It wasn’t intended. No one could have predicted it. But Sweet Smell of Success turned out to be a terminus where several movie genres and subgenres converged and curdled, producing a uniquely delicious perfume of everlasting cynicism. Inhale deeply.
And think of the years between 1927, when talkies were born, and 1957, when Sidney Falco flew too close to the Hun and got his wings clipped, as a two-dimensional pyramid: Sweet Smell of Success is the apex, and the dawn of synchronized sound is the base. Let the left line stand for the Broadway movie, a chronic source of New York lore celebrated by Hollywood, from The Jazz Singer to Guys and Dolls; let the right line represent the urban newspaper movie, another undying genre, from Five Star Final to While the City Sleeps. There are also two lines rising from the base inside the pyramid, spanning the same period and signifying the callous-press-agent movie (Bombshell to The Barefoot Contessa) and the nightclub movie (Murder at the Vanities to The Helen Morgan Story); shorter lines, starting closer to the top, introduce more recent, flourishing staples like the troubled jazzman movie (Young Man with a Horn, Pete Kelly’s Blues) and the police brutality movie (The Asphalt Jungle, On Dangerous Ground). They all point to the apex, which should be colored gray to certify its bond with film noir, and wrapped in a pink bow to indicate its rebuke of the kind of slander launched by Senator Joe McCarthy (who died weeks before the picture was released) and his bantam tabloid booster, Walter Winchell, who crowed about its box-office fizzle.
Audiences in 1957 did not go to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis movies to find the characters they played steeped in a disdain that also defiled venerable commonplaces of American life, from brotherly love to dogged ambition, not to mention newspaper columnists, cigarette girls, senators, the police, and all that glittered along the Great White Way. So they stayed away; this was the year of the hits The Bridge on the River Kwai, Peyton Place, and Sayonara—big, colorful productions with heroes, or at least guiding lights, and Aesopian morals. Their loss is posterity’s gain. Sweet Smell of Success is a true classic. The passing of half a century has deepened its manifold pleasures. We do not mind the absence of a few genre conventions, like a hero or hope or justice, when we can get, in spades, scintillating dialogue, ingenious photography, keyed-up performances, and coolly thumping music, all paced at a carousing canter. Besides, those who seek the clef in films à clef know what an audience in 1957 could have only suspected: that Winchell, the model for the baddest of the bad guys—Lancaster’s merciless golem of gossip, J. J. Hunsecker—would soon lose his grip on the public. In our era of fair and balanced media integrity, Sweet Smell of Success is a delirious, almost nostalgic wallow in old-school corruption. Hell is other eras.
The nerviness of Sweet Smell of Success resided in its portrait of a megalomaniacal columnist who thrives on fear (Winchell once told a colleague, “It’s a lot of fun making people mad”), possessively wrapping in mink his terrified and much younger sister, Susie, played fretfully by the teenage Susan Harrison. Susie is the movie’s dumdum bullet aimed at Winchell, whose obsession with the romantic life of his daughter Walda led him to incarcerate her as emotionally unstable while hounding, with the help of J. Edgar Hoover, her lover into leaving the United States. Like Winchell, Hunsecker coins phrases (“You’re a cookie full of arsenic”) from an argot of mostly poeticized Broadway singsong (“Now, I make it out, you’re doing me a favor?”), and he has a private gestapo led by Lieutenant Harry Kello (a frightening, cackling performance by Emile Meyer) that parodies Winchell’s intrigues with Hoover. Otherwise, the portrait is far from slavish. Lancaster plays a brooding celibate who casts his shadow over “this dirty town” but enjoys few of its Arabian Nights enticements beyond the narcotic of power and an elite table at the 21 Club. He is physically and temperamentally the reverse image of Winchell, a yapping, short, bald, fedora-wearing, womanizing, feuding, avaricious soothsayer who enjoyed after the war, in addition to millions of readers, a higher radio rating than Jack Benny.
Yet the film belongs not to J. J., who doesn’t appear for the first twenty minutes, but rather to the beleaguered press agent Sidney Falco, striding through the dark woods of Broadway, as pretty as Tony Curtis, oblivious to the fact that his soul (he still has one as the film begins) is on the line. Falco dominates the film, including its opening and closing shots, because he gets to make a moral decision, one in sync with the topical conundrum of ruining lives by naming names. He is, he acknowledges, at a crossroads. Hunsecker, not satisfied with having dispatched Susie’s lover, the jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), wants Sidney to destroy him, and Sidney rears back on his hind legs: “I swear to you, on my mother’s life, I wouldn’t do that. Not if you gave me a column would I . . .” J. J., who knows how cheaply souls are bought, smiles as he seals the bargain.
