“I love this dirty town.” The first and only time that Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker drops the cynical twist from his clenched smile and allows genuine appreciation cross his face in Sweet Smell of Success is when he drops that line while strolling down the nighttime streets of Broadway. It’s not a proclamation or even necessarily a compliment. He loves this town because he rules it from his tower of newsprint and television, making and breaking careers with a line and starving enemies into submission by conspicuous neglect.
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (a master of deftly-played character comedy with an edge of social satire for Britain’s Ealing Studios), written by rising screenwriter Ernest Lehmann (drawing from a career as a New York press agent) and rewritten by the acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets (who is credited with tightening the action and giving the dialogue its edge), Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most lacerating and vicious visions of the predatory urban world in the American cinema, and one accomplished without a single murder, gunshot or pulled knife. This is Broadway Noir, the dark side of the intersection of show business, politics and social register in the era when newspaper columnists and television personalities held sway over a nation and not just a slice of the demographic.
New York is the world for J.J. Hunsecker and he rules this with an iron fist and a vindictive ferocity, hovering over the film long before Lancaster even appears on screen. Hunsecker is a classier, more cultivated version of Walter Winchell for late-fifties Broadway culture and Lancaster is smooth, silky and subtle, controlled and controlling in social situations, using silence and the threat of his voice behind the words as weapons in the power struggle of conversations. There’s not an exchange where J.J. fails to remind his listener what he has on them, and what they owe him.