Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a hungry Manhattan press agent desperate to curry favor with influential columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster.
Much of Sweet Smell of Success is brilliant.
The crisp black-and-white location photography captures Manhattan’s gleaming, noisy, crowded, thumping heart. The characters worm their way through teaming sidewalks. They finagle deals inside the packed 21 Club and Toots Shor’s. They drink coffee in closet-sized diners.
Curtis convinces as Sidney. His pretty face, quick wit, and ample charm serving as a mask, one he only drops to those below him in status.
Opposite Curtis, Lancaster towers as Hunsecker. Filmed from low angles, he looms with broad shoulders and a jaw always tensed, like a volcano ready to erupt. His glasses add to this illusion. His unfocused eyes seeing through everyone.
The dialog crackles. Before we even see Hunsecker, we hear him on the phone telling Sidney, “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried,” before hanging up. Later, when Sidney’s seeking to sooth Hunsecker about a plan, he says, “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”
But all this brilliance serves a tired melodramatic plot.
Hunsecker’s sister wants to marry a jazz musician. He won’t allow it and recruits Sidney to break up the couple. Sydney plants a smear item about the musician. This works, but Hunsecker isn’t satisfied. He offers Sidney a deal he can’t refuse to destroy the musician. This, of course, causes a rift between Hunsecker and his sister, with Sidney as collateral damage.
It reads better than it plays, with the doe-eyed sister ever suffering while her self-righteous boyfriend can’t see past his own ego. The pat ending betrays the cynical veneer and feels unsatisfying. People like Hunsecker and Sidney don’t get what’s coming to them. They get what they want. But it’s never enough.