Mackendrick previous films - Man In a White Suit, Lady Killers, hint at the directors capacity for cynicism and tackled immorality humorously. In The Sweet Smell of Success Mackendrick's team, including cinematographer James Wong Howe, writers Cliford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and co-stars and executive producers Tony Curtis and Bert Lancaster scratch the surface of New York-vicious with a razor blade and expose a malignant pit. It's an amazing film which, unsurprisingly, failed to win over mainstream audiences.
The film is a pacey flight through snappy, venomous dialog, New York's terrible beauty, and Lancaster and Curtis at their finest, pitch perfect and lock-jawed in mutual loathing.
JJ Hunseckers (Lancaster) is based on real life celebrity media commentator Walter Winchell, who introduced the world to syndicated gossip and happily used his influence to destroy the careers of people he disliked. Lancaster's JJ is one of cinemas greatest monsters: sinister and heartless, his only meaningful relationship - with his sister Susan - is controlling and psychologically creepy. Curtis plays toadying PR guy Sidney Falco, who JJ has tasked with breaking up the romance between Susan and Steve Dallas, one of the few nice characters in the film.
However, the films critical relationship is the blatantly, and often deliciously loathsome one ("Match me, Sidney.") between JJ and Falco. If Falco wasn't so entirely self-centered in his constant stream of kinetic opportunism, and not quite so keen to lick JJ's boots in return for favors, it might be possible to feel sorry for his constant humiliation. As it is, both characters revel in their awfulness.