Sweet Smell of Success is one of the great and final dramatic noir films set and filmed in an alluringly dangerous New York. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick with a brilliant script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, the 1957 classic, shot in glorious black and white by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, is a dark tone poem about the moral hazards accompanying the nearsighted pursuit of power, fame and fortune. At center stage of the drama is the relationship between two cold warriors of smears and innuendo, the powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, and Sidney Falco, a sycophantic press agent, played by Tony Curtis. The pulsing neon lights of Broadway, the Theatre District and Times Square provide the unnatural illuminations for their corrupt and bereft power plays. The city brings out the rawest of motivations - sex, power, and control, all wrapped in the tinsel of blackmail and full-length mink coats.
Everyone in town fears J.J. Hunsecker, the columnist. He makes breaking careers his sport, and Lancaster, repressing his athletic build behind dark suits, bathrobes, and spectacles, uttering his dangerous knowledge in smooth flat tone, could not be more fiercely menacing. He's wrapped his one prized possession, his pretty sister, in an expensive fur coat, and he's got his pretty press boy and student, Sidney, wrapped around his finger. All J.J. wants is to stop his sister from running off with Steve Dallas, her wholesome plain-coated jazz guitarist boyfriend. Curtis plays press boy Sidney as a neurotic mess of nervous energy and ambition, playing off Lancaster's cool slow drones with frenetic beats. The film is an extended jazz riff on Sidney's drive to be "way up high" in the "big game" with the "best of everything." With music onscreen by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and Elmer Bernstein furnishing the rest, the cool hep cats play their own dirges. When Sidney thinks he's done his evil deed for J.J., planting a false blind item with another columnist, he remarks "The cat's in a bag, and the bag is in the river."
With its sharp criticism of the evils of innuendo and false rumors, Sweet Smell of Success can be interpreted as a parable of McCarthyism, the political scandal and national embarrassment that had reached a recent denouement. In addition, the film also documents the final days of the powerful gossip columnists working the Broadway beat. The model for J. J. is most likely Walter Winchell, a nationally syndicated columnist who is said to have invented the gossip column while at the New York Evening Graphic and an early McCarthy supporter. Newspapers, facing declines in circulation, felt pressured to publish more material like Winchell's. The gossip columnist who replaced Winchell at The Graphic, Ed Sullivan, rose to power as a rival, especially later while writing for The New York Daily News. Of course, his name would be more associated with television and the theater that bears his name than with the newspaper business. In a twist of contemporary fate, the current occupant of the Sullivan Theater, David Letterman, recently felt compelled to publicly share potentially embarrassing revelations about relationships with female staffers rather than submit himself to blackmail. Shades of J.J. Hunsecker.
Sweet Smell of Success features several New York locations. In addition to Times Square and surrounding areas, look for references to the 21 Club (21 W. 52nd St.), as well as the legendary but now defunct El Morocco nightclub (on East 54th Street.) The International Toy Center building at 200 Fifth Avenue stands in for the fictional New York Globe, J.J. Hunsecker's employer. The Flatiron, which is nearby, appears in one sequence. The most powerful images of New York are the streets, diners, and clubs of the Theatre District at night, photographed by James Wong Howe in a gritty yet seductive realism. Standing on the sidewalk and watching a fight spill out of a nearby club, Hunsecker looks truly in his element, breathing it all in. "I love this dirty town," he says. The look, and presumed smell, of the vanished New York depicted in Sweet Smell of Success is what some people miss in our outwardly greener and cleaner city. The drive for success and the measures people take to get there, however, is very much still part of the media landscape.