Filling the gaps: Sweet Smell of Success, or, I Will Make Babies with J.J. Hunsecker Though He May Consume Them For Dinner

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WHY I HADN'T SEEN IT:

To be honest, I hadn't even heard of it until Tony Curtis died. A number of memorials took care to remind us that, hey! Tony Curtis had a dramatic career once! (I, for one, was shocked).

WHY NOW:

Of late, Twitter has been the best source for movie recommendations. I was discussing "favorite old movies" with a number of people my age, and we all gushed over All About Eve (having seen All About Eve is itself a sign of good taste, for disliking it is impossible).

More than one person then commented, "If you like Eve, then you need to meet J.J. Hunsecker, Eve's little brother!" That was the sound of heart going squee.

THE MOVIE:

The best kind of entertainment is that which lets us intrude on the lives of truly horrible people. When you add in a script as witty as Sweet Smell of Success's, you have filmic gold.

When we first meet Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), we're led to believe that he's the worst kind of horrible people: the one with the pretty face. But that's only because we've yet to meet J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).

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But no! We actually meet J.J. first! Just his eyes, plastered on the side of a truck, staring out over the grim newsyard like the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg, complete with golden glasses. The truck guides us all through New York, until we land on our antihero, Sidney Falco.

And before we are given even a moment to take measure of Falco, J.J. interrupts again:

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Falco keeps showing glimmers of what resembles a conscience, and keeps finding the wherewithal to suppress that conscience. What drives that ability to suppress seems uncomplicated at first: the ol' greenbacks. But there's something almost noble about his tireless pursuit of it. He runs around town as much to maintain his image as a shyster as to reap the profits of being a shyster.

Even still, J.J. steals his thunder. Sidney sets up petty swindles, then J.J. tries to break up his sister's true love with a guitarist named Steve. Falco hits the town without a coat so he doesn't have to pay the coat-check tip. J.J. wears his coat, and doesn't bother to tip.

You can almost see the film as a trail of one-upmanship (not unlike Jeux d'Enfants, but considerably less sentimental). After Sidney schemes to prostitute a woman he once called a friend (and probably lover), J.J. tricks poor, idiotic Steve into asking for his own funeral.

They're a pair of horror stories existing in perfect tandem. If there's one weakness in the film, it's that we don't get to see them turn their considerable manipulative skill against each other. Falco worships J.J. until the very end. It almost seems like the only honest statement he makes in the whole film is when he claims that J.J. is one of his "best friends."

J.J., meanwhile, holds Sidney in slightly lower regard than a cigarette crushed under his fine leather shoe. He doesn't love Sidney the way Sidney loves and worships him (interestingly, only Sidney and J.J.'s sister love him. Everyone else hates him.) J.J. only loves his sister and, more crucially, himself.

There is no coded homo-eroticism here, like we see in Gilda. One line sums it up: "I'd like to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." That may sound homoerotic, but look at Sidney's face:

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The line is definitely more of a case of J.J. throwing his dog a bone: "Look at you, little Sidney, you're almost as evil as me," he says, with a patronizing pat on the head.

The movie thrives on three opposing forces: how Sidney sees J.J., how J.J. sees J.J., and, most fundamentally, how Susie sees J.J. Oddly enough, the rest of the world doesn't really figure into this strange triangleSo when the movie ends, we know that this story is finished.

OTHER

-I don't think even Woody Allen has taken better advantage of the city of New York. The neon lights have never seemed quite so sinister. Like J.J's omnipresent glasses, they watch over events both seedy and magnetic.

-I'm a little stupidly in love with J.J. What does that say about me?

- I know what I said earlier about homoeroticism, and yet there is this publicity still:

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ONCOMING FIRSTS

-1st Burt Lancaster movie (and definitely not the last!)

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2 Responses to “ Filling the gaps: Sweet Smell of Success, or, I Will Make Babies with J.J. Hunsecker Though He May Consume Them For Dinner ”

  1. Great write up on this movie.  "When we first meet Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), we're led to believe that he's the worst kind of horrible people: the one with the pretty face. But that's only because we've yet to meet J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)." - that's a perfect description.

    Lancaster was absolutely chilling in this movie.  It's by far the best performance I've seen by him.  I don't know if your search for other Lancaster movies will give you as much satisfaction as this movie did.

    As for your fascination with J.J. - He's a powerful, dangerous man.  That's catnip for a lot of women.  I'm not sure you'd be able to distract him from his sister, though.  You mentioned possible homoerotic overtones, but didn't mention what I thought were clear incestual overtones, at least on J.J.'s part.

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  2. theoncominghope31 October 2011 16:13

    The reason I didn't bring up the incestuous overtones was that I can't quite get a handle on it (which is one of the joys of the film). Does he actually love her, or does he simply want to possess her? J.J. wants to possess everyone, so is this just the horrible end of that desire?

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