Vintage Movies: “Sweet Smell Of Success”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.


Sweet Smell Of Success (1957, 96 minutes)

A hefty bundle of newspapers skids onto a Manhattan sidewalk next to a newstand, thrown from a truck that barely stops. It’s the early edition of tomorrow’s New York Globe, and Sidney Falco can hardly wait to get his hands on one. “Keep your sweatshirt on, Sidney!” says the newsboy. “Hey, you want a hot item for Hunsecker’s column? Two loaves got fresh with a baker!” Ignoring the jibe, Falco eagerly scans the daily column of J.J. Hunsecker, then slams the paper into the nearest trash can in disgust.

Falco (Tony Curtis) is a bottom-feeding New York publicist whose name appears on a piece of cardboard taped to his office door. A mention by Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) can make or break a career, but none of Falco’s customers has made the column in more than a week.

The struggling publicist has to put on his dancing shoes when he bumps into a client at the front door of 21. “What a coincidence running into the very man you’ve been ducking all week,” says the local bandleader. “What do you do for that hundred a week, fall out of bed? It’s a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it,” he tells his date. “No more you don’t!” retorts Falco. “What is this, showing off for the girl?” As the bandleader walks out the front door he says, “He’s clever, he knows when he’s being fired.” Falco’s limp rejoinder hangs in the air like cigarette smoke: “If you’re funny, I’m a pretzel!”

Falco tracks down Hunsecker at Toots Shor, sitting with a U.S. senator. “Mr. Falco is a man of 40 faces,” Hunsecker says by way of introduction. “The face I really like is the dependable chap—nothing he won’t do for you in a pinch. He’s fully up to all the tricks of his slimy trade. Match me, Sidney,” he says, holding out a cigarette. Hunsecker has asked Falco to break up a budding romance between his sister, Susie, and Steve Dallas, the jazz guitarist for the Chico Hamilton Quintet. But he’s failed in his task.

Out in the street, Falco’s about to drop a bombshell. “You promised to do it,” says Hunsecker. “Be warned, son, it’s later than you think.” Falco replies: “It’s later than you think! That boy has asked her to marry him.” “Susie told you this?” asks Hunsecker. “Uh huh. She’ll discuss it with you at breakfast,” says Falco. “That means you’ve got a plan. Can you deliver?” asks Hunsecker. “Tonight. The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river,” says Falco, already mulling over how to plant marijuana in Dallas’ overcoat. “Don’t be a two-time loser, Sidney. The penalty could be severe,” warns Hunsecker as his limo peels away from the curb, spraying the gutter’s contents on Falco’s trouser cuffs.