The movie also belongs to Falco because Tony Curtis wouldn’t have it any other way. Curtis, at thirty-two, was himself at a crossroads. He was a movie star with a growing and mostly girly fan base, but other than Trapeze (1956), Carol Reed’s nicely turned CinemaScope circus film, in which he played Lancaster’s protégé and rival, he had little to brag about. No one thought of him as an actor. With Sweet Smell of Success, he saw his chance and took it with both hands. Curtis and Lancaster, his senior by a dozen years, both hustled their way out of poor neighborhoods in the upper reaches of New York City—Lancaster from Irish East Harlem, Curtis from the Jewish Bronx. At some point early in his life, Lancaster perfected a deliberate, geographically neutral speech cadence, while Curtis’s delivery advertised his background as blaringly as Eliza Doolittle’s did hers. He knew Falco well enough to act the hide off him.
Falco is a man on the make. Though for most of the film, he doesn’t seem to know why he’s on the make beyond platitudes of success: “The best of everything is good enough for me,” “Every dog will have his day.” Curtis never softens the portrait, despite the few moments when Sidney stands up for himself, and he truly lets loose the rodent behind the “charming street-urchin face” (J. J.’s description) in the pivotal sequence when Hunsecker confronts Dallas. Sidney is frequently compared to an animal, usually a dog (a “trained poodle,” in Susie’s emasculating phrase), and in this scene, he leaps about with his paws raised, cheering on the bully: oleaginous, childishly spiteful, and thankful not to be the butt of the attack.
Perhaps his closest prototype is Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, the amoral hustler in Night and the City (1950), though Widmark ultimately lets us see the pathos in Fabian’s ambition. Not Curtis! He refuses to play the part as cute or malleable, so that a perversely fantastic purity graces Sidney’s relentless grubbing. In that regard, note the long shot as he gets out of a cab in front of the 21 Club: A doorman holds the taxi door as Sidney pays the driver. As he walks toward the club, he pauses to flippantly wave away the cab—had the driver remarked on the size of his tip? We don’t know, but that’s the kind of detail Curtis brings to the role. Falco has dispatched his past and mortgaged his future. He is attacked and humiliated in scene after scene—even the headwaiter at Toots Shor’s looks down his nose at him. Yet he secretes energy. We see him as a blackmailer, pimp, fixer, stooge, liar, and betrayer of everyone, but he bewitches the film with the agility of a magician or dancer. Sidney Falco is plainly an immortal.
Of course, Curtis didn’t create Falco by himself. Accounts of the making of Sweet Smell of Success detail arguments, treachery, tensions, and rewrites down to the wire, but in the end, an extraordinary crew reached the peak of their powers. Chief among them was Alexander Mackendrick, the Boston-born, Glasgow-raised director who made his name defining the darker side of Britain’s postwar Ealing Studio comedies—quietly hilarious lampoons of authority (Whisky Galore, 1949), business (The Man in the White Suit, 1951), and criminal enterprise (The Ladykillers, 1955). Known in England as a hard taskmaster, he needed his resilience to stand up to Lancaster’s minatory, semiviolent intrusions. For instance, the actor, who was also a producer, fought against having Falco sit beside him in his first scene, at 21, arguing that J. J. would not slide over for him, and presumably not wanting to turn his belated star entrance into a two-shot. Mackendrick stood firm, instructing Curtis to grab a chair rather than squeeze onto the banquette, and, as James Naremore has pointed out, created a skillful sequence of bank-shot dialogue, in which Hunsecker aims lines at the guests before him that ricochet into Sidney’s face, which manages to convey charm to the guests and anxiety to us. Lancaster’s company hired Mackendrick again for The Devil’s Disciple (1959), and fired him in the first week. Mackendrick did not sign another film for five years, and made only three more—notably, a creditable if compromised version of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, in 1965—before he turned to teaching.
Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success, and Manhattan were blessed with the participation of the brilliant cameraman James Wong Howe. Excepting John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), perhaps no other feature film catches Broadway in the 1950s with such inventive and uncompromising clarity. Most of the film—all the interiors—was shot in Hollywood, but Mackendrick constructed the scenes so that they begin or end with Manhattan exteriors, shot at night in the winter cold at various locations, usually between Twenty-third Street (the Globe) and Fifty-second Street (21). The opening montage, during the credits, nails the place and the time: the wide shot of Times Square, with a theater on the left promising Seven Wonders of the World and air-conditioning, ads in the center for Canadian Club and Admiral Television, a theater to the right showing nothing but newsreels; the New York Times loading bays (doubling for the Globe’s); the shot from the back of the newspaper truck; the ride down Broadway (past an enormous billboard for Baby Doll); and then the first shot of Falco, buying a paper and pushing his way to the counter of a hot dog stand (the blond extra he hustles aside is actor Nick Adams)—you can feel the chill, smell the grime, and see the reflected light on the metal holders with their conical paper cups.
