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Film / Sweet Smell of Success

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"I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

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

Sweet Smell of Success is a very dark 1957 American Film Noir directed by Alexander Mackendrick, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. It's based on a story by Ernest Lehman, who also wrote the first draft of the screenplay, sharing credit with playwright Clifford Odets, who worked on the final rewrites. Mackendrick also did some uncredited writing work.

J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a ruthlessly powerful New York columnist who doesn't care for his sister Susan's (Susan Harrison) new boyfriend, jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). He hires ambitious press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) to do the dirty work of breaking the two apart, by getting Steve smeared as a Communist – a career killer in an age when everyone suspected a Red under every bed.

Though the film received poor audience reactions and was a box-office failure when it was first released, it was critically acclaimed and has come to be embraced as an all-time classic today. J.J. Hunsecker, played acerbically and ruthlessly by Burt Lancaster, is number 35 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 50 movie villains of all time.

In 2002, the film was adapted into a stage musical, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia, and book by John Guare. The Broadway production starred John Lithgow as J.J. and Brian d'Arcy James as Sidney.

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.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: J.J. barely swallows a laugh when Linda thinks Sidney is an actor because "he's so pretty", before lauching into his "The Reason You Suck" Speech listed below.
  • Alliterative Title: Sweet Smell of Sucess.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Sidney and J.J. act like jilted lovers, and there are strong hints Sidney slept with J.J. to get mentions in his column, such as J.J. calling Sidney "a cookie full of arsenic".
  • The Beard: Senator Harvey Walker, press agent Manny Davis and his date Linda James are out having dinner with J.J. Or at least, Linda claims to be Manny's date, but Hunsecker isn't fooled.
    J.J.: But why furnish your enemies with ammunition? You're a family man. Someday, with God willing, you may wanna be President. Now here you are, Harvey, out in the open where any hep person knows that this one... (He points at Manny Davis.) toting that one... (He points at Linda James.) around for you.
    • Before that, J.J. snarks that she's probably "studying politics", after she guiltily glances at Harvey. When she protests she's not into politics, having "Jersey City brains", he says back cattily, "The brains may be Jersey City, but the clothes are Traina-Norell."note 
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: How J.J. views Sidney, calling him "a cookie full of arsenic". He's not wrong.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Susie is likely to keep her relationship with Steve and Falco has been arrested, but Hunsecker will likely face no punishment-though Susie in the final scene is strongly implied to be completely cutting off with Hunsecker which is shown to upset him
  • Blackmail Backfire: Sidney tries to muscle one of J.J.'s rival columnists, Leo Bartha, by implying that he knows about an incident wherein Leo tried to sleep with a cigarette girl named Rita. Leo confesses to his wife right then and there, makes up with her, and launches into a "The Reason You Suck" Speech aimed at both Falco and Hunsecker - a surprising moment of awesome in such a black noir film.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Poor, poor Susie.
    • Falco's girlfriend Rita, after he prostitutes her out to another columnist without telling her in advance to further one of Sidney's schemes.
  • Broken Pedestal: Susan towards J.J. at the end, when forced to discover just how underhanded he is.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: "How many drinks does it take to put you in that tropical island mood?"
  • Control Freak: J.J. isn't protective of his sister Susan because he loves her, but because she "belongs" to him.
  • Corrupt Cops: Under J.J.'s command, and Karma Houdinis, no less, the Moral Guardian-insert line notwithstanding.
  • Death by Adaptation: Sidney's beating at Kello's hands is fatal in the musical adaptation, but not in the film.
  • Did You Think I Can't Feel?: Rita asks Falco this when he tries to pimp her out to one of his clients. He replies with a Well, Excuse Me, Princess!, noting that he was just trying to help her in getting her job back.
  • 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: The cop Falco called fat earlier on gives him a good smack at the end when he is allowed to do so.
  • 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: Susie, as her brother was determined to drive the lover of her life away.
  • Edible Theme Naming: A lot of food metaphors used to describe people in the film, including ice-cream, a barrel of pretzels, waffles with syrup, a tangerine that peels in a minute, a chicken in a pot, cookie full of arsenic, a bowl of fruit, and so on.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Falco has done some very shady things, but he seems particularly disgusted by the Dirty Cop and the whole plan to plant marijuana on Dallas.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The story plays out over the course of less than two days, beginning around 2:30 on Saturday morning and ending with sunrise on what's either Sunday or Monday.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Hunsecker always speaks calmly and politely, especially to Susie and Steve. Neither of them are fooled.
  • Girl Friday: Sally, Falco's secretary.
