Unsavory Duos: J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Brimming with repellent characters, Sweet Smell of Success, released in 1957 by United Artists, centers primarily on two: powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and self-serving press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). The film’s rather straightforward plot, in a nutshell, concerns Hunsecker’s determination to put an end to his kid sister’s engagement, and Sidney’s efforts to catapult himself into the stratosphere of success by doing Hunsecker’s dirty work.

We first meet Sidney on the dark streets of a New York night as he’s desperately searching Hunsecker’s column in the early edition of the New York newspaper. When he tosses the paper into a nearby trashcan, we’re not yet certain what this means, but we do know that Sidney isn’t happy with what he saw – or didn’t see. Turns out that Hunsecker has been punishing Sidney by refusing to print – for five consecutive days now — any of the items Sidney has submitted on behalf of his clients. But more about that later.

Sidney isn’t very nice to his Girl Friday. And that’s putting it mildly.

A great deal is revealed about Sidney’s persona early on. First off, his home and his office are located in the same two-room walk-up; a rectangle piece of paper containing his name and title is neatly taped to the door. Holding down the fort is Sidney’s gal Friday, Sally (Jeff Donnell), and while it’s clear that she’s devoted to her boss (in more ways than one), Sidney treats her with indifference at best and cruelty at worst, using her as a servant-cum-sounding board-cum-whipping girl.

More of Sidney’s persona is revealed through his interaction with Sally. We watch as he chew his nails and says, sotto voce, “Watch me run the 100-yard dash with my legs cut off,” fairly reeking with desperation as he tries in vain to charm yet a dissatisfied client. And when Sally expresses sympathy, sharing her desire to do something to help him, Sidney responds, “You could help with two minutes of silence,” and nastily refers to her “meaty, sympathetic arms.” Not surprisingly, his words cause Sally to dissolve into tears, but Sidney only concession is to tell Sally, “You ought to know me by now.” He is a world unto himself – nothing else matters as much to him as he does.

Sidney is desperate to rise above his station.

Interestingly, as unpleasant as Sidney is within mere minutes of our introduction, he does manage to exhibit a soupcon of humanity when he tells Sally why he continues to suffer the indignities dished out by J.J. Hunsecker. “Hunsecker’s the golden ladder to the places I wanna get . . . Way up high where it’s always balmy,” Sidney says dreamily. “And no one snaps his fingers and says, ‘Hey, shrimp – rack the balls.’ Or, ‘Hey, mouse – go out and buy me a pack of butts.’” In this brief exchange, we learn that Sidney is seeking respect, regard, and esteem. He wants to live on an equal footing in the realm populated by the J.J. Hunseckers of the world. His problem is that he lacks the intestinal fortitude it takes to earn that respect. He’s just too sleazy.

“Match me, Sidney.”

And now to the reason why Sidney is being penalized by the great J.J. Hunsecker. It’s because J.J. had previously instructed Sidney to bust up the relationship between his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and her jazz guitar-playing boyfriend, Steve (Martin Milner) – and he’s learned that the couple is still going strong. And when Sidney tries to plead his case to Hunsecker (by going to his standing table at New York’s famed 21 Club), we quickly learn – just as we did with Sidney – just what sort of man J.J. Hunsecker is.

The expressions on the faces of J.J.’s dining companions say it all.

When we first meet Hunsecker, he’s dining with Sen. Harvey Walker (William Forrest), budding starlet Linda James (Autumn Russell), and Linda’s agent (Jay Adler). Actually, before we even see Hunsecker, we hear his voice when Sidney calls him from the restaurant lobby and asks Hunsecker to join him for a brief conversation. Hunsecker refuses, telling Sidney, “You’re dead, son – get yourself buried,” before hanging up on him. Sidney joins Hunsecker’s table, where the columnist proceeds to demonstrate the extent of his power, his self-image, and his arrogance. From hanging up on callers to the ever-present telephone on his table and rudely dismissing passersby, to constantly insulting Sidney, to blatantly revealing his understanding that the agent is only present as a cover for the affair between the senator and the starlet, Hunsecker is a non-stop wrecking machine. In fact, one character describes him as possessing “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.”

J.J. pulls out all the stops to break up his kid sister’s romance.

Later, upon Hunsecker’s direction, Sidney continues his efforts to break up Susan and Steve, using a variety of sordid methods, including pimping out a sometime girl friend to a columnist in exchange for a smear campaign that hints at Steve’s ties with the Communist Party. The duo of Hunsecker and Sidney continue their nefarious actions, but like the best laid plans of mice and men, things don’t quite turn out as they’d intended.

Upon its release, Sweet Smell of Success earned mostly rave reviews from critics; the New York Times’s A.H. Weiler praised the film’s “pulsating dialogue, brisk direction, [and] good performances,” and Philip K. Scheuer wrote in the Los Angeles Times:  “Sweet Smell may be unfair to columnists, but it will be relished by all those who seek confirmation of, and take vicarious delight in, the depravity of others.  And that includes an awful lot of us.”  And as for the two primary villains of the feature, Lancaster earned acclaim for his portrayal of the venal columnist, with Weiler judging that he gave the part “its proper modicum of callousness,” and the critic for Variety describing his role as “cunningly played.”  Likewise, Weiler’s New York Times review hailed Tony Curtis’s “polished performance” and in the Los Angeles Examiner, Hamilton wrote, “Tony Curtis proves himself as an actor of increasing stature.”

Sidney and J.J.: Unsavory duo.

Both Lancaster and Curtis, as the unsavory duo at the heart of this hard-hitting, unflinching picture, turn in what is arguably among the best work of their careers. You’ll hardly believe what they do to create these venal individuals – but I’ll wager that you won’t soon forget it.

~ by shadowsandsatin on June 22, 2017.

4 Responses to “Unsavory Duos: J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)”

  1. Like a car wreck, you can’t turn your eyes from these representatives of the worst of humanity. Performances for the ages in a film that, once watched, requires a quick and steamy shower.

  2. This is an excellent review. I have never seen this film, but I can tell you captured the spirit of it.

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

  3. You’re right – this is a powerful film you never forget. I watch this film at least once a year…even though I feel the need to take a shower afterwards.

  4. […] Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Big Heat (1953), The Big Combo (1955), and The Sweet Smell of Success […]

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