Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, is one of the finest, and darkest, movies ever made about show business. To quote its protagonist, showbiz columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), it’s “a cookie full of arsenic.” It’s cynical, remorseless and ironic. And it’s set to a great jazz soundtrack.
Set in Times Square and filmed in glorious black and white, Sweet Smell is dominated by Lancaster as Broadway’s top columnist, modelled on the real Walter Winchell. Like Winchell’s, J.J.’s column runs in hundreds of newspapers. A mention in J.J.’s column can make or break an actor, a show, a musician or even a politician. Again like Winchell, J.J. was once a New Dealer but is now a hard-right McCarthyite.
Surrounding J.J. are “press agents” (today we’d call what they do public relations), angling to get their clients’ names into the columns of J.J. and others. One such agent — J.J.’s reluctant minion and dirty trickster — is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), free of scruples, scuffling to succeed but tiring of doing J.J.’s dirty work in exchange for getting his tidbits in print.
J.J. has a sister he dotes on, and she’s in love with Steve Dallas, a young jazz guitar player in Chico Hamilton’s band. J.J. doesn’t approve. He tells Falco to plant drugs on Dallas and set him up to get busted by the violent NYPD Lieut. Kello, who also does J.J.’s bidding. Will J.J. succeed in breaking up his sister’s romance? Will Kello get his hands on Dallas, which he’d clearly like to do? Will Sidney wise up?
Yes, it’s a nasty, dark, cynical story, with great jazz from Chico Hamilton’s band and a very authentic big-city feel. Sweet Smell was filmed mostly in the Times Square area and teems with life — much as a jungle does.