Tony Curtis: The Career Defining Role

Following Tony Curtis’ death on September 29, I avoided writing about the screen icon for one reason: I had never seen Sweet Smell of Success. That is a wrong I finally corrected this weekend.

Curtis is an actor who I always admired. The Defiant Ones and Some Like it Hot have long been two phenomenal pictures that I love. Even the unintentional humor of Spartacus has shaped my appreciation for Curtis. Yet since watching Sweet Smell of Success and savoring every moment Curtis appears on screen, I now fully understand why this is his career-defining role.

In Sweet Smell of Success Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a New York City press agent desperate to get his clients coverage. He is pitted against Burt Lancaster’s unethical yet powerful newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, who controls everything and everyone within his reach – his readers, his clients, and his sister. Hunsecker can make or break someones career and life. When his sister Susan (Susan Whitman) falls in love with Steve, a young jazz musician, the columnist uses Falco’s desire for success as a way to provoke the press agent into ending his sister’s romance.

Taking place over 36 hours, with two sequences, quite symbolically, set at night and the film’s conclusion set at day break, Sweet Smell of Success uses these two devious, malicious, and downright repugnant male protagonists to reveal the dark side of desire and the oft-depicted glamorous entertainment industry, complete with lies, backroom deals and corruption.

Both Lancaster and Curtis, known for their good guy roles, are playing against type. It is Lancaster’s first villainous role and Curtis never played a character this deceitful. Like what his last name implies, Sidney Falco preys on unsuspecting victims, who like him are seeking the notoriety that comes with Hunsecker’s approval.

These characters are so corrupt and dangerous that they can hardly be considered foils for one another. Sidney Falco may be a startling character but he is simply modeling himself after Hunsecker as a way to take down Hunsecker and cement his own power.

Although Sweet Smell of Success was a commercial and critical failure in 1957, this story about American ambition and the dangers of it has become a late Hollywood film noir critical darling. Beyond the stellar performances of Curtis and Lancaster, the film is enhanced by its cinematography, writing and music, without which these characters would only  seem more sympathetic. Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) helmed this picture written by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) and playwright Clifford Odets. The endlessly quotable, slang-filled dialogue (“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”) paired with the sharp black and white cinematography and the Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score , just oozes off of the screen. Without these stylistic choices that influence our perception of the protagonists (the harsher the lighting, the sharper the dialogue, the faster the music, the darker they seem), Sweet Smell of Success would hardly be the stand out noir that it is today.

What is your favorite Tony Curtis role? Along with countless other classic Hollywood fans, I have now been converted to Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success.


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