Jazz in the Movies: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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.

Both Lancaster and Curtis were playing against type, and they gave hugely energetic performances. Lancaster rarely played bad guys, and J.J. is devoid of redeeming features. Dining with an ambitious senator who’s accompanied by his girlfriend — a singer and actress, but not his wife — J.J. levels with him: He’ll never climb the ladder this way. (Shades of Gary Hart!) With an icy gaze, J.J. asks: “Are we kids, or what?” Chills.

The real glory of this film is the script. Who could deliver a line seething with barely controlled contempt like Burt Lancaster? And Tony Curtis, up until Sweet Smell a charming, handsome matinee idol, plays against type as the streetwise, amoral hustler Falco, hovering on the edge of failure and sweating it out. In 1957, this didn’t go over well with his fans, but watching J.J. and Falco sparring with Ernest Lehman’s lines is great fun and endlessly quotable:

  • J.J. and Falco see a drunk being thrown out of a nightclub and dumped on the street: “I love this dirty town.”
  • J.J. punishes Falco for failing to come through on a dirty deed: “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.”
  • Falco, telling J.J. that the deed has been done: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”
  • Falco asks J.J. how he can live with himself: “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years.”

All this, a great jazz soundtrack, crooked cops, a philandering senator, underhanded politics and two great actors in a crackling script — how can you go wrong?

How to watch Sweet Smell of Success online:

David Basskin is the host of The Nightfly, Saturday at midnight on JAZZ.FM91.