Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, powerful and domineering newspaper columnist
New York City, Fall 1956
Film: Sweet Smell of Success
Release Date: June 27, 1957
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Costume Designer: Mary Grant
One of my favorite movies is Sweet Smell of Success, the atmospheric film noir starring Burt Lancaster as a Walter Winchell-like columnist and Tony Curtis as the opportunistic young PR flack desperate to get in good with him.
Ernest Lehman, who contributed to the screenplay based on his own novelette, declined to direct the film due to his fear of Lancaster, but the actor’s aggressive and volatile temperament paid off to create the needed aura of his intimidating character, the sort of man who could and would destroy an enemy’s career on a whim.
“Burt was really scary,” recalls Elmer Bernstein, who composed the film’s jazzy score, memorably performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. “He was a dangerous guy. He had a short fuse.”
Despite the fear that Lancaster imposed on the film’s cast and crew, director Alexander Mackendrick worked with cinematography master James Wong Howe to create a dazzling tribute to 1950s New York, Weegie’s dog-eat-dog world of hot jazz, seductive shadows, and poison-loaded pens, delivering a sense of isolation in even the most crowded scenes.
The snappy screenplay by Lehman, Mackendrick, and playwright Clifford Odets has been immortalized by lines like J.J.’s comment to Falco: “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full or arsenic,” voted the 99th greatest movie line by Premiere magazine in 2007.
What’d He Wear?
J.J. Hunsecker wears two different suits over the course of the film, both double-breasted to create a sense of enveloping him in the trappings of his power while also projecting an intimidating image to the world.
For the taping of his ironically named radio broadcast It’s a Wonderful World, J.J. wears a medium-dark flannel suit with a ’50s full cut that gives the 6’2″ Lancaster an additionally hulking presence as he “greets” his sister and her beau.
J.J.’s double-breasted suit has a four-on-one button “Kent”-style front that he leaves open, ignoring the convention of always wearing a double-breasted jacket closed. The second row of buttons is placed a few inches below the waist, indicative of the gradually falling button stance during the 1950s that would fall out of fashion in the following decade. The lower button stance also helps balance Lancaster’s height. The upper buttons are only slightly further outside the functioning lower buttons, creating a boxy look that emphasizes J.J.’s relentless machine-like personality.
The wide, padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads add an intimidating touch to this ensemble. There are four buttons on each cuff.
The pick-stitched peak lapels are wide but sleek with minimal belly as they roll to the waist line. Each lapel has a sloped gorge and, following conventions for a double-breasted jacket, a buttonhole.
Also per the usual for double-breasted jackets, the back is ventless and the hip pockets are jetted without visible flaps. J.J. wears a light-colored silk display kerchief in his welted breast pocket that likely matches his silk tie.
Although J.J. always wears his suit jacket open, the overlap of the double-breasted jacket is enough to mostly conceal (or shadow) his trousers. Still, it can be ascertained that his trousers have a high rise, rising above the lower row of buttons on his jacket to the hollow of his lapel at the natural waist line.
The flat front suit trousers have slim belt loops, where he wears a thin dark leather belt with a small square single-prong buckle. The trousers are fully cut through the leg to the bottoms, which are finished with cuffs (turn-ups).
J.J.’s dress shirt is light-colored, not white, and possibly the same pale blue-gray as it often appears in colorized photos. It has a large semi-spread collar, front placket, and double (French) cuffs worn with square diamond links.
The Windsor knot was famously derided by Ian Fleming in 1957’s From Russia With Love, writing that “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad.”
J.J. Hunsecker hit the screen that same year wearing a Windsor knot, and it’s fitting that this almost proudly untrustworthy character would knot his tie in a manner that makes even James Bond suspicious. J.J.’s light silk tie is so finely woven that the finished effect is shiny like satin. The tie, often colored to look silver, has only a slight contrast against his light-colored shirt. The blade perfectly meets the trouser waistband at the natural waist.
J.J.’s feet almost never appear on screen, but the shoes that he wears with this same outfit in the promotional artwork for It’s a Wonderful World appear to be brown leather cap-toe oxfords.
A lobby card with a promotional photo from this scene reveals a pair of light-colored socks, probably light gray, that would have otherwise been hidden under the full break of the trouser bottoms.
J.J. wears a yellow gold dress watch, possibly Lancaster’s own. The watch has a rectangular case with a square white dial on a black leather strap.
First manufactured by Shuron Ltd. under the “Ronsir” brand in 1947, browline glasses had been in fashion for nearly a decade by the time famously Lancaster donned his black-framed pair in Sweet Smell of Success. Mackendrick had requested that Lancaster wear his own browline glasses, giving him the presence of “a scholarly brute” and enhancing the effect by supposedly spearing a thin layer of Vaseline over the lenses to prevent Lancaster from focusing his eyes as he judges his world with a perpetually blank gaze, as described in James Naremore’s Sweet Smell of Success: A BFI Film Classic.
The bold upper frames of Lancaster’s browline glasses also gave Mackendrick the opportunity to shape the character, filming an overhead-lit Lancaster from a low angle with a wide lens, causing the frames to cast shadows over his eyes.
Go Big or Go Home
Fresh from duly intimidating his sister’s unworthy suitor, J.J. heads to 21 Club with Sidney Falco reliably in tow. Named for its address, 21 West 52nd Street, the 21 Club dates back to its speakeasy origins during the early days of Prohibition in the 1920s. The eatery quickly gained prominence as the favored hot spot for luminaries ranging from Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe to Ernest Hemingway, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Aristotle Onassis. Every U.S. president since FDR (except for W.) has dined at 21, and John F. Kennedy was such a frequent visitor that he had a private wine collection stored there.
.. in short, it’s the sort of place that’s perfect for a see-and-be-seen columnist like J.J. Hunsecker to hold court.
J.J.’s preferred cigarette brand, English Ovals, dates back to 1854 as the first brand manufactured by London tobacconist Philip Morris.
More than a century later, the brand had been popularized as the cigarette-of-choice for Frank Costello, “the Prime Minister of the Underworld,” himself a regular patron of the 21 Club as Gay Talese recalls: “Even in jail, Costello baffled the law. He continued to smoke English Ovals, although nobody knew how he smuggled them in. He ate steak – ebony on the outside, claret on the inside – just as he’d ordered it at 21…”
J.J. Hunsecker unashamedly dresses to look powerful and intimidating, unafraid to appear untrustworthy and taking full advantage of using the contemporary fashions of the ’50s to flatter his strong physique.
- Medium-dark gray flannel full-cut suit:
- Double-breasted 4-on-1-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Flat front high-rise trousers with slim belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Pale blue-gray dress shirt with large semi-spread collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Large square diamond cuff links
- Silver silk tie
- Slim brown leather belt with small square single-prong buckle
- Brown leather cap-toe oxfords/balmoral shoes
- Light gray socks
- Black plastic-framed “browline” eyeglasses
- Gold dress watch with square white dial and black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.