Press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is feeling stressed after buying the evening edition of the newspaper that runs the gossip column of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) only to find that, yet again, his clients have not been included in the stories. That's been five days in a row Hunsecker has done this, as Sidney's secretary Sally (Jeff Donnell) is keen to point out, but he doesn't need reminding. The columnist's beef is that he asked Sidney to break up the relationship between Hunsecker's sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and clean cut jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a love affair he didn't approve of, and now Sidney must be at his most weasely to get back into his good books...
A flop on first release, The Sweet Smell of Success not only turns sour in this adaptation of Ernest Lehman's novelette, here scripted by him and Clifford Odets, but might never have been particularly fragrant in the first place. Populated with characters whose personality traits range from the arrogant to the venal to the plain desperate, the film was blessed with the snappiest dialogue of many films of its era, delivered with conviction by an unbeatable cast. At the time nobody would have believed a perceived lightweight, pretty boy movie star like Curtis would have this performance in him, but he confounded the critics.
Curtis is matched ("Match me, Sidney") by Lancaster, who doesn't appear until around twenty minutes in but whose menacing influence is felt in every frame regardless. Sidney and the Walter Winchell-like Hunsecker are perfect for each other, with the press agent willing to walk over anyone to get to the heights of his sleazy profession, and the columnist already there, king of the mountain and casting his searing gaze upon the lesser mortals as fuel to his gossip. But if he has a weakness, it's the incestuous hold he has over Susan, and he finds by the end he cannot control her heart.
New York is like a vision of Hell in this film, brilliantly photographed by expert cinematographer James Wong Howe in vivid, high contrast black and white, where the morally pure like Susan and Steve are out of their depth and swimming in an ocean full of sharks. Some of those sharks may be scavengers, but even the biggest fish are tainted by their association to showbusiness here, with Hunsecker fraternising with politicians who know he can be good for their campaigns - and their mistresses. Sidney operates on a lower rung of this ladder, but is crucial all the same, and manipulates those who depend on him, like a cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) for her story, and is not above blackmail.
Shot through with sinister atmosphere, Sweet Smell of Success begins to make the skin crawl long before the finale where the main characters receive their comeuppance of sorts. But because of this, it may make you wonder if the film is quite as jet black cynical as its reputation: after all, it places great store in the unsullied nature of the two lovebirds' relationship. No matter how down and dirty Sidney and Hunsecker get, with even a trumped up marijuana possession charge against Steve threatening to break them up (J.J. has the police in his pocket as well), the romance is never treated as anything but wholesome. It's this faith that may bring Susan to the brink of suicide, but also gives her something to believe in, and us too, to illustrate that these powerful, dangerous characters trying to bring them down won't get it all their own way. It is they who we remember, however, two of the most keenly portrayed bad guys of the fifties. Superbly jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein.