#232) Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
OR “Winchell While You Work”
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. Based on the novelette “Tell Me About It Tomorrow!” by Lehman.
Class of 1993
The Plot: Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is an unscrupulous publicity agent in the seedy Manhattan of the late ‘50s. Sidney’s clients keep dropping him because he can’t get them a mention in the newspaper column of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a nationally syndicated columnist and TV personality who can make or break careers. Hunsecker is blacklisting Falco and his clients because Falco has failed to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s kid sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and young jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Falco knows that Hunsecker is the connection he needs to be a successful press agent and will bribe or betray anyone to get there, no matter the price.
Why It Matters: Weirdly enough, the only people who get specific praise for this film are Alexander Mackendrick and cinematographer James Wong Howe. They mention Lancaster, Curtis, and the screenwriters, but Mackendrick and Howe are the ones who “capture[d] the pre-Beat Generation era”. There’s also a loving (albeit brief) essay by UCLA Archive programmer Andrea Alsberg.
But Does It Really?: I really wanted to like “Sweet Smell of Success”. I like these actors, and I like the world this film inhabits, but I just couldn’t get into it. Lancaster and Curtis are both clearly enjoying playing against-type as two very despicable characters, and the writing is filled with some terrific dialogue (“You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”). Even Marty Milner’s good in this! I enjoyed each of the individual elements of “Sweet Smell of Success”, but for me they didn’t come together to make a successful whole. Perhaps the film’s less-than-ideal production hindered things from the start (see “Other notes”). Regardless, this film has enough pros for me to label it a “minor classic” and still recommend it to you, the random internet masses.
Everybody Gets One: Susan Harrison was a Broadway actress making her film debut in “Sweet Smell” as J.J.’s sister Susan. She only made one other film (1960’s “Key Witness”) before leaving acting entirely to raise a family. One of her children married a “multi-millionaire” on a FOX reality show. Also making their sole NFR appearance are Broadway’s original Nathan Detroit Sam Levene and future “Route 66”/“Adam-12” star Martin Milner.
Wow, That’s Dated: A newspaper columnist with that kind of clout? Not anymore! Also dated are the occupations of cigarette girl and jazz flutist.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite critical praise, audiences didn’t warm up to Lancaster and Curtis playing such lowlifes, and “Sweet Smell” was more or less forgotten. The BAFTAs acknowledged Tony Curtis with a Best Foreign Actor nomination, but that’s about it.
- Ernest Lehman based his original novelette on his experience with Hollywood Reporter columnist Irving Hoffman. Hoffman didn’t care for the depiction, but did give Lehman a shoutout in his column, saying he would make a great screenwriter (and he was on to something!). There’s also a story that Hunsecker is based on Walter Winchell, easily the most influential columnist of the time. There’s some debate over which man is the real inspiration, but I don’t see why Hunsecker can’t be a little from Columnist A and a little from Columnist B. Thank you!
- Production for “Sweet Smell” was by all accounts an unpleasant one. Alexander Mackendrick was only assigned to direct because his previous project fell through and he couldn’t get out of his contract with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Lehman left the project right before shooting started (illness, potentially caused by production stress), and his replacement, playwright Clifford Odets, took so long with rewrites some scenes were filmed only hours after being written. On top of all this, producer/star Burt Lancaster was an intimidating presence both on and off-screen. The only person who seemed to enjoy himself was Tony Curtis, who vehemently lobbied for the role of Sidney to go against his pretty-boy persona.
- Shoutout to Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz, more or less playing themselves as Dallas’ bandmates. The two wrote the original score for the film, but it was rejected for being “too esoteric”, and replaced by a more orchestral score by Elmer Bernstein.
- “Match me, Sidney.” may be the most loaded line in the entire screenplay. It’s one of those “classic film quotes” that really only works in its proper context.
- That’s David White (aka Larry Tate) as Hunsecker’s rival Otis Elwell. By the way, “My friends call me Otis.” may be the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard.
- A jazz musician who uses recreational marijuana? Quel Scandale! That being said, “flyer” is my new favorite euphemism for being a drug addict.
- I know it’s a movie, but in what universe are Burt Lancaster and Susan Harrison siblings?
- Also noteworthy is how much of Lancaster’s face is obscured by his glasses and the shadows they create. It’s as if Lancaster is saying “Don’t look at my face, focus on the performance.” It works, for the most part.
- This is the first of two movies I’m covering this week with implied incest (see my next entry for the other one). It’s a good thing psychoanalysis came along around this time. All screenwriters on the couch, please!
- I severely underestimated Susan Harrison. She seems one-note for most of the movie, but really gets to show her colors in the final few scenes. It’s a shame we never got more of her work.
- A musical stage version of “Sweet Smell of Success” by Marvin Hamlisch & Craig Carnelia came and went on Broadway in the spring of 2002. It expands the plot greatly (the film’s story doesn’t start until Act II) and garnered John Lithgow a Tony for his performance as Hunsecker. Among the Broadway producers were Ernest Lehman and Harvey Weinstein, and the parallels between Weinstein and Hunsecker just write themselves.
- Barry Levinson pays tribute to “Sweet Smell” in two of his films: “Diner” and “Rain Man”.
- The teleplay “The Comedian” is also based on a short story by Lehman, centers on a dangerously influential TV personality, and features the character of columnist Otis Elwell, this time played by Whit Bissell.
- “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan has cited the film as one of his favorites and named two episodes of “Breaking” after a line from the film: “Cat’s in the Bag” “And the Bag’s In the River”.