New York In The Movies #3 | Sweet Smell Of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)

"I love this dirty town"
- J.J Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)  

Sweet Smell Of Success movie poster.Along with Network (Lumet, 1976), Ace In The Hole (Wilder, 1951) and Nightcrawler (Gilroy, 2014); Sweet Smell Of Success (Mackendrick, 1957) is one of the most sharpest critiques of the American media industry out there. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster play the two selfish and largely reprehensible leads; Curtis' Sidney Falco is out to impress his boss, the hugely influential gossip columnist J.J Hunsecker (Lancaster) who's articles have the power to make or break careers in an instant. Falco, a largely insignificant press agent has been tasked with keeping Hunsecker's sister out of a relationship with a local Jazz musician in exchange for a leg up in his job - with more exposure in a column that he's been repeatedly snuffed out of. Falco is completely subservient to JJ and is prepared to smear the innocent Jazz musician in the papers if it means he can get any kind of respect from his superior. 

The credits of the two leads appear over several dissolves of Times Square before we get our first glimpse of what will be one of the central themes of the film. The newspaper trucks set of on their journey around the city delivering the early editions and it's much like the introduction of Woody Allen's Manhattan. It wouldn't be surprising if both him the fellow New Yorker Scorsese were both influenced significantly by the picture. 

A large proportion of scenes take place within interior locations, most notably the famous 21 Club - but the exterior ones are, in my opinion the moments that are most iconic, something that the Criterion Collection Blu Ray cover eludes to. That is perhaps, save for an early moment in the aforementioned 21 club, which features a moment in which Falco, sat to the right of his mentor is photographed as insignificant and barely even worthy of eye to eye contact when being spoken to. Instead he's having to almost peer over JJ's shoulder in order to get a word in, while Lancaster is delivering monologues, only ever tilting his head slightly when addressing his protege. The New York setting is important in establishing JJ's dominance over influencing the city; which is perfectly shown in the moment when he steps out onto the balcony of his most likely astronomically expensive apartment and simply observes the city from above. An early morning scene where Falco picks up an edition of the paper right beside the Flat Iron building is also very memorable and instantly recognisable (just a few metres from the opening and closing scenes of After Hours). The Scorsese flick is similar to this picture in that it also mostly takes place at night, and thus has a nocturnal presentation of the Big Apple.

“One of the characteristic aspects of New York, particularly of the area between 42nd Street and 57th Street, is the neurotic energy of the crowded sidewalks. This was, I argued, essential to the story of characters driven by the uglier aspects of ambition and greed" - Mackendrick

According to Sanders, the ability to shoot so many scenes on location was down to recent developments in camera lenses and film stock; which veteran cameraman James Wong Howe (2013: 43) took advantage of. This was, sometimes problematic however as Tony Curtis' female fans would sometimes get past security onto the sets! In relation to the way the picture presents New York, it perfectly captures the gritty nightscapes of the city, with the neon advertisements, bustling streets and the inside of busy bars. Obviously taking into account the characters in the picture; it's not the most flattering portrait of the city, the majority of the individuals within are selfish, seedy and untrustworthy, save for a few innocent characters that have to pay for the bad choices made by JJ and Falco. The atmosphere is heightened with another great Jazz score by Elmer Bernstein. Jazz historians have said that whilst the picture is unrelentingly negative in its portrayal of U.S culture, it is one of the most flattering portraits of Jazz ever (Gabbard, 1966 Quoted in Holbrook, 2011: 264). It is the Jazz players that actually represent the only characters with any sense of decency or morals, but the music does still somehow manage to perfectly fit in with the dark narrative, just like his score for The Man With The Golden Arm managed to achieve.

Sweet Smell Of Success was not a hit with audiences and critics upon its initial release, the public 'were clinging to the thrill of celebrity without being ready to see it's mechanisms' (Pomerance, 2005: 186) and thus were not ready for such dark revelations powerful individuals in post-war life. But it has, rightfully been reconsidered as a classic and is considered the best role Curtis ever performed in - he had to fight to get the role against the studio's objections as they believed the role was too dark and would ruin his career (Curtis would later work with Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick so I don't think the studio was in the right with this one).


Holbrook, M., 2011. Music, Movies, Meanings and Markets: Cinemajazzamatazz. New York: Routledge

Pomerance,. M. 2005. Movies and the Search For Proportion. In M. Pomerance, ed. 2005. American Cinema of the 1950s: Themes and Variations. New Jersey: Rutgers

Sanders, J., 2013. Scenes from The City: Filmmaking in New York. New York: Rizzoli Int Publications.

New York In The Movies' is a tribute to some of the best pictures that have been filmed within famous city. There are several great books that cover this topic, without a doubt the most comprehensive being: Scenes From The City: Filmmaking In New York, edited by James Sanders. In addition, the following websites are great for finding out the real-life filming locations of a number of movies:, and Photographer Chris Maloney has a wonderful Tumblr page where he juxtaposes pictures of film stills with their real life locations.