Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sweet Smell of Success

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.


I regret that I only came to this film recently. I sought it out after seeing other great motion pictures, such as All the King's Men, and A Face in the Crowd, which deal with power and celebrity in America



It is amazing how one little line can carry so much weight. Early on in this movie, Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco, a lowly press agent in New York, goes to a restaurant to ask Burt Lancaster's J. J. Hunsecker, a powerful NY columnist, for resumed plugs in his writings.  At the table, Hunsecker, holding up a cigarette, says to Falco, "Match me, Sidney." And Falco says not right now. Hunsecker, probably modeled after gossip columnist Walter Winchell, wields so much power that he can exalt or destroy anybody with his words. For example, at the table he humiliates a U.S. Senator into submission by exposing his lust for a young female wannabe sitting next to him. Falco wants, as he says later, to use Hunsecker to climb "the golden ladder to the place I want to get." So, "match me" isn't just about lighting a cigarette, it's about a fight, like a match in a ring. And, it can be a question, as "Can you match me?"  Falco can't "match" Hunsecker at this point in his cold hearted manipulations. That is why he can't respond to the request. There is a scene which shows their contrasting levels of “success:” Hunsecker receives a phone call from Falco while sitting in a luxurious room in his apartment. He is in a comfortable bathrobe while sipping coffee at a well appointed table. Falco talks from a dingy room next to a bottle of Alka Seltzer, illustrating that he is the one under pressure to please J. J.


Hunsecker has given Falco the cold shoulder because the latter hasn't quashed a budding romance between his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and a jazz musician, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Now Hunsecker's feelings toward his sister are way beyond the normal bounds of brotherly protection. He wants her for himself, and the subtext is incestual.  There is one point where Susan seems to cringe at his closeness. It may be that she represents the one part of innocence in his past life that he is reluctant to leave behind.  Hunsecker uses Falco to discredit Dallas at a distance through a rival writer. Falco lures a cigarette girl, who thinks he is attracted to her, into sleeping with the other columnist, because she has a boy in military school and needs the money. He gives the girl to the writer so that the columnist will write that Dallas is a Communist. Hunsecker also has the goods on a crooked cop, and uses him to plant marijuana on Dallas. Falco initially cringes at Hunsecker's extremes at going after Dallas, but gets on board when Hunsecker promises him the chance to write his column while he is away. Falco has descended so low in the end that when Susan is contemplating suicide by jumping off of Hunsecker's high rise apartment, (the opening credits of Mad Men comes to mind), his only concern is that he will get blamed for her death. Falco grabs her before she leaps, and Hunsecker enters, seething because Falco is holding his sister. It is then that Falco lets out of the bag that Hunsecker was framing Dallas, leading to the break with his sister. The Hunsecker-Falco relationship reminds me of the Gecko-Fox one in Wall Street, only Fox realizes the evil of his ways.

Early on in the film, Falco won't wear an overcoat, to save hatcheck tips. But, at the end, he is wearing an overcoat, just like Hunsecker, because he has graduated to that level of "success." Susan through most of the film is cloaked in the mink coat that her brother gave her, symbolizing his dominion over her. But, once she breaks with him, she walks out of his life without the weight of that coat. Also, the film is shot mostly at night. Men like Hunsecker and his minions are predators who do dark deeds, preying on the hidden secrets of others. But, when Susan walks away from the black world of her brother, it is into the dawn of a new day.

Success in this film has a smell, for sure, but it is not sweet.

Next week’s movie is Marathon Man. 

1 comment:

  1. ahh another favorite...like a cookie full of arsenic. Burt Lancaster is my old school movie star crush. RIP Martin Milner.

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