The Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, 10/10

Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis star, along with Martin Milner and Susan Harrison. Media critic J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) can’t stand the thought of his sister Susan (Harrison) marrying lowly musician Steve Dallas (Milner). So, Hunsacker sicks underlying/press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) on Steve. Sally (Jeff Donnell) is Falco’s mousie secretary.

Milner looks a little too clean-cut to be a hipster; “he shouldn’t get mixed up with a bimbo at his age” says Steve’s manager Frank D’Angelo (Sam Levene); Frank is also Sidney’s uncle. Susan meets up with Steve in back of his club. Sidney comes literally “snooping around.” Sidney is using ‘cigarette girl’ Rita (Barbara Nichols) for more clandestine purposes. In any case, we learn that Susan and Steve want to marry.

“You’re dead, get yourself buried” J.J. tells Sidney on the phone; apparently he hasn’t taken care of the ‘situation’ with Susan. J.J. isn’t the most diplomatic of hosts “Why is it everything you say sounds like a threat?” says the Senator at the 21 Club. Lt. Harry Kelly (Emile Meyer) sees J.J. and Sidney; after trading a slew of ethnic insults, J.J. concludes “I love this dirty town.”

With a heap of prodding by J.J., Sidney makes the blackmail rounds, err, the club scene. Leo Bartha (Lawrence Dobkin) gets fingered for his cigarette girl contretemps; but he and his wife successfully blow off Sidney. Uh-oh, undeturred, Sidney recycles Rita to get fixed up with another columnist, Otis Elwell (David White), at Sidney’s place. It’s really a ploy to smear Steve. “what am I, a bowl of fruit?” Rita replies; but, she’s desperate, and goes along. The deal is to sell a bunch of junk about Steve to J.J.

Meanwhile, Sidney, feeling pleased with himself, tells J.J. that Steve is toast “Starting today you can play marbles with his eyeballs.” The dirt on Steve so far has to do with an alleged marijuana haze and commie sympathies. Sidney goes over the town gossip with Mary (Edith Atwater), J.J.’s secretary; there’s some dope about a comedian, Herbie Temple (Joe Frazier). Temple and his guy don’t know what he’s up to–me neither. Steve’s more than a little peeved about the smear campaign; he’s already been fired.

J.J. is actually worried that the story will be traced back to Sidney, regardless of Otis’ role. Anyway, Susan goes to see her brother; “anything that touches you touches me” he insists. She wants him to get Steve back his job. He goes along with her, a tactical concession; now he’s twisting Sidney. “What has this boy got that Susie likes?” he asks. Now the would-be happy couple go to see J.J. It’s pretty intense having all the main characters together. Steve gets in some good ones: “You’ve got more twists than a barrel full of pretzels!”

Well, Susan agrees never to see “that boy” again. And, no job for Steve. J.J.’s not satisfied, of course, he feels insulted by Steve standing up to him–“I want to that boy taken apart.” Even Sidney thinks that’s nuts “You’re blind, Mr. Magoo!” In a cafe, Steve and Susan talk quietly; he figures that he’s done with her, anyway. Oddly, Steve is back playing at the club. The Lieutenant has been chosen to bust Steve for possession (we assume some weeds been planted on him), but the cops turn the tables on Sidney. Nonetheless, they pick up Steve.

Sidney gets summoned by J.J. But only Susan’s there. Frank called her with the news that Steve’s in the hospital. She’s got a convincing bit of blackmail to throw at him, though: he’ll get blamed for her suicide. “Don’t be no square” But she tries to jump off the balcony. J.J. shows up unexpectedly. Here’s three people who can’t stand or trust each other. Both guys are lying about Steve and her; J.J. actually calls the Lieutenant to sell out Sidney for framing Steve. Now it’s Sidney’s turn to get arrested. Susan walks off, presumably back to the now free Steve. Big comeuppance for J.J. He loses Sidney and his sister.

Wow, this is incredible stuff. I really can’t think how it could be better. Above all, great characters and performances, and not only from the leads, but from the host of minor characters as well. Lancaster makes a superb outwardly-respectable villian. Milner’s earnestness is put to good use here; Harrison is so authentic as a miserable, dependent beauty. Curtis is a surprise as a complete slimeball–who’s nonetheless not altogether evil.

Lancaster’s character is so thoroughly corrupt that we sense he believes his own narcissistic bombast and self-righteousness. The atmosphere, despite a lot of swanky sets, is universally down-and-dirty. Pacing builds momentum, and sustains suspense; we’re drawn in–we hang on. A late film noir that doesn’t miss a beat.

Farmermouse had enough DeSoto and Checker cab rides to start his own fleet. Ten numbers from The Chico Hamilton Quartet. 10/10.

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