The holiday season ’tis upon us! I’ll dispense with all the usual festive imagery—if you’re old enough to read this you know what “the holiday season” brings spiritually and aesthetically. Instead, I’ll jump straight to the point, and the personal holiday tradition that’s the subject of this article. I don’t know how it happened, but, several years ago, the time around Thanksgiving and Christmas somehow became the time every year I watch Sweet Smell of Success. It isn’t a Christmas or Thanksgiving movie; there’s nothing particularly uplifting about it (hell, there’s nothing uplifting about it); but for some reason, when the days get shorter and colder and the world is bedecked with garland, colored lights, candy canes and candles, it’s time to watch Sweet Smell. This year will be a special viewing: it’s the sixtieth anniversary of the film’s release. Sadly, for the world, the film has become more prescient and relevant than ever; luckily for me—and anyone watching it—it’s still an amazing movie, no matter how miserable the political climate may be.
The star of the show is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who’s almost as big a scumbag as you’ll ever meet. A second-rate PR agent who runs his business out of his apartment, he’s begun losing clients left-and-right lately, and if his fortunes don’t turn soon, he’ll be broke within the year. That run of bad luck has to do with the fact that Sidney can’t get any of his clients mentioned by J.J. Hunsecker, the most popular and influential gossip columnist in the country. For politicians, entertainers, and everymen alike, J.J.’s word is law: movies and musicians live or die by his opinion, and congressmen and judges kowtow like greedy children to get his endorsement. J.J. used to plug Sidney’s clients—the men have known one another for years—but the recent ill-will between them has to do with the fact that Hunsecker is the biggest scumbag you’ll ever meet. His meek appearance, keen observations, and charming demeanor hide the fact that he’s a bigoted, nationalist, arrogant psychopath who’ll use his power to destroy anyone who crosses him, and Sidney crossed him big time. See, J.J.’s beloved little sister, Susie, has recently begun dating *gasp* a jazz musician named Steve Dallas. Though it’s implied that there’s some racial element at play (Steve’s bandmates are all black), J.J. explicitly hates reefer smoking commie pinkos, and nothing says “reefer smoking commie pinko” like “jazz musician.” Being a part of the entertainment world, Sidney was tasked with sabotaging the young lovers’ relationship, but his last remaining shreds of moral fiber prevented him from breaking up two young kids in love, and now he’s paying the price. With his client list dwindling and the bills piling up, J.J. gives Sidney one last chance to do his bidding—things have gotten serious, and there may be wedding bells in Susie and Steve’s future. If Sidney can come through, the rewards will be more plentiful than he ever imagined. If he fails, though, J.J. makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he’ll be utterly annihilated.
Although J.J. Hunsecker was intended as a potshot at Walter Winchell, he’s a very familiar figure in today’s political landscape. An articulate talking head with legions of mindless followers who spouts jingoistic sentiments while ruthlessly dissecting anyone on the wrong side of the political spectrum (or the wrong side of him), he’s like a more charming, more attractive version of Bill O’Reilly, or a less insane iteration of Glenn Beck. He’s the flesh-and-blood personification of a million doxing internet trolls, all wrapped up in a bespectacled, non-threatening package. Were it not for the period cars and clothes, a first-time viewer could be forgiven for thinking that this was a story written for the modern age. In between decrying those who don’t fully, truly respect America or her flag, J.J. waxes poetic about ruining the lives of people who’ve crossed him, whether those slights were real or imagined. His introductory scene finds him incongruously hanging out with celebrities and the political elite at a hip club, where he hijacks the party by idly exposing the dirty secrets of everyone in the room. It’s the same sort of petty cruelty that fuels the darkest corners of the internet. J.J.’s like if Donald Trump had a psychic love child with Gamergate and it grew up to get a job at Fox News. The key difference is that, since these are all imaginary people, you’re not necessarily shuddering sympathetically as J.J. rampages through New York. Especially considering that, other than Steve, most of his targets are pieces of garbage anyway, there’s a sort of warped-but-uncomfortable glee in seeing just how low he’ll sink next, before he surprises you and sinks even lower. J.J. and Sidney are a pair of guys who break bad, and then just keep breaking.
Part of the character’s staying power comes not just from the concept but the execution, and that’s where Burt Lancaster comes into the picture. Wearing Malcolm X glasses and baggy suits and perpetually sounding like he’s stuffed up, Lancaster gives J.J. a surreptitiously sinister quality in a performance that hasn’t lost any of its edge over time. (In a nice aesthetic touch, director Alexander Mackendrick occasionally manipulates the lighting in scenes so that J.J.’s glasses cast shadows over his eyes, making his face look like a skull). Lancaster makes J.J. charming, nondescript, usually quiet and, when he isn’t tearing into people, seemingly fun to be around. Superficially, he’s the least likely candidate for the role of “terrifying badass,” but as the film goes on, J.J. becomes progressively more terrifying, to the point that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Michael Corleone or Hannibal Lecter as one of cinema’s all-time great villains (the AFI concurred, naming him the 35th best villain on their “100 Heroes and Villains” list). J.J.’s not just dangerous because you never see him coming, but because he doesn’t need guns or thugs to ruin people’s lives (although he does have crooked cops in his pocket when brutality is called for); he can wipe out entire careers, reputations, and even lives with just the stroke of a typewriter key, and he has zero compunction about it. Though his love for Susie hints at a glimmer of humanity somewhere inside of him, it’s completely superficial—he’s a man utterly without conscience. Even that relationship is tainted—there are hints throughout the film that his protectiveness stems from someplace other than brotherly love, making him all the creepier.
Adding to the film’s timelessness is a script that begs for a quote-along. Other than Susie and Steve, no one in Sweet Smell talks like a real person—rather, they talk in a hyper-stylized jazz lingo that mimics J.J.’s writing style, as though he himself is penning the movie. The results are such self-consciously whiz-bang exchanges such as:
J.J.: What’s this boy got that Suzie likes?
Sidney: Integrity. Acute, like indigestion.
J.J.: …what does that mean, integrity?
Sidney’s Secretary: You make a living. Where do you want to get?
Sidney: Way up high, where it’s always balmy… In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.
Or J.J.’s immortal assessment of Sidney’s character once the latter man has finally gotten on board to destroy Steve:
J.J.: I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.
The film’s got plenty more going for it, from its schizophrenic jazz score to its arresting black and white cinematography, which captures the aesthetics and brooding energy of the New York nightlife at the end of the 1950s. To indulge here more would be a disservice to the film, though. It’s as relevant—and, more importantly, enjoyable—today as it was sixty years ago. As the sleigh bells ring and the eggnog flows, consider popping Sweet Smell of Success into your own DVD player this year, and perhaps give birth to a new holiday tradition of your own.