Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Musings on Sweet Smell of Success

Condemnable, sycophantic, and pleonastic, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is so cold ice melts within a five mile radius of him. To look at the man is to see a machine, calculating and uncaring. To know him doesn't mean to understand him - it merely means you're being used by him.

With a linguistic style all his own, Hunsecker is the country's number one columnist. Rash, quick-witted, and always on the lookout for the next real scoop, you'd be surprised by how little mind he really seems to pay the surrounding world. They don't matter in his eyes, and nor do their inhabitants. They're a means to an end. Part of a wide stretching game, only he knows and only he can really play. Which makes it surprising that such a magnanimous character is not the star of Sweet Smell of Success.

Told through the eyes of aspiring PR man Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), with infinite charm and matching wit we see Hunsecker as he truly is. However, Falco is no saint. He bends his morals to the needs of those around him. Though the only need ever on his mind is numero uno. He wants the good life, the best life... he wants Hunsecker's life.

So, when Hunsecker calls upon Falco to do one last favor for him - remove his sister's boyfriend who is encroaching on his idealistic life - Falco will go the distance to carry it through. Still, while he may not be the most admirable, Falco knows right from wrong. He despises some of the actions he takes, even feels remorseful for them, but at the end of the day he won't stop just because of it.

The chemistry between Lancaster and Curtis is downright explosive. If this were a romance they'd be one of the most volatile in cinematic history. The manner in which they go at one another, and others, gives deft insight to the way they view the world - and just how far they are willing to go to maintain that view.

It's one of the things that helps make Sweet Smell of Success such a treat to watch. Where many films of similar ilk would try to find redemption, here we only get destruction. Their meddlesome, amoral ways are bound to catch up to them, and director Alexander Mackendrick is there to capture it.

The two of them use women, men, and each other as pawns more so than humans. It's a dog eat dog world out there, and they see themselves as masters overlooking the ring. They'll hop in if it suits their needs, but seldom by choice. However, as Sweet Smell of Success tells us - even the most distant masters of their own domain care about something. And when that something is challenged, the actions they take will forever define who they really are.

Thanks to Anna (Life of a Cinephile and Bibliophile) for recommending this film to me.

2 better thoughts:

MovieNut14 said...

I thought you'd like it. A shame that it got nothing awards-wise. I sure as hell would've given that screenplay some recognition.

Shubhajit said...

Sweet Smell of Success is one of my favourite films too. As you rightly noted, the chemistry between Burt Lancaster's cold & calculating J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco is explosive, volatile and, simply put, terrific. The two lead actors' acting too was fantastic. Rarely we are offered films that offer such a frightening picture of the darker sides of human society with such aplomb. Great writeup there!

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