There is a sub-genre of film where the protagonist(s) are actually the bad guys and we, the audience, follow them to their ultimate fall. It is small sub-genre. You will inevitably come to root or at least care for the protagonist and it is never pleasant to care for a person doing villainous things and certainly not nice to watch a person we root for meet their doom. Somehow this is not a blockbuster recipe and the mighty dollar often ends up deciding that this sort of movies are not worth making.
However there is definitely a fascination to watch crooks do their thing and meet their end and by making them the protagonists we get front seat to their escapades. That is a delicious perversion, but only if you are able to avoid rooting for them too much.
That sound awfully complicated and for me it is a balancing act. I never know exactly if I enjoy or despise this kind of movie and “Sweet Smell of Success” is exactly such a film.
Let me say right away that both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are awesome as crooks. Who would have known they had it in them. Curtis I know mostly from comedies such as “Some Like it Hot” and Burt Lancaster is usually cast as the boy-scout knight in white armor like in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. The transformation into insidious bastards is so complete that I believe these two actors just got reinvented.
Curtis’ Sidney Falco is a man of few moral inhibitions if it can further his success as a press agent. Lying, conniving and conning clients, opponents or friends is the order of the day for him, but his licking ass to the despicable J.J. Hunsecker, who writes the gossip column in the newspaper, leaves such a bad taste that even Falco can taste it. You can say he is a small time crook who has consciousness enough to eventually getting it challenged.
Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker on the other hand is way beyond that. He is downright scary. Hunsecker is a cold fish who has the power to make or break people through his writing and he enjoys wielding this power. He is a manipulator who plays people against each other because he knows he can do it and because he considers himself far superior to mortal men as kings and emperors of old. I am totally in awe that Lancaster could pull this one off. Hunsecker is cold, ruthless power.
J.J. Hunsecker’s only weakness is his sister, Susie (Susan Harrison), a girl of 19 years, whom Hunsecker feels almost incestuously protective about. He does not like her boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and uses Falco as his agent to break them up.
The essence of the film is that J.J. Hunsecker can get all he wants, he can manipulate everybody, but it will make nobody love him. That is okay, Hunsecker cares for no-one, but “nobody” includes his sister and that is hitting him where it hurts.
Falco is not much better off. His access to power and wealth costs him his last vestiges of self-respect and he learns how fickle and unreliable that power is. And without that power or self-respect there is not much left.
“Sweet Smell of Success” has a lot of noir vibe and a jazz score that combines to paint a perfectly dirty and lurid underbelly of the entertainment industry. It is corrupt through and through with everybody prostituting themselves for power and wealth or simply to get by in a tough world. The sunrise of the ending that lifts this pervasive darkness is very symbolic and I love this cinematography. However the reason to watch this movie remains the outstanding transformation of two of Hollywood’s boy-scouts. It is just mind-blowing.
The story itself I am more so-so about. I never really caught on to it and it is difficult to get really into a movie when you just wish the protagonists into the deepest hell. Disentangle yourself from that though and there is a lot to enjoy here.
The picture that remains in my head is that of Lancaster turning his head towards me and with his stare makes me feel like a very small person.