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
In commemoration of Burt Lancaster’s birthday today, I’m exploring my favorite of his films, the atmospheric 1957 noir Sweet Smell of Success that starred Lancaster as acerbic columnist J.J. Hunsecker to Tony Curtis’ unscrupulous PR flack Sidney Falco.
J.J. Hunsecker is a man whose legendary power and mercurial temper is meant to intimidate nearly all in his orbit. To illustrate just how perfect Lancaster was for this role, consider that Ernest Lehman – who co-wrote the screenplay adapted from his own novelette – declined the opportunity to direct the film due to a stomach illness (though some say it was in part due to his fear of working with Lancaster.) Lancaster evidently blamed the film’s lack of success on the box office on Lehman’s withdrawal, confronting him at the after party by saying: “You could have made this a much better picture. I ought to beat you up!” to which Lehman, having evidently overcome his fear of the aggressive actor, replied “Go ahead, I need the money.”
Time has been kinder than the box office to Sweet Smell of Success, and – six decades on – the film remains an intriguing ode to 1950s New York thanks to Alexander Mackendrick’s direction, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, and the talented cast’s ability to deliver the snappy dialogue penned in a screenplay co-written by Lehman, Mackendrick, and playwright Clifford Odets, all underscored by a jazzy soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein and performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Bernstein himself had some choice words from his experience with Lancaster:
Burt was really scary. He was a dangerous guy. He had a short fuse.
One could say the same of J.J. Hunsecker.
What’d He Wear?
J.J. Hunsecker’s primary suit in Sweet Smell of Success is a dark birdseye wool suit, likely charcoal gray or dark navy blue, worn for his introduction at the 21 Club and his final confrontation with Sidney in his penthouse apartment.
J.J. wears only double-breasted suits, reflecting a popular style in the mid-fifties but also projecting strength and intimidation through the style’s strong, boxy cut. His double-breasted suit jackets have low four-on-one button fronts in the “Kent” style, which he wears both open and closed. The peak lapels have slanted gorges, pointing at the wide and strongly padded shoulders. Only the three-button cuffs on this jacket differentiate the styling of this suit from his other suit, also double-breasted but in a lighter shade of flannel.
J.J. wears a white pocket square neatly folded in the jacket’s welted breast pocket. The jetted hip pockets and ventless back are consistent with typical double-breasted styling of the era.
The suit’s flat front trousers, best seen when J.J. wears his jacket open, are held up with a thin dark leather belt with a small square single-prong buckle. The full cut extends to the bottoms, finished with cuffs (turn-ups), that break over his dark oxford shoes and dark socks.
J.J. wears a white shirt with a long point collar that compliments Burt Lancaster’s wider head. The shirt has a front placket and squared double (French) cuffs held together by textured square links.
His first tie, worn for an evening at 21 Club, is solid dark silk. It appears to be about 3″ wide and fall about an inch short of his trouser waistband.
J.J.’s second tie, worn during the finale, is white or pale-colored silk with a subtle pinhead texture that differentiates its from the untextured light-colored tie he wore with his lighter flannel suit. Both are tied in a Windsor knot that covers the moderate tie space of his shirt’s point collar.
Venturing outside, J.J. dons his coat and hat. Unlike Sidney, his income and lifestyle preclude him from the expense of leaving “a tip in every hat-check room in town!” His mid-colored felt fedora, probably gray, has a wide black grosgrain band.
J.J.’s dark wool single-breasted overcoat has notch lapels that roll to a three-button front. The coat also has patch side pockets and a swollen seam down the center back.
Ten years after browline glasses jumped onto the fashion scene with the Shuron “Ronsir” brand, Burt Lancaster canonized this style of eyewear in Sweet Smell of Success, identified by BAMF Style reader Preston Fassel as Art Craft “Clubman” eyeglasses based on the subtle sloped studs. The Clubman is still offered from the nearly century-old brand Art Craft Optical and can be purchased for just over $100 from Frames Direct.
Mackendrick had requested that the actor wear his own black-framed browline glasses to deliver the appearance of “a scholarly brute” and filmed the overhead-lit character from a low angle with a wide lens, casting shadows over Lancaster’s eyes.
The gold tank watch on J.J.’s wrist may have also been one of Lancaster’s own items. It has a rectangular case, a white square dial, and a textured strap in likely black leather.
Go Big or Go Home
After late evenings holding court as New York royalty at the famous 21 Club, J.J. Hunsecker rises dozens of stories to his swanky penthouse overlooking Manhattan, where he takes breaks from furiously typing his nicotine-fueled columns to observe his chosen “dirty town” from the balcony.
Unfortunately for aspiring columnists hoping to live the Hunsecker high life, his “apartment building” was actually the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway on 49th Street, a commercial tower that housed offices and studios where some of the most popular American music from the 1930s to the 1960s was penned and recorded with acts ranging from the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Bobby Darin to Frankie Valli and Dionne Warwick headquartered in the building.
Nearly 90 years after it was built, the building remains a hub for the show business industry with Broadway Video, Key Brand Entertainment, and Paul Simon Music among its tenants.
J.J. Hunsecker is all power and intimidation in his dark double-breasted suits that take full advantage of using the contemporary 1950s fashions to flatter his strong physique.
- Dark birdseye wool full-cut suit:
- Double-breasted 4-on-1-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Flat front trousers with slim belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White dress shirt with long point collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Large textured square cuff links
- Light-colored pinhead-textured silk tie
- Slim leather belt with small square single-prong buckle
- Dark leather cap-toe oxfords/balmoral shoes
- Dark socks
- Mid-gray felt fedora with wide black grosgrain band
- Dark wool single-breasted three-button overcoat with notch lapels and patch hip pockets
- Black acetate-framed “browline” eyeglasses
- Gold dress watch with square white dial and black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
I love this dirty town.