  • Grew a Spine: Susie by the end.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: No one in the movie is a particularly good person, with a lot of lying, cheating, smearing and backstabbing happening every step of the way. Neither Falco or J.J. as particularly noble people, but prone to extreme measures to maintain some level of power and control over the people around them. One columnist was proven to be above blackmail but still had to confess his infidelity to his wife. Another columnist ends up demanding a girl for the night. Dallas may be slightly better, as his attitude problem was deliberately spurred on by J.J. and Falco. As The Ingenue Susan comes closest to being pure, but it's left vague how involved she was in the final events of the story; she also allows J.J. to believe Falco assaulted her after he saves her life.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Sidney's is out of character for him, and Odets stated that it was required by the studio in compliance with the Hays Code about villains never getting unpunished.
  • Incest Subtext: J.J.'s possessiveness of Susie smacks of feelings deeper than mere brotherly love.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Falco manages to keep Susan from jumping off the balcony.
  • Is That a Threat?: The Senator picks up on J.J's threatening manner.
    Sen. Harvey Walker: Why does everything you say sound like a threat?
    J.J. Hunsecker: Maybe it's a mannerism, because I don't threaten friends, Harvey.
  • It's Personal: After Dallas gave his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to J.J., it appears the latter switched his motif from protecting his sister to destroying Dallas for his impertinence.
  • Lack of Empathy: J.J.'s defining trait.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: J.J attempts to ruin Susie's relationship with Dallas ultimately backfires when Falco tells Susie in the climax about what J.J was doing, which just ends up destroys his relationship with Susie who wants nothing to do with him by the films final scene.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Both Falco and Hunsecker.
  • Moral Guardians: After J.J. phones to sic Kello on him toward the end, 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: J.J. Hunsecker ruins his little sister's boyfriend's life because he doesn't approve of him for her.
  • 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 of the once-powerful gossip columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The final scene shows Susan leaving her and J.J.'s apartment and walking off into the streets of New York.
  • Only Known by Initials: J.J. Even his sister calls him that.
  • Phoney Call: Type B. Falco shows off to Herbie Temple by making a fake call to his secretary pretending to be speaking to J.J.
  • Pretty in Mink: Susie's highly-symbolic fur coat. She is never seen without it until the final scene of the film where she wears a more modest wool coat to signify that J.J.'s influence on her is gone.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Several, and all of them absolutely devestating.
    • 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.
      Steve: Why? Because I don't like the way you toy with people? Your contempt and malice? You think about yourself and about your column. To you, you're some kind of a, a national glory...but to me and a lot of people like me...your slimy scandal and your phony patriotics - to me, Mr. Hunsecker, you're a national disgrace.
    • 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.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Falco gets beaten up and jailed at the end.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Does JJ actually have a smothering Big Brother Instinct, or is he only concerned about how his sister could be used to blackmail him? Or is it just a case of J.J. being an extreme Control Freak?
  • Rudely Hanging Up:
    • Joe Robard does this to Falco early on after expressing his dissatisfaction with his work for him.
    • Another client of Falco's does this to his secretary as well.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: J.J. Hunsecker wears them. They're iconic enough in-universe that they form the logo of Hunsecker's column, seen throughout the film in newspapers and on billboards.
  • Smug Snake: What a lot of people view Falco as. A flack without a scruple to his name, willing to do anything to succeed, even using his friends. 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 Hunsecker, and pretty much all of his own schemes end up falling completely flat. He ends up getting Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: The novella the movie is based on ends with Sidney's beatdown at the hands of J.J. after Susie sets him up, with the strong implication that J.J. kills him in the process.
  • 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.
  • Take That!: J.J. Hunsecker is one to Walter Winchell, a famous columnist and radio host who spread anti-Communist propaganda during the Red Scare. According to the commentary from the Criterion edition of the film, many of the people working on the film had either been blacklisted (such as Sam Levene, who played Frank D'Angelo) or were staunch liberals who hated the collaboration between HUAC and Hollywood (such as producer and star Burt Lancaster). In addition, Winchell had his own instance of being against a family's marriage (although truth may be stranger than fiction here): when his daughter tried to marry, he and his wife abducted her and put her in a psychiatric hospital.
  • Terms of Endangerment: Hunsecker constantly calls Susie "dear". He's called on this by Steve.
    Steve: Those "dears" sound like daggers.
  • The "The" Title Confusion: There is no definite article in the film's title.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: When Susan and Steve have their final talk at a bar, they order two coffees which they never touch.
  • Time-Passes Montage: A shot from Hunsecker's balcony onto the streets of New York dissolves from night to the next morning.
  • Villain Protagonist: Falco, a weasel who screws over and uses everyone he meets in the film, with the exception of his boss, J.J. Hunsecker, who screws him over.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: JJ, and he weaponizes it, too.