TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir
TCM 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.
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.
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?”
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)
“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. With a simple flick of the switch I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.” J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)
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.
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 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.
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.