Prior to our feature, I made sure to bring a short because there was a question of a late-arriving attendee. Since the film seemed to be a pretty cutthroat story, and because I recently got a disc of ESPN’s 30-for-30 shorts including a 2013 film called Cutthroat (directed by Steven Cantor), I decided to show it. I don’t think it can be embedded, but here’s a link. Warning: Graphic content. No seriously, it’s not called “Cutthroat” for nothing – it’s about the psychological repercussions of a severe injury suffered by NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, who had his jugular vein sliced on the ice by a skate.
Sweet Smell of Success is a study in two relationships. The first is that between Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco, an unscrupulous press agent in New York, and Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, a New York gossip columnist. Hunsecker probably wouldn’t put it that way, but that’s essentially what he does. Basically, Falco’s job is to charge money to people who need good press, then give “tips” to Hunsecker, who will then write them up in his column.
As the film opens, it has become clear that Hunsecker has taken to refusing to print Falco’s tips, which really is a bit of a drag on business. If you can’t produce the column-inches you’re being paid for (“It’s a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it”), people stop paying you. The thrust of the film, of course, is why Hunsecker has frozen Falco out.
And that goes to the second relationship of the film, that between Hunsecker and his little sister Susan – played by Susan Harrison, who was so beautiful in this film she went on to do…basically nothing. I don’t get it. Anyway, J.J. has a very controlling, very creepy relationship on his side. He has a full-size portrait of her on his desk, for crying out loud, and you’d not be surprised to learn that he had incestuous thoughts about her. Certainly nothing of the sort is implied, but the latitude to make such an interpretation is there.
And the big problem is that Susan has fallen in love with a boy named Dallas, who happens to be a jazz guitarist. J.J. is not at all happy about this turn of events, and he has tasked Falco with the job of breaking them up. Obviously, this sort of thing must be done delicately, and as the film opens, Falco has had little success – to the point that Susan tells him about their recent engagement, feeling out Falco to see if the vibes she is getting from J.J. that he doesn’t like Dallas are legit. Falco, the double-talker that he is, assures her that they are not, but faced with deteriorating access to his columnist he has to set a plan in motion to break these two up, and quick.
After a false start or two, Falco manages to plant a fake tip (in somebody else’s column, not J.J.’s, of course) about Dallas being a Red and a reefer smoker. Shocking! Of course, having these unsubstantiated rumors break up the relationship would be far too simple (and unlikely) a plan. It goes deeper, and involves having J.J. actually expend effort and influence to salvage Dallas’ career – a gesture Falco is certain Dallas will reject, hopefully leading to Susan breaking up with him of her own accord. Things go mostly as planned – in a confrontation in front of Susan Dallas does reject J.J.’s efforts and manages to insult him as well, leading to what would appear to be an irreparable rift between the two men. Seeing this and knowing J.J.’s vindictive personality, Susan breaks up with Dallas for his own good – but she already suspects the fix is in.
Unfortunately, Hunsecker’s pride can’t leave it at that. Even though he got what he wanted, the insult from Dallas was enough that he orders Falco to plant some marijuana on him and rat him out to a local dirty cop. Falco wants no part of this, but faced with his access to a columnist drying up he would seem to have no choice. The plant works, and the dirty cops beat the living crap out of Dallas, because apparently that’s what 1950s cops do to 1950s reefer smokers.
Susan catches wind of this and knows that her brother is involved. She confronts Falco to confirm their involvement, and learning that her fears are true, she tries in her passion to commit suicide by throwing herself off of the penthouse balcony. Happily, Falco catches her before she is able to, and she resolves instead to leave her brother’s care forever and return to Dallas. And this state of affairs, of course, is not OK with J.J., who takes out his revenge on Falco (because this whole thing was totally Falco’s idea, right?) by tipping off the cops that Falco planted the marijuana. We leave the film with Falco getting beaten by his own dirty cop and Susan walking off into the sunrise.
The plot really does unfold quite well, and it’s driven more by the psychology of the characters than their violent natures. It’s refreshing that, a few police beatings aside, the cutthroat nature of this film doesn’t devolve into the wanton violence and death that would probably pervade such a film today. The screenplay by Clifford Odets, moreover, is fantastic and has witty line after witty line in the same way, say, a ’30s movie like The Thin Man does. (Apparently a minor character in Diner speaks only in lines from Sweet Smell of Success!) Some of my favorites:
What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?
That’s fish four days old. I won’t buy it!
The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.
You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.
Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!
Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?
Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit.
What you do now, Mr. Falco, is crow like a hen. You have just laid an egg.
Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney – you may wanna get back onboard.
Anyhow, a great film with a few really nice exterior shots in NYC, even if the majority of it comes at night. And of course a staid warning against incestuous, smothering love, if such a thing is needed.