Howe was renowned for replicating and heightening reality, and for solving problems that stumped directors and actors. He made his mark despite endemic racism that obstructed him at every turn. During the height of his career as Warner Bros.’ chief cameraman, in the 1940s, he wore an “I Am Chinese” badge to prevent internment in a camp for Japanese Americans, and was prevented from marrying his Caucasian wife for almost a decade, until California’s miscegenation laws were repealed. Still, changing his credit from Jimmy Howe to the formidable James Wong Howe helped to make him the most famous cinematographer in the business. In the silent years, he figured out how to make pale eyes photograph dark. He pioneered deep focus and the expressive intensity of shadows. For Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), he reconstructed the look of Broadway musicals in the gaslight age; in Air Force (1943), he made the metallic surfaces of a plane’s controls glimmer; in Hud (1963), he framed the arid West as a panorama of terrible beauty. In Sweet Smell of Success, Howe achieved a flawless continuity between exteriors and interiors. He rubbed Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to sharpen his myopic glare. When Mackendrick saw that Martin Milner could not fake guitar, Howe lined up the insert shot from Milner’s right, disguising the fact that the left hand doing the speedy fret work belongs to John Pisano, the guitarist in Chico Hamilton’s quintet.
The film’s music is another source of enchantment, though Hamilton’s quintet is sadly shortchanged in on-screen time. The period from 1957 to 1965 was the golden age of jazz, or jazz-influenced, movie and TV scores. Suddenly, music directors with a background in jazz and even true jazz composers were taken on by the studios: John Mandel, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Van Alexander, Eddie Sauter, Benny Carter, Andre Previn, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, and others, plus great jazz improvisers, who appeared in nightclub scenes or soloed invisibly on soundtracks. The composer and conductor on Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Bernstein, though not a jazz composer, figured prominently in this movement. Raised in Manhattan’s upper class and taken on by Aaron Copland as his protégé, Bernstein began scoring films in 1951. But despite his strong contribution to the Joan Crawford vehicle Sudden Fear (1952), he found his career blighted by red-baiting rumors. That problem disappeared in the midfifties, when Otto Preminger selected him to score The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which he enlivened with brassy, jazz-infused excitement; and Cecil B. DeMille cleared him of any lingering suspicions by hiring him for The Ten Commandments (1956). A jazzy attack resounded in his urban films and in his work on the Cassavetes TV series Johnny Staccato (1959–60), but never more memorably than in Sweet Smell of Success.
In this picture, instead of using a big central theme of the type that brought Bernstein to the pinnacle of his profession with God’s Little Acre (1958), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963), he employed a series of short, expressive cues that complement the on-screen music performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Hamilton’s group was known for combining a laid-back West Coast jazz style (he had initially come to prominence as the drummer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet) with advanced harmonies, assertive rhythms, and the highly unusual instrumentation of cello (Fred Katz), flute (Paul Horn), and guitar (John Pisano). Bernstein preferred massed brasses and shuffle rhythms, which contrasted agreeably with Hamilton’s lightly astringent approach. Bernstein balanced the jazz cues with more traditional ones. A good example is the scene in the vestibule when Susie tells Sidney, “Steve is the first real man I’ve ever been in love with,” supported by an ocean of melodramatic strings. As Sidney walks from the vestibule into the street, he is backed by the jaunty jazz riff that characterizes him and, in this instance, his emotional detachment. Elsewhere, Bernstein tracks Sidney with themes that range from spry bebop to ominous trumpet blues to a tropical island lullaby.
Hamilton never had to worry about red-baiting, but he did have to pass muster as a drug-free bandleader. The recent death of Charlie Parker, the hounding of Billie Holiday, and sundry arrests had tarred all jazz musicians as addicts. Sweet Smell of Success hinges on the planting of marijuana in Dallas’s coat—a frame-up infamously deployed to destroy Gene Krupa’s career in 1943. In an interview with writer Bill Milkowski, Hamilton recalled production spies following them “for six months before they gave us the gig. [They] wanted to make sure that we were clean.” No one seemed to notice that in the scenes at the film’s two fictitious jazz clubs, the Elysium and Robard’s, not one customer is listening to the music, but Hamilton did complain to Mackendrick about a line of dialogue: “I was supposed to say about Marty Milner’s girlfriend, ‘Throw a rope around her and keep her here while I go get him.’ And I told the director, ‘Man, musicians don’t talk like that!’ He said, ‘Well, what would you say?’ So I told him, ‘Well, I’d probably say something like, “Cool this chick here while I go get him.” And he said, ‘Good, good, we’ll use that.’”
