This is a picture of Burt Lancaster from 1:00:00 into Alexander Mackendrick’s caustic masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A late entry in the cycle of classical noir, the film is about power plays in the New York press, as agents like Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco make dirty deals with columnists in order to advance their clients. Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a bespectacled, all-powerful columnist based on Walter Winchell. By this point in the film, Falco has already made several lurid exchanges and betrayals to curry Hunsecker’s favor. Although this may feel a far cry from the somewhat bloodier material associated with film noir, Sweet Smell treads the same ground of human greed and corruption, and the stakes are just as high.
“He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster,” is how one prospective victim describes Hunsecker, but it doesn’t quite do him justice. He’s power incarnate, and insists that this fact be acknowledged. He can be angry, panicked, calm, even loving, but every emotion is backed up by the knowledge of his supreme authority. This is a film about a city of lost souls, and in that context, Hunsecker is a god. Here, he’s giving a magnificent performance for his sister Susie (Susan Harrison). Although he’s indirectly responsible for the smear that got her boyfriend’s band fired, he plays the caring older brother to win her over. He may be able to dispatch anyone with a curt dismissal, but with his sister, he takes some tact.
The scene plays out in stages: first, he’s the approachable patriarch. “Now, take it easy, Susie,” he says, “you don’t have to protest with me.” As Susie cuts to the point, he gets indignant and reveals his self-interest, his voice growing sharper: “You’ve had your say, let me have mine!” The authoritarian in him emerges, and by the one hour mark, he has her almost reduced to tears. Then he goes at her from a different angle: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” J.J. is brother, father, priest, and king all rolled into one. He’s also a master manipulator. Lancaster played a number of roles like this – as Sinclair Lewis’s firebrand preacher in Elmer Gantry, or as a fascist general staging a coup in Seven Days in May – but none so effective and terrifying as J.J.
In these films, Lancaster showed the dark sides of powerful men. J.J. is almost nothing but dark side, power wielded for its own sake. Charles Foster Kane may have wanted love on his own terms, but at least he had lost dreams and forgotten potential. J.J. doesn’t even have a first name to humanize him; there’s nothing but a pair of slick initials. His only weakness is his sister, and as we can see here, he has his own methods for taking care of her. It’s only later in the film, as she falls further out of his orbit, that J.J.’s problems really start… but even then, they’re displaced onto Sidney, the eternal fall guy.
In J.J., Lancaster forges one of the great characters in all of film, a man of stone whose sister is his feet of clay. Lancaster is a monolith, and his glasses look both professorial and razor sharp. For Mackendrick and his cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, the entire crooked city of New York is extension of J.J.’s perversion and power. J.J.’s apartment is the epicenter from which his corruption radiates. Like J.J., it initially looks welcoming and reliable, but under Howe’s camera, each room becomes menacing and bleak. So in this image, we have two all-American icons of security – the patriarch and the home – mutated into cold, controlling monsters. And that, my friends, is film noir.