J.J.’s stranglehold over his sister is destined to aid the immoral man’s wounded pride. But phony Falco soon begins to learn that his shady dealings drag him down to the depths of moral depravity; others refuse to sink to his level, even when they suffer from his libelous writing. Every man has his price, as Sidney soon discovers, and he isn’t afraid to misuse his friends and acquaintances, such as cigarette girl Rita (Barbara Nichols) with her good looks to swindle and coerce his rivals. Falco’s rise and fall is only amongst the corrupt, never truly breaking free from his greed and ambition - his character doesn’t get to travel full circle, instead staying in his unending routine of base decisions.
The dialogue is smart, shrewd, quick and hilariously cynical, and the subject matter is incredibly mature, despite being shrouded in 1957-appropriate insinuation. Curtis rattles off his lines with conviction and fervor, while Lancaster matches him with his crooked, wily ways. They both use words to convince everyone they’re the good guys, while simultaneously, sleazily working columns and associates to prove the opposite. Both leading men combat for the top spot of villainy, leaving the audience with no one to side with. Perhaps it’s best to watch as each struggles to rise in power while sinking to the bottom of human decency. They toy with the lives of the commoners, twisting around words and ideas until they come out ahead – and not just in the lead; Hunsecker is only content when his enemies have not only lost, but have also been destroyed.
Smooth jazz and blaring trumpets oversee the conniving proceedings, with rapid percussion to increase the suspense. Sweet Smell of Success, with its sarcastic title, also offers up some of the best quotes: “Mr. Hunsecker, you've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!” which sums up Lancaster’s character; “I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic,” says it all about Sidney; betting is referred to as “compensation for the marginal life we lead”; Falco is described as the “Boy with the ice cream face” and refers to his break-up scheme as “the cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”; and J.J. complains about Falco’s lighter tone - “You sound happy Sidney. Why should you be happy when I’m not?” Gordon Gekko doesn’t have anything on the unscrupulous activities of these publicity moguls.
- Mike Massie