Most of the dialogue proved to be in exceptionally able hands. Ernest Lehman, to the manner born, created the main characters in a series of magazine stories that drew on his own experience as a Broadway gofer and publicist feeding columnists. His fiction is marked by revelations of backstage sleaze and protagonists who are under constant pressure to sell out or to escape show business. At bottom, a provincial rectitude underscores Lehman’s youthful disillusionment, which is pointedly captured in the film’s portrait of Steve Dallas. Milner, who had been in films since the 1940s and (incredibly) had already played a jazz martyr in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), proved too bland for the big screen but appealing enough to succeed on the small one. His turn in Sweet Smell of Success is frequently criticized as dull and ineffectual, too weak to carry off one of the film’s ironies—of all the main characters, only the slandered jazz musician is consistently morally upstanding. Yet Milner conveys an essential facet that a hip Method actor might have missed. Dallas is more like Hunsecker than he can admit: they are both prigs, self-righteous, and combative. Susie is accustomed to being smothered, and Steve is willing to take over that task from her brother. He loses the confrontation over her because he can’t leave well enough alone or get past his own ethical superiority. Dallas is a cipher and no hero; credit Milner for getting that.
By 1957, Lehman had a good record in Hollywood, having written such films as Executive Suite (1954) and The King and I (1956). In the year of Sweet Smell of Success, his other novella, The Comedian, was successfully produced as live television, innovatively directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring in a vital part the same malevolent Otis Elwell who publishes Falco’s libel. Lehman agreed to sell his story to Lancaster’s company on the condition that he write and direct, but the company’s agreement was merely a ploy to get the rights. Ulcerated and cowed by the backstabbing, he left the production to recuperate on a tropical isle, like the one Rita, the cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols), fantasizes about. He would soon rebound as the author of an unparalleled string of hit screenplays, peaking creatively with North by Northwest (1959) and commercially with The Sound of Music (1965). But in Lehman’s absence, the script was turned over to more experienced hands: those of the Group Theatre’s Depression playwright, Clifford Odets, still reeling from remorse for naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
He had escaped the blacklist, but his work stagnated all the same. In 1946, Odets wrote two films, the memorably frenzied Humoresque and the exceedingly stilted Deadline at Dawn, an unconscious parody of his gift for character-defining dialogue. He wrote no more films over the next decade. Three of his plays were successfully adapted as movies in the interim, but other writers scripted them—for The Country Girl (1954), George Seaton markedly improved on the original. His sole return to Broadway, The Flowering Peach, in 1954, closed after four months. Yet with Sweet Smell of Success, Odets got his own back. Though faithful in story line to another man’s work, it is his most original and distinctive screenplay—a virtuoso exercise in stylized lingo that, thanks in large measure to the cast, plays as robust and instinctive. Hailing from a Bronx background similar to Curtis’s, Odets evidently felt a particular bond with Falco, and vice versa. Curtis has written of looking over Odets’s shoulder as he revised a scene during filming, and feeling an electrifying jolt when he saw the line, “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”
In rewriting Lehman, Odets added his perspective to yet another timeworn genre that found renewal in the middle-1950s, and should figure as another base-to-apex line in our pyramid: the backstage exposé movie. The death of radio and growth of television had contributed to a flurry of vinegary anatomies of show people, real and imagined, including The Hucksters (1947), All About Eve (1950), The Great Man (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Lehman’s The Comedian. Odets had already explored that territory in the plays The Big Knife and The Country Girl (later made into films), and in 1959 would write and direct another behind-the-scenes drama, this time staged in a courtroom, the unjustly neglected film Story on Page One. Yet he probably hadn’t seen the film that most closely augurs Sweet Smell of Success, an early, humdrum entry in the idiom. Broadway thru a Keyhole (1933), a vehicle for Constance Cummings and the sheikhlike crooner Russ Columbo, exploited and fictionalized the rumored romances of the Warner Bros. musical star Ruby Keeler (caricatured by Cummings), who had been the underage mistress of gangster Johnny “Irish” Costello and was then married to Al Jolson. Attending a prizefight before the movie was released, Jolson sucker punched the writer who had devised the story line and sold it to Twentieth Century: Walter Winchell.
