Film / Sweet Smell of Success

(left)guppy, (right)shark

"Harvey, I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men."
J.J. Hunsecker

Sweet Smell of Success is a very dark 1957 Film Noir. It received poor audience reactions when it was first screened, but it is critically acclaimed as a great film today. J.J. Hunsecker is number 35 of the AFI's list of the top 50 movie villains of all time, played acerbically and ruthlessly by Burt Lancaster.

J.J. Hunsecker is a ruthlessly powerful columnist who doesn't like his sister's new boyfriend Steve, a jazz guitarist. He hires Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to do the dirty work of breaking the two apart in the age when everyone suspected a Red under every bed.

In 2002, the film was adapted into a musical by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Carnelia, and John Guare.

Tropes used by the film:

  • Abuse Mistake: Near the end of the film. Falco stops Susan from completing her suicide attempt, but J.J. walks in just as he's reassuring her on the bed. J.J. assumes that Falco tried to assault her (which she initially does nothing to dissuade), leading to Hunsecker inflicting a bit of a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
  • Alliterative Title
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing
  • Break the Cutie: Poor, poor Susie.
  • Broken Pedestal: Susan towards J.J. at the end, when forced to discover just how underhanded he is.
  • Control Freak: J.J. isn't protective of Susan because she's his sister, but because she "belongs" to him.
  • Dirty Communists: One of the smears against Dallas is that he's a Party member.
  • Dirty Cop: Some work for Hunsecker.
  • Dirty Old Man: The sleazy columnist that ends up running Sidney's article about Dallas. All on the condition that he gets to spend the night with Sidney's pretty friend.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Hunsecker wants Dallas to suffer horribly throughout the film, though a lot of this comes from his overprotectiveness of Susie. However, when Dallas gives J.J. a speech detailing just how rotten of a person he is, Hunsecker is so offended that he organizes things so that Dallas gets horribly beaten up by the cops.
  • The Dog Bites Back
  • Don't Do Anything I Wouldn't Do:
    Sidney: Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway...
  • Double Entendre: After J.J. gives a withering description of Sidney, he says, "Match me, Sidney", offering his cigarette. Sidney declines to "match" him at this time.
  • The Dragon: Effectively, Falco to Hunsecker.
  • Driven to Suicide: Almost.
  • Extreme Doormat: Susie.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Hunsecker always speaks calmly and politely, especially to Susie and Steve. Neither of them are fooled.
  • Grew a Spine
  • Incest Subtext: J.J.'s possessiveness of Susie smacks of feelings deeper than mere brotherly love.
  • Knight Templar Big Brother
  • Lack of Empathy: J.J.'s defining trait.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Both Falco and Hunsecker.
  • Moral Guardians: After getting beaten up by a corrupt cop, Sidney suddenly has an out-of-character line, "That fat cop can break my bones, but he'll never stop me from telling what I know." Word of God said this line was thrown in to appease the censors, since the Hays Code said that no one was allowed to get away with crime at all.
  • Morality Pet: One would think of Susan as this for J.J., given how he genuinely cares for her and wants to see her protected. However, by the end of the film, it's clear that he is far more focused on his own needs than hers.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits!
  • Nerd Glasses: Hunsecker's extremely thick spectacles.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Actually pointed out just before the climax. Falco notes that J.J.'s decision to have Dallas beaten up will only cause Susie to love him more, driving them further together. Although J.J. is confident that he has the situation under control, the action ends up causing Susie to renounce her association with J.J. altogether.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: J.J. Hunsecker is a thinly-disguished version the once-powerful gossip columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell.
  • Only Known by Initials: J.J. Even his sister calls him that.
  • Pretty in Mink: Susie's highly-symbolic fur coat.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Falco is given quite a few throughout the film out of reproach for his deviousness.
      J.J.: Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of forty faces, not one. None too pretty and all deceptive. You see that grin? That's the, uh, 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. (holds out cigarette) Match me, Sidney.
    • Additionally, Steve Dallas gives a severe one to Hunsecker, which ends up having severe consequences.
    • Susan gives an all-time one to J.J. as the last lines of the film:
      Susan: I'd rather be dead than living with you. For all the things you've done, J.J., I know I should hate you. But I don't. I pity you.
  • Red Scare
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: J.J. Hunsecker wears them.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The musical refrain repeated throughout is borrowed almost note-for-note in Boogie Nights.
    • In Diner, one character does nothing but repeat famous lines from the film.
    • Law & Order: Criminal Intent once referenced the movie with a victim's death, down to the line "I love this dirty town".
    • The press agent in Matlock is also named Sidney Falco.
    • The rock band Kitty Kat Stew has a song called "Cookie full of Arsenic"
  • Smug Snake: What a lot of people view Falco as. He slithers around trying to make deals with people by selling them on rhetoric, but many note that he's little more than a hired hand for Hunseckler, and pretty much all of his own schemes end up falling completely flat.
  • Sudden Principled Stand: When a columnist refuses to print a smear against Steve, despite Falco threatening to inform his wife about an affair. Falco, however, subverts his when J.J. merely offers to pay him more.
  • Sugary Malice: Hunsecker.
  • Terms of Endangerment: Hunsecker constantly calls Susie "dear". He's called on this by Steve.
  • Witch Hunt
  • Your Cheating Heart: Sidney tries to blackmail a columnist based on this, noting that the information would become public, should he refuse to run one of Falco's stories. The columnist, in a rare display of decency in the film, instead opts to confess of the affair to his wife. Notably, while the wife is hurt, she also remarks that it's probably "the first decent thing" her husband has done in a long time, and both of them lash out at Falco for his underhanded tactics.