*. Let’s return to those glorious days of yesteryear when newspaper columnists mattered. They spoke and wrote words with power, having the ability to make or break entire careers. Waldo Lydecker. Addison DeWitt. J. J. Hunsecker.
*. Enjoy them in these movies because they’re gone. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is a great heavy, but his kind are no longer with us. Plus he’s a true oddity that can’t be fully credited or understood. His power has clearly gone to his head, but his relationship with his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) just doesn’t add up.
*. The character of Hunsecker was based on that of the columnist Walter Winchell, who was rumoured to have had a similarly strange affection for his daughter. This would have made a lot more sense here (Lancaster was 25 years older than Harrison, for starters), but might have got them in trouble, so instead we get a bit of sibling perversity. Meanwhile, it’s J. J. and Sidney who seem to be fighting a more dangerous mutual attraction.
*. I also don’t think Lancaster is believable in the part. As David Lee Roth once put it, the reason so many rock critics like Elvis Costello is because they look like Elvis Costello. Lancaster doesn’t look like any kind of ink-stained columnist I’ve ever met. I understand the way his physical presence “gives his character the physical embodiment of violence that’s always implied somewhere” (James Naremore), and you need it at the end when he slaps Tony Curtis around, but he just doesn’t look right.
*. So I can’t buy Hunsecker. I mean, I can see being a bit concerned about Susan running off with a cat who plays in a jazz band, but “Steve Dallas” (Martin Milner), if that is his real name, is about as all-American a boy as central casting could dream of.
*. No, you won’t see the likes of J. J. Hunsecker again, and he’s very much a one-off here. But you will still meet Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). In fact, you won’t be able to avoid him. He’s everywhere, an insinuating weasel — or shrimp, mouse, “trained poodle,” “cookie full of arsenic” — who just sucks up to anyone in power hoping to feed off the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Apparently Ben Jonson’s Volpone was an inspiration here, with Sidney being Mosca, the parasite.
*. Lancaster and Curtis both took big chances playing such an unlikeable pair, and in Curtis’s case it paid off with what may be the best performance of his career. He’s perfect as the aging pretty boy who can be sniveling or bullying by turn. He’s such a bottom-dweller we don’t even get any satisfaction out of his comeuppance. He only lies there like trash on the street.
*. I like how Naremore’s commentary picks up on the way James Wong Howe’s photography is always casting Hunsecker in shadows, with those browline glasses functioning almost like shades. Apparently Lancaster had a glare that could petrify, but there was no point in overdoing that. The threat of violence is always kept in reserve.
*. It’s a movie with lots to enjoy, but it misses out on being great. The script by Clifford Odets, based on a novella by Ernest Lehman, is actually kind of clunky. The snappy patter sounds put on and there are chunks of plot that just float around in the mix. Not to mention that the whole frame-up seems ridiculous. Apparently they had a half-dozen different endings they tried out too, which always suggests to me that they didn’t know where they were going.
*. Manny Farber catalogues some of the negatives: “In The Sweet Smell of Success, the dialogue spills out of realistically mannered mouths before you expect it. The ‘dumb-blonde’ cigarette girl minces and whines in a quick unfolding as though she had been cranked like a toy. Newspapers are read and flung away in a violently stylish way and the frozen-lipped delivery of repartee makes the columnist look like a pompous orangutan. It is inconceivable that this high-glossed, ultra-sophisticated drama hinges on a dope-planting act in a nightclub that is carried on with as little difficulty as water has finding its way through a sieve.”
*. Yes to all of this, and I’d throw in some really chopping editing as well that undercuts thee painstaking (read: slow and overbudget) direction by Sandy Mackendrick. But Sidney Falco is one of this period’s great inventions and there are moments here that still have bite. Sidney pimping out the cigarette girl, for example. This part of the story works because, again, we feel that such sordid deals still go down all the time, long after the last great columnist has gone to his rest.