The ironic title of 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success” was intentional, but the film’s flopping at the box-office certainly wasn’t. Contemporary audiences evidently weren’t interested in seeing two handsome Hollywood stars — Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis — who usually appeared in heroic or