A drunk is tossed out of a nightclub and onto the streets of New York – and straight into a garbage can. J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a conniving and contemptible columnist, looks-on before he turns and mutters, “I love this dirty town.” Such is the New York of The Sweet Smell of Success, by a nose the filthiest New York movie ever filmed; perhaps cleaner on its face but nastier in its heart than even Taxi Driver. Rarely does a film bare its teeth as flagrantly as a feral dog.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney, a sycophantic press agent so desperate to get an item into Mr. Hunsecker’s cloutful column that he’ll ruin the lives of every innocent person he meets. He'd even "sell out his own girl," (!) as the original movie poster explains. With the aid of a snaking camera and a hot jazz soundtrack, the film propels forward as Sidney peregrinates through nightclubs, theaters, and offices, its propulsion seemingly unstoppable (except for a few dragging respites when Curtis is off-screen.) Most of the film plays out like a voyage through the subconscious of a castrated capitalist; everywhere Sidney goes, by nearly everyone he meets, he is embarrassed, emasculated, and chewed-out. As Hunsecker pointedly avers, “you’re a prisoner of your own fears, ambition, and greed” and it seems like just about everybody knows it.
Clifford Odets’ screenplay (with Ernest Lehman) is thick with dirty dialogue, some of the best ever heard in pictures. Whereas some of Odets’ stagework, like Awake and Sing!, feels dated today in its idealism, The Sweet Smell of Success’ undiluted cynicism still tastes fresh (a sensation buttressed by James Wong Howe’s stark black and white photography.) Go back to bed boychik, the world’s a mess.
While Curtis carries the movie, it’s Lancaster, who also co-produced, as Hunsecker who stays with you long after the credits roll, like the slimey nauseous sensation that accompanies having eaten too much popcorn. His performance carefully dances that fine line between (insincere) genteel amiability and bitter, contemptuous cruelty. It’s a dirty performance as an ornery character in an altogether nasty film.