TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir

SSSmell5TCM has gone nuts for noir in November! I could barely flip through this month’s TCM Now Playing Guide without landing on a page with a first-rate noir offering. My choice was a tough one – My Name is Julia Ross (1945) was a worthy contendah! – but my final pick is Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (in what is, for me, the best role of his career). From the moment you hear the opening strains of the film’s jazzy score, you know you’re in for a wild ride. Make room in your schedule and mark your calendar – it’s airing on TCM November 13th, and it’s an appointment you don’t want to miss.

The plot:

J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), an all-powerful newspaper columnist, has an unnatural fixation on his kid sister, Susan (Susan Harrison). When Susan falls hard and heavy for local musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), J.J. is willing to stop at nothing to put the kibosh on their relationship, including engaging a sleazy press agent, Sidney Falco (Curtis), to do his dirty work.

In this scene, we learn who Sidney Falco really is.

In this scene, we learn who Sidney Falco really is.

Favorite scene:

Sweet Smell has so many memorable scenes – almost too many to name a favorite. But I will select the scene in the beginning of the film that does such an outstanding job of introducing us to Sidney Falco. He arrives at his office where, in a back room, he also makes his home. From his exchange with his assistant Sally (Jeff Donnell), we learn that Sidney is almost broke (he instructs Sally to pay his rent but not the bill from his tailor), and he’s a smooth and easy liar, as he demonstrates when he explains to a client why he still hasn’t been mentioned in J.J. Hunsecker’s column. We also get a key to Sidney’s ambitions when he tells Sally that his goal is to get “way up high, where it’s always balmy. And nobody snaps his fingers and says, ‘Hey, shrimp – rack the balls.’” Finally, another illumination of Sidney’s personality (and his financial situation) is neatly provided at the scene’s end when he heads out of the office and Sally reminds him to take his coat. Sidney declines: “And leave a tip in every hatcheck room in town?”

Favorite quotes:

This movie has memorable quotes coming out of its proverbial ears. Who could pick just one?

“The next time you want information, don’t scratch for it like a dog. Just ask for it – like a man.” Steve Dallas (Martin Milner)

Susan wants to know, "How can you love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops?"

Susan wants to know, “How can you love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops?”

“Who could love a man that makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?” Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison)

“You’re dead, son – get yourself buried.” J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

“You’re a real rascal, Sidney. You’re an amusing boy, but you haven’t got a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You’re so immersed in the theology of making a fast buck.” Mary (Edith Atwater)

“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

“Son, I don’t relish shooting mosquitoes with elephant guns. Suppose you just shuffle along and call it a day.” J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

“Why don’t you start growing up? Start thinking with your head instead of your hips.” Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis)

"I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid."

“I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid.”

“I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of the switch I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.” J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

Other stuff:

Sweet Smell was produced by Burt Lancaster’s production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, which he formed with his agent, Harold Hecht, and film producer James Hill. (Incidentally, Hill was the fifth husband of Rita Hayworth – they were married from 1958 to 1961, and like Hayworth, Hill later suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.)

Originally, Orson Welles was reportedly considered for the part of J.J. Hunsecker and Ernest Borgnine was sought for the role of the cop that was played in the film by Emile Meyer. Also, Robert Vaughn was initially cast in the role of Steve Dallas, but was drafted into the army before filming began.

Larry, we hardly knew ye.

David White, making his movie debut in Sweet Smell, has a small part in the film as a particularly slimy columnist. David played Larry Tate in the popular TV show Bewitched. (Larry Tate was NEVER like this!)

Also making her film debut was Susan Harrison, who played J.J. Hunsecker’s sister. In addition to Sweet Smell, Harrison is best known to Twilight Zone fans as the ballerina in the episode entitled “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” (According to People magazine, Harrison is also the mother of Darva Conger who, in 2000, got married on the reality show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?)

Another Twilight Zone performer, Barbara Nichols, was seen in the film as Sidney’s would-be girlfriend, Rita. In the Twilight Zone, Nichols starred in the episode called “Twenty-Two,” in which she portrayed an actress who has a recurring nightmare while recuperating in a hospital.

The character of J.J. Hunsecker is based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.

Watch for the disappearing pad in this scene.

Watch for the disappearing pad in this scene.

