In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I never expected anything as dark and cold and cynical as what I got.”
“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
I’ve talked about it here before, but there really is something so satisfying about going into a movie blind, with no knowledge of its plot or reputation, no idea of who’s in it or who made it, and no expectations, high or low, about its quality, then stumbling across a bona fide classic. I don’t know how I’d never heard of Sweet Smell of Success. Because it stars two legends, and as I read about it while watching, it has a more than solid reputation. But this was one for the best surprises I’ve had watching a movie in a long, long time.
New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) has a problem. Ever since influential columnist and radio host JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has frozen out Sidney’s clients from his column, his effectiveness as a press agent has become as good as non existent. Taking advantage of the situation, Hunsecker uses his influence to blackmail Sidney into helping break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister (Susan Harrison as Susan) and young jazz guitarist, Steve (Martin Milner).
Desperate, Sidney takes the job and helps plant marijuana on Steve before he leaves a building where some cops are coincidentally waiting for him. As the consequences of Hunsecker’s ruthlessness and Sidney’s desperation fly out of control, Sidney starts to realise he’s made a deal with the devil. But even then, things are never quite so simple. Is Sidney a victim of Hunsecker’s Machiavellian selfishness, or is he someone who just knows who to play all the angles?
I may not have known anything about the story of Sweet Smell of Success going into it, meaning I had no idea what to expect, but I do know that I never expected anything as dark and cold and cynical as what I got. And I loved it. It depicts a New York show biz world of the 50s where all real business was done long after dark, in various bars, night clubs and back rooms, always alcohol fueled and shrouded in cigarettes smoke. It’s a world where anyone affiliated with show biz is only out for themselves, while anyone only showbiz adjacent is the most likely to wear the consequences, despite their innocence.
Watching Sweet Smell of Success also made me realise something about Burt Lancaster. Of all the classic, leading men of his period, he seems to have the most complete lack of vanity. He was good looking, the epitome of masculinity and built to play strong, dignified, uncompromising heroes. Yet, he took roles like the fragile, depressed delusional of The Swimmer, the fire and brimstone hypocrite of Elmer Gantry, and the selfish borderline sociopath here in Sweet Smell of Success.
But as good as Lancaster is, this is more of a Tony Curtis movie. He gets the more complex and conflicted character, he gets the more room to grow and develop an arc, and he takes full advantage of the meatiness of his part in this hard boiled world. His dark features and flat, baritone voice are so perfect for the cold surface of Sidney Falco, but he brings a nervous insecurity to the character that makes things that much more interesting.