstated nightmares of a US seeing its presumed goodness and morality crashing down. He’s not likable, but we understand why he isn’t, and how, in another world, he could have been something.
With Hunsecker, even greater questions arise: why is he so obsessed with his sister? We’d expect a love interest of some kind, but he’s too busy, too caught up in his own success, for love. What we see is a sort of blasé obsession. He needs to obsess. It could be over anything, and as he says at one point in the film, she is the only thing he actually has to obsess over. His organized life and quest for power has left him a pitiful, bitter, empty man on the inside, and for this reason he must lash out to control and obsess even more-so to have power over anything he can get his hands on. For this reason, he’s far scarier than any garden variety tempter – his obsession is aimless and random rather than aimed at one specific thing. It is the principle of obsession, and his underlying weakness, that drive him.
The film’s fire extends beyond Falco though – he is straight out of a film by Nicholas Ray like Rebel Without a Cause, or Elia Kazan like the underrated A Face in the Crowd (released the same year as Sweet Smell of Success), and the film follows suit. This is pre-beat, when cool cats and greasy sharks were a dime a dozen – these weren’t people who feigned a lack of interest, but showmen who reveled in the dirt and grit and tried to make it cool. And Sidney Falco wants to be the lion among them, a position currently occupied by Hunsecker. The battle of wits between the two is impassioned even in its harrowing starkness – we sense not a simmering pot ready to overflow but a clash of thunder and lightning. The film captures the jazzy, immoral underbelly of Manhattan and finds it even in high places. This isn’t a film about geographic emptiness like many noirs – it’s populated with crowds and crowds of busy, fast-moving people Falco must literally swerve in and out of like the crawling king snake he is. Visually, Falco is often depicted moving, while Hunsecker is often still, the perfect visual encapsulation of their relationship and respective power statuses. Captured by James Wong Howe’s eye for both realism and surrealist nightmare, the film’s mad-dash movement of city life sees Howe finding poetry in inspired chaos– we can see equally the intoxication of the lifestyle, the superficial appeal and how Sidney could get caught up in, and the hollow core underneath.
And if it deals in physical movement, the film also deals in dialogue. This is not a quiet film – every negative space, both visually and aurally, is all the more impactful because it is surrounded by so much damning godforsaken noise. Few films capture the raw, electrifying kick of people talking over each other like this one – the conversations are like battle scenes. And again, it does all it possibly can, perhaps all a film possibly can, to get us caught up in Sidney’s fantasy and the intoxicating allure of men like JJ Hunsecker. Befitting this, there’s also a subtle, delicate homo-eroticism to the film’s mano-y-mano clash, especially in the sheer boredom of the main female lead who serves only as the pathway to these two men going at it, as well as the boredom of the obviously heterosexual lead male Dallas. After all, Hunsecker, who exhibits a slightly campy theatricality, has little seeming romantic interest in women himself –even when around them, he’s always obsessed with Falco and his work, and Falco is always obsessed with him.
If this kitschy, chaotic world feels as much like unnerving fantasy as any other noir, this fantasy is having a better time than the desolate, barren earthless-ness of most noirs. This jazzy sense of fun, coupled with snappy dialogue built on pizzaz, enhances the dissonance we feel when we realize just how horrible the people we’re watching are, and how scared we are of what it is they are saying. The location, hoped-up on zest like the people, doesn’t breed human souls – the people are as barren as any old-school noir character, except here they’re busier and more lively about it, making it that much scarier. They’re caught up not in a sort of raw human indecency but a world structured to make them too busy with going places to focus on any decency. And it’s ruled over by JJ Hunsecker.