A more significant antecedent to Sweet Smell of Success is curiously embedded here. Keeler had met Costello through their mutual involvement with the El Fay Club, a Broadway speakeasy where Keeler worked as a featured dancer from age fourteen. Fronted by Texas Guinan, Winchell’s mentor and Broadway’s most recognized hostess (who played a version of herself in Broadway thru a Keyhole), the El Fay was owned by bootlegger Larry Fay, who helped inspire F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characterization of Jay Gatsby. It’s impossible now to know how consciously and deliberately Mackendrick and Odets borrowed from The Great Gatsby, yet the connections are plentiful—large and small, inadvertent and unmistakable, and crucial to the film’s structure.
Both the novel and the film are perfect storms of lies and deception, and the latter employs techniques from the former to dramatize the situation without lining up parallel characters. Hunsecker is initially introduced not in the flesh but on an advertising banner that is the film’s controlling symbol: the eyes of J. J. Hunsecker, overlooking the conduct of Broadway’s plodding mortals. This, of course, appropriates The Great Gatsby’s ash heap billboard of the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Hunsecker’s delayed appearance exemplifies what Orson Welles once described as a Mr. Wu device, after the 1913 play of that name: for an hour, everyone talks about the mysterious Mr. Wu, so that his arrival is the play’s dramatic high point. (Welles had a Mr. Wu role in The Third Man.) With the arguable exception of Moby-Dick, the most celebrated example of that device in American fiction is The Great Gatsby: for the first quarter of the book, everyone gossips about him—Who is he? Where is he? How did he make his fortune? Did he kill a man? Is he European nobility?—until Nick sits unknowingly at Gatsby’s table. J. J. is likewise the subject of every conversation until Sidney, biting his nails, works up the nerve to approach his table. Both of their entrances take place in the presence of well-known personalities who underscore their importance.
J. J. is not Jay, though Gatsby’s genuinely romantic pining is as unfulfilled as the columnist’s twisted desires. In many respects, Falco is the truer burlesque of Gatsby, the man who changes his name and history, who blithely commits crimes to advance his ambition, and who has no future. In Hunsecker’s altercation with Dallas, he resembles the violent and hypocritical husband in The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan. Each man fights for control of a weak and indecisive woman, and wins her with logical contortions and threats. The two scenes involve quartets. Tom, Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick create almost a template for J. J., Dallas, Susie, and Falco. In each scene, there is a fifth person, a distracted witness: Daisy’s friend Jordan and Sidney’s uncle Frank. As the accusations fly, Fitzgerald’s description of Daisy suits Susie exactly: “But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself . . . ‘Please, Tom! I can’t take this anymore.’ Her frightened eyes told that whatever intentions, whatever courage she had had, were definitely gone.” Tom and J. J. wrap themselves in devious platitudes. J. J. sees himself as a beacon for the American public. Tom Buchanan prattles: “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” Nick describes him: “Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.”
Other parallels are apparent: repressed sexuality, odd biblical references, self-delusion, the symbolic use of cars, observations regarding corruption and incorruptible dreams, the ultimate isolation of Jay and J. J., and more. An easily missed but especially pleasing connection is too shrewd to be coincidental. One of the few real people mentioned in The Great Gatsby is Joe Frisco, the vaudeville dancer and stuttering comedian, who was so well-known in 1925 that Fitzgerald didn’t bother with his first name: a guest of Gatsby’s suddenly “seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform.” Frisco had rarely appeared in films, and usually in bits arranged by friends who knew he was broke. Yet here he is, a year before his death, in Sweet Smell of Success, in the significant role of Herbie Temple.
The trickery involving Temple, taken directly from Lehman’s story, shows Sidney at his best: the fast-thinking, shameless deceiver who illuminates the American mandate, rife in the 1950s, to grab at every opportunity and make one’s way with gusto and gumption. In this instance, he does no real harm, and permits us the sensation of fleeting admiration. Writing in 1948 about gangster movies, Robert Warshow took the measure of the classic 1930s genre as a way to get at the moral impasses of a nation that had just won the Second World War and was now setting out to conquer the peace under a fog of ambivalence. “Every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success,” he wrote of the narrative conventions. “This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is—ultimately—impossible.” Warshow died two years before Sweet Smell of Success, but he might have seen Sidney Falco as further evidence for his suggestion that the last-reel death of a movie gangster relieves us of our own need to succeed. The fantastic Falco is a warning: when someone says, “Match me, Sidney,” just get up and leave.
Gary Giddins is the author of several books about music, including Visions of Jazz, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, and Jazz (with Scott DeVeaux). His writing on film is collected in Faces in the Crowd, Natural Selection, and Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema. He teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center.