Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on a novelette by Ernest Lehman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner and Sam Levene
Running Time: 96 minutes
Genre: Drama, show business, film noir
Summary: New York City in the late 1950s, and public life is dominated by the influential gossip column penned by J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). Press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) feeds Hunsecker gossip in return for Hunsecker mentioning his clients in his column. However, Falco has not been able to get any of his clients mentioned in Hunsecker's column due to his failure to break up the romance between Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Harrison) and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Milner). With his business suffering, Falco finds himself willing to go to any lengths to obey Hunsecker's will.
Opinions: The title of this film is ironic in that the smell of success is far from sweet, it's rancid and bitter, corrupt to the core. It features career best performances from both Burt Lancaster as the monsterous columnist J.J. Hunsecker who cheerfully destroys lives and careers with a single phone call and Tony Curtis as the hustling press agent Sidney Falco who is willing to do anything to get what he wants. It has an intelligent and sharp script which is full of memorable lines and crisp black and white photography from James Wong Howe. It also benefits from stylish direction from director Alexander Mackendrick, who at the time was best known as a director of Ealing comedies in Britain.
The movie was shot under difficult conditions on location in New York City, with Mackendrick apparently scared the entire time due to the production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (part owned by Burt Lancaster), and their reputation for firing directors for little or no reason at all. To add to their problems they were shooting in one of the busiest sections of New York City without a completed script. Tony Curtis had to fight for his part, because the studio with which he was under contract, Universal, were scared that the film would ruin his career. However, Curtis was tired of the pretty-boy roles which he had been playing up to that point and was desperate to prove that he could actually act. Orson Welles was originally considered for the role of Hunsecker, but Mackendrick wanted to cast Hume Cronyn who, he felt, looked a lot like Walter Winchell, the real life gossip columnist, on who Lehman based J.J. Hunsecker in his original story. However the studio insisted on Burt Lancaster due to his box office appeal. The film was not a box office success, with a lot of audiences very unhappy at seeing movie heroes Curtis and Lancaster cast against type.
The movie is now an acknowledged cinema classics and remains one of the few perfect films which, in it's depiction of a cruel and morally bankrupt media, is just as relevant now as it was when it was made, perhaps even more so. There are also a lot of even darker themes running underneath the surface, such as Hunsecker's twisted relationship with his sister. This is 1950s film-making at it's finest with very element in the film note perfect from direction to performance, featuring some of the best dialogue ever penned.
"I love this dirty town"
- J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)
"Match me, Sidney": Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success