Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen that includes almost no physical violence at all; it’s just funny enough to keep you from slitting your wrists afterwards, but with humor so cold and sharp you could use it for a razor blade. Anyone who thinks of the 1950s as a Norman Rockwell era of innocence should be sat down in front of this paean to cutthroat cynicism and soul-destroying ambition, then given a nice mug of warm milk and a hug.
Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, two good-looking actors with charisma to burn, have never been less attractive. It was a brave choice by both of them (and the studio was opposed to Curtis taking the role of smoothly sniveling Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s had all the empathy, dignity, and morality burnt out of him by a lifetime of humiliations), but I think especially by Lancaster. Sidney Falco is at least occasionally pitiable, but Lancaster’s Walter Winchell-esque monster J.J. Hunsecker is one of the least redeemable characters ever committed to film. (See his inclusion on the AFI’s list of all-time movie villains, although that is, now I look at it, one terrible list — if you think Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the “villains” of Bonnie and Clyde, you missed the whole damn point. And “Man” in Bambi as an all-time villain? Please. But that’s a whole separate post).