Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Sweet Smell of Success is a film noir all about the corrupting nature of capitalism. Our protagonist, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) hustles through a busy New York nightlife, desperate to pull any strings to get his clients mentioned in the right articles. He’s a press agent, viewed by others as a scourge to the world, most notably by columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco seems like he might never sleep, his apartment just a changing room for the right outfit so he can go out and schmooze with the next person he needs something from.
Early in the film Sidney approaches Hunsecker to update him on a deal they had made earlier. Because Sidney wants to get Hunsecker to namedrop his clients in his column, he agrees to to a side job in which he will ruin the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and her lover. While the work of Sidney and Hunsecker is dirty and familiar for the noir genre, the scenes depicting the relationship between Susan Hunsecker and Steve Dallas might as well be straight from another movie, something like Romeo & Juliet.
When Sidney comes to Hunsecker to let him know that not only has he failed to breakup this romance but that Susan and Steve are now engaged, Hunsecker rips into his cohort in front of a group of friends, saying:
“that’s the charming street urchin face. It’s part of his helpless act, he throws himself upon your mercy. He’s got a half dozen faces for the ladies. But the one I like, the really cute one, is the quick, dependable chap. Nothing he won’t do for you in a pinch. So he says. Mr. Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table tonight, is a hungry press agent and fully up to all the tricks of his very slimy trade.”
Sidney just sits silently by as Hunsecker attempts to destroy his reputation. Maybe this is all just part of Sidney’s and Hunsecker’s plan, or maybe Sidney and the others are well-aware of his profession already. He never attempts to hide the lesser qualities of his job, and he seems to think that his ambition within the profession is greater in value than the nature of the profession. He wants to be successful in a self-made kind of way, like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts of the world.
Later Hunsecker will say to Sidney, “you’re in jail, a prisoner of your own fears, your own greed and ambition,” without realizing that he could just as well be describing himself.
Though Sidney is our way into this world, the character whose actions most clearly derive the plot forward, he is not much more than Hunsecker’s pawn. As the film goes on this becomes more of a two-hander as Hunsecker begins to act more irrationally, turning on Sidney as well as his own sister.
Sidney can at least hide behind the thought of his own ambition. He’s under the thumb of so many people, and he’ll do anything to get out, to rise to the top. If his ethics are hazy, it can be said that it’s only because of the people he’s reacting against. Hunsecker, however, has nothing to react against but himself.
Hunsecker is desperate to break up his sister’s romance, but there’s no reason to other than his own fear. Hunsecker already sits at the top, as is made clear in the opening sequence of shots as a truck delivering his newspaper and covered in a large image of his name and face cruises through Times Square. Sidney wants to make it, and Hunsecker already has. And yet they both act in equal measure out of fear, greed and ambition. If Hunsecker loathes Sidney, it’s because he reminds him of himself.
So despite the animosity between the two lead characters, they work very closely together. Eventually Sidney breaks up the relationship between Susan and Steve when he coerces another journalist to leak word that Steve is a communist. Steve is fired from his job, and then Hunsecker swoops in, playing the hero and getting Steve his job back because he has that kind of pull. The plan, then, is to have Hunsecker appear to be the bigger man, and, knowing that Steve will be too proud to accept Hunsecker’s help, to make Susan see just how ruthless Steve can be to her brother.
When Steve refuses Hunsecker’s help and rips him a new one (deservedly so), Hunsecker takes the opportunity to tell Susan that she better not ever see that man again. Tearfully she agrees. Problem solved.
But then Hunsecker, in his egocentric and ruthless nature, can’t help but go a step further. Offended by the severity of Steve’s verbal assault on him, makes a plan to have Sidney plant drugs on Steve. This is when Sidney puts a hand up and says enough is enough… at least until Hunsecker promises to take a three week vacation from his column and hand it over to Sidney.
Identifying more with his own ambition than with any kind of ethical code, Sidney agrees. He does his part, somewhat reluctantly, and Steve is arrested. Sidney then goes to a bar and gets drunk, loudly saying, “I’m toasting my favorite new perfume: success.” It’s clearly a moment undercut by him understanding what he’s had to do to get to this point.
Then he’s told that Hunsecker has tried to reach him. Sidney goes to Hunsecker’s apartment and finds only Susan. When she attempts to throw herself off of the high-rise patio, he stops her. Hunsecker comes in, sees him grabbing his sister and attacks him. Susan doesn’t back up Sidney’s story that he was only trying to save her, and he realizes that Hunsecker never called him, Susan did in an attempt to force Sidney and Hunsecker into their own confrontation.
And it works. Both men destroy each other. Sidney tells Susan that Hunsecker ruined her relationship with Steve, and Hunsecker calls a cop to tell him that the drugs were planted on Steve by Sidney. The film ends with Hunsecker alone, his sister making it clear she never wants to see him again, and with Sidney getting beaten up and arrested by the police. What’s funny is that their downfall is just that their behavior reaches the light of day. There is no misunderstanding. Both men are guilty and face their comeuppance. Meanwhile Susan leaves the apartment and walks into the sudden light of day. The only way to succeed in this type of world, it seems, is by getting out.
Sweet Smell of Success is a very dark movie, visually. It’s entirely set at night, like a Scorsese movie (Taxi Driver, After Hours, Bringing Out the Dead), and in some scenes you can barely make out the details in the shadows. It’s just a screen full of dark black and the characters’ faces, only partially visible amongst the shadows meant to reflect their rotten soul.
This is a film noir, after all, and in noirs the characters are touched by something wicked. Even the noir hero is nothing to aspire to, and most of the time he’s as rotten as the world around him. In some stories he tries to transcend this world (only to fail), and in other stories his sin is that he gave up long ago and no longer chooses to see the best in people. In these types of films, the point seems to be that the world is hopeless, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. Every relationship is built on some kind of transaction or use of power. Every romance is a trap, and the female lead is often the femme fatale.
But in Sweet Smell of Success there is hope, and it’s symbolized by the romance between Susan and Steve. Early in the film they share a loving embrace, almost sappy in how lovely it is. Later they have to say a heartfelt goodbye when they realize the world (or Hunsecker himself) is conspiring to keep them apart. Their love is pure, at least compared to the world around them, but it remains touched by the corroded quality of their environment. If anything, there romance tells us that we are not beyond saving, just that the forces already set in motion will destroy us. Or something like that.
The scenes depicting this romance feel straight out of the end of Casablanca. They don’t fit in this movie, except that this is the point, to highlight how something so pure can be torn apart unnecessarily by this kind of world.
And this is a capitalist world, where you strive to reach the top, doing whatever it takes to get there, but as Hunsecker proves, even once you’re at the top those ‘at all costs’ behaviors don’t just go to rest. Sidney wants to be Hunsecker, and Hunsecker is some kind of self-sabotaging devil who looks down on people like Sidney, whom he needs, because they remind him what he did to get there.
So, in the end, both characters get what they deserve. One of them never expresses any remorse for his behavior until it’s too late, and the other does, though he doesn’t act any differently. It’s not enough to just feel bad, you’ve got to do something about it. These men don’t, and they suffer for it while Susan escapes, walking towards the sunrise, the only character we ever see in the daylight.
Up Next: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Downsizing (2017), I, Tonya (2017)