Noir and seedy press agents with trilbies and oversized cameras are a beautiful match. The iconography presented by later efforts to replicate this blend are nice offerings of a time that was so thoroughly well utilised by the movies. The Public Eye with Joe Pesci shows the visual enthusiasm best of all with its poster. Cigar chomping hacks with a knack for wrinkling out a story. Sweet Smell of Success hopes for the same effects, and with Burt Lancaster in a leading role alongside Tony Curtis, it is hard not to feel some level of comfort and safety with his capable hands guiding a story of sinister dealings. The hustle and bustle of the streets in these opening moments are unavoidably brilliant, bringing life to the darker streets of this city.
Life is the necessity to Sweet Smell of Success. It is how J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) gauges his success. His ability to sway the opinion of the public is his greatest asset. The manipulation he displays over the readers he craves is reflected rather nicely in his inability to stop Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). What Sweet Smell of Success infers rather rationally is that those who do hold sway in the public discourse are only so powerful. There are still those, like Dallas, who defy the natural order Hunsecker has built up for himself. That subsequent breakdown of his ego and self-confidence is the driving force of Alexander Mackendrick’s direction. Hunsecker is a man who believes the world is his oyster, and with confident good looks and a knack for speaking down to those trying to help him, he certainly has the characteristics of an ego-fuelled man soon to fall from his high horse.
But that is the delight of Sweet Smell of Success. Seeing someone sleazy have their comeuppance, not get their own way, and fall a peg or two. It is satisfying not just because Lancaster embodies it so well, but because his intentions are self-preserving and buoyed by a definite, recognisable talent. He has held onto his column for so long, and he loses not just his passion, but his standing in a community of sleazy backstabbers. He himself is a backstabber, but too hot to handle for those that have put up with his arrogance and sleaze. Sweet Smell of Success defines that with his braggadocios nature, his self-confidence is deployed often and with great success. Mackendrick depends on Lancaster so frequently, as all the best scenes within this noir flick feature Lancaster in some great capacity.
His manipulative nature is not just the focus, but the leading terror found within Sweet Smell of Success. Manipulation on-screen only works if those that are under the thumb of the sleazebag at the centre are of interest too. That they are, and Mackendrick goes to great lengths in making sure the likes of Tony Curtis and Susan Harrison are established and well utilised throughout. They may play second fiddle to Lancaster’s performance, but they are the most important parts of his performance. Vital work is put in to make Hunsecker play the part of a controlling newspaper writer, and there is clear success found in this Lancaster-led noir classic.