Sweet Smell of Success: The Politics of Greed

While most noir films’ idea of crime usually involves a gun, a private detective and a generous amount of shooting, Sweet Smell of Success casts a shadowy light on more subtle yet deadly crimes, wrongdoings stimulated by greed and ambition, so deeply imprinted in their protagonists’ psyches that they seem a part of human nature, if not human nature itself. 1950’s America was supposedly a happy place, a time when achieving the American dream was easier than ever, an era of beautiful cars, high school dances and smiles everywhere; film noir’s job then and there was to reveal the darkness below all that, to say that behind the surface, there is a dark truth, and it did so mainly by stories of crime and crookedness, unravelling the dark bowels of American society and the danger they contained, but every once in a while, there would be a noir film that would concern itself with crimes that vary from the traditional sense of the word, and go deeper into the mind of a human being, dissecting morals and ambitions, films like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951) and most notably, the film we’re discussing today, Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

Sweet Smell of Success tells the story of Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis), a press agent under the complete power and control of columnist J. J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster), and as the former fails to complete a job for his boss, he becomes more and more indebted to him, surrendering more of his person to the ever-growing power and influence of J. J. The job is to interrupt a relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a guitar player in a jazz band, something the boss wants to do stealthily and without his sister’s knowledge to retain her love and respect, and something he does through his subject, Sidney Falco. As the job gets more and more complicated, and as certain unwelcome parties enter the play, we are treated to a thorough character study of both men, who are in the end, more similar than different.

In my opinion, J. J. Hunsecker is the most interesting and frightening villain in film noir, a man whose influence reaches over everything and anything, a cultivated gangster, and as director Alexander Mackendrick describes him “a scholarly brute.” Burt Lancaster, the actor who played him, is almost as fear-inspiring as he is, as all the actors and crew who worked alongside him in Sweet Smell of Success were very intimidated by him, and the director utilized that to emphasize the absolute power his character possesses, and went as far as painting the inside of his glasses with Vaseline, so his eyes were always not focused on one thing, giving him a blank gaze, and shooting his character from a low angle with the lights directly above him, so his glasses cast a shadow over his face. This effect works perfectly in portraying a man that is the very depiction of danger, to whom morality is nothing more than a tool to be used sparingly, and whose subjects are treated with animalistic brutality, leaving them no other choice but to bow and respect. A great villain always has a great flaw, and Hunsecker’s is his kid sister, because for a man who is so very familiar with the dirty deeds of New York, she is the only innocent thing in his life, and the one thing worth protecting. He does that the way he does everything, by utilizing every last bit of his absolute power, and by seeking to hide that from her, and preserve the somewhat false image she has of him. When that image is shattered at the end of the film, we see him gazing down on a city he has absolute control over and losing interest in it all.

But even while being the terrifying colossus that he is, J. J. Hunsecker is not the film’s most interesting character, and that title is taken by Sidney Falco, his subordinate and pawn, for the simple fact of his very ambiguous nature. Sidney Falco is the variation of a small-time hood in the newspaper business, a man willing to succumb to anything to reach his dreams of grandeur and gain the respect he seems to have not one bit of in his quest for the golden life. Whether he is selling false promises for a small favor, or prostituting his female friends for a chance to publish fake news, or even using one of his dozen faces, based on the current situation, his character knows nothing of morality for the majority of the film, and only gets introduced to it when he realizes that he is not getting anywhere; morality for him is not even a tool, it is an excuse. The one thing that is truly fascinating about his character however is the fact that no matter how despicable his actions get, we never actually despise him. I personally think that is thanks to Tony Curtis portraying him, for his charms leave you no choice but to sympathize with his quest.

Sweet Smell of Success is from a very interesting era for film noir, the late 50s, just before the movement came to a stop, a time where it was totally aware of its aesthetics and capabilities, and completely perfected its style. It was shot on location in New York, when the script was still in work and far from being complete, with hordes of Tony Curtis fans interrupting the shoot every once in a while. The score is another area where this film is perfectly noir, combining a classical score by Elmer Bernstein and modern jazz by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with the two soundtracks often overlapping over the tune “Goodbye Baby.”

Originally not received very well, Sweet Smell of Success’ status grew exponentially over the years, getting more recognition as one of the best noir films ever made. Its idea of crime and corruption goes past the traditional sense of hero-heavy and a bunch of guns and shooting, and dives deep into human nature, discussing morals and ambitions, and the very soul of man’s want for more and better.


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