New York City newspaper writer J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) can make or break a career with his column. He needs the sycophant publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to dig in the dirt and find him leads. Hunsecker is a power-driven egomaniac who can’t control his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who has fallen for a jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker orders Falco to smear Dallas’s image and ruin his career.
Falco and Hunsecker. A perfect example of a symbiotic relationship. I read the film was a loose cover for the hated New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell. In the film, J.J. owns the town as he moves from booth to booth in NYC hotspots while Sidney Falco licks the heels of the big dog.
Falco: J.J. Hunsecker is the golden ladder to the place I want to get.
In the ruthless world of journalism, Ben Franklin’s adage holds true. “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”
My favorite character is the cigarette girl, Rita, played by Barbara Nichols. Manipulated by Falco who traps her into prostituting herself, I cringed with sympathy. First, she is soft with the anticipation of a rendezvous with Falco. Next, she is hurt to discover Falco tricks her. Then, to anger and finally, to the “good sport” that she is, putting on a smile for Falco’s client. It is a quid pro quo exchange at her expense. The scene demonstrates how low Franco will go to get J. J. Hunsecker a story.
Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis have great chemistry. Curtis’s quick movements, his alert eyes, and snappy delivery of lines make a believable Sidney Falco who is morally bankrupt. Lancaster’s performance is cool and confident. He plays the sly king of the night with his tall stature and broad shoulders convincingly. The two were a dynamic duo off the screen, too. In the biography, Against Type by Gary Fishgall, Lancaster and Curtis hit it off when they first met in Criss Cross in 1947. Both were from the mean streets of New York. Both were virile and athletic, both were conceited and difficult, and both loved pranking one another on the set.
The Hunsucker one-liners worked for me. “You’re dead son, go get yourself buried.” Or, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re like a cookie full of arsenic.” It’s that 1957 lingo in a movie that makes me smile. The storyline of The Sweet Smell of Success is about obtaining news, even if it’s fake, at any cost. Not much has changed, has it? 5/5