Burt Lancaster is in a crew cut and horn rimmed glasses. Yes, that Burt Lancaster, former pirate, western gunman, evangelical huckster and film noir hero, takes the screen to give us J.J. Hunsecker, a pre-Trump unethical Broadway gossip columnist circa 1955.

Tony Curtis co-starred with Lancaster, giving the best performance of his career, if you don’t count “The Boston Strangler.”

Here in Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” Curtis plays Sidney Falco, the oleaginous nickel and dime press agent with one suit and six clean shirts. He’s the walking photo of the aged saying, “It’s better to look good than feel good.”

Lancaster is the bigger star on this job, but it’s Curtis who is the true center, with pockets full of gossip notes and hair full of oil.

Sidney operates out of his one bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where his one phone is answered by the wonderful, but wasted Jeff Donnell (born in South Windham, Maine, for trivia fans).

Sidney is a night crawler, prowling the neon streets to pick up random bits of gossip for J.J., like a homeless man picking up half-smoked cigarette butts.


Lancaster, famous for his toothy smile, never uses it here. He sits at his favorite table the way the late Walter Winchell did at the Stork Club, eyes lowered on his food, ears perked for any hint of expensive gossip.

Lancaster learned long ago how to steal the movie by simply sitting motionless in a cloud of cigarette smoke and listening. It’s delicious, and his J.J is like a floating cloud of city bus fumes, always invisible but always toxic.

The plot centers around the lovely stone in his shoe, his baby sister Susan (Susan Harrison) who is rocking his boat by flaunting her love affair with a jazz guitar player (Martin Milner, playing here with the Chico Hamilton Quintet).

The great writer Clifford Odets, along with the equally great Ernest Lehman, make little effort to cloak J.J.’s deeply hidden incestuous feelings for his sister.

J.J. sets his lap dog Sidney to disrupt the young lovers’ plans by any means necessary.

There are two great lines in “Sweet Smell” that live on in movie trivia: “Sidney, I’d hate to take a bite out of you; you’re a cookie loaded with arsenic;” and “Mr Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels.”

Lehman or Odets. I’m betting on Odets.

“Sweet Smell of Success” is one of the films available at RailroadSquareCinema.com/streaming-archive.

J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.

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