Watch for this goof: Near the film’s end, Hunsecker and Steve Dallas have a verbal skirmish in the theater where Hunsecker does his radio show. Right after Hunsecker says, “Well son – we might have to call this game on account of darkness,” he pulls a small pad and pen from his inside jacket pocket, and has them in his hand for the next minute or so. But when Hunsecker dismisses Steve (“Here’s your head, what’s your hurry?”) (Har!) and turns to climb the stairs of the stage, there’s nothing in Hunsecker’s hands.

A small, uncredited part of a wealthy matron appearing on Hunsecker’s radio show is played by Queenie Smith. Smith was a veteran of numerous television programs from the early 1950s through the late 1970s. She also appeared with Lancaster in his film debut, The Killers (1946), playing the hotel maid who is named as the beneficiary of the insurance policy owned by Lancaster’s character, The Swede.

Sam Levene, who played Sidney’s uncle and Steve Dallas’s manager, is another vet from The Killers. In that film, he played The Swede’s boyhood friend.

Edith Atwater was married for more than 20 years to Kent Smith.

Edith Atwater was married for more than 20 years to Kent Smith.

J.J. Hunsecker’s secretary was played by Edith Atwater, who was married to actor Kent Smith from 1962 until Smith’s death in 1985.

Keep your eyes peeled and don’t blink: In the first scene of the movie, Sidney gets a newspaper, a cup of coffee and a hot dog, and stops at a sidewalk eaterie to peruse J.J. Hunsecker’s latest column. The cashier at the eaterie is John Fiedler, who was seen in such films as Twelve Angry Men (1957) and The Odd Couple (1968), and was the voice of Winnie the Pooh.

Believe me when I tell you  – this is one heck of a movie. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss it. And if you have, you are going to LOVE seeing it again. November 13th. TCM. Be there.

You only owe it to yourself.

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~ by shadowsandsatin on November 2, 2013.

14 Responses to “TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir”

  1. Sweet Smell of Success is an excellent choice for TCM pick of the month. I don’t know if it’s one of “The Essentials,” but if not, it should be. The performances are all top notch, the script is razor sharp and the film’s look really captures the time, place and scenario. Love this one.

    • Thank, Eve — I think it should be one of The Essentials, too; it certainly is deserving of the spotlight, and I would love to hear Robert Osborne’s thoughts about it.

    • Thanks. I will keep it in my bank of films to see. I have the feeling–oh, yes, of course I’ve seen it. Is that the one with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis? Or am I mixing it up with another one that the THIS channel (you don’t need a paid TV sub to get it) was showing?

      • Yes — Sweet Smell definitely stars Lancaster and Curtis. I can’t, off-hand, think of another one that they starred in — although they both were in Criss Cross (but Curtis only had a tiny, non-speaking, part).

  2. This is one of my all-time faves, and I’m so happy you’re featuring it on your blog. It deserves more attention than it receives, because it’s just as relevant today as when it was first released.

    I love how Curtis and Lancaster play off each other here. Curtis doesn’t shirk in Lancaster;s presence; he seems to thrive on it. This movie would be good without Curtis, but he makes it great.

    I could go on and on about this gritty, brilliant film…

    • Thanks, Ruth! I totally agree with everything you said — Curtis really brought his A+ game to his performance. I hadn’t seen this film in a while before I watched it again for this post — in fact, I had no intention of watching the whole thing; I just wanted to grab some quotes and check out a few scenes. But I couldn’t stop watching it, and enjoyed it more than ever before!

  3. An absolutely mesmerizing film, and your article perfectly highlights the sordid joys of the story. Excellent choice.

  4. Ohh this is one of my all-time favourite films, I’ll be watching it for sure! Lancaster and Curtis are so great together, and the whole film is incredibly stylish and intense.

  5. Not much else to add here except I think Susan Harrison, especially near the end, had impressive screen presence. She’s very vulnerable, to the point of collapse, yet very sexy in a European art film sort of way. She adds a lot to the movie.

  6. Good one. When looking at Burt’s best, you absolutely couldn’t live without this movie. It really sticks with you and is a big discovery for those who haven’t seen it. If i only had a nickel for all the times I say “match me Sidney” in Burt’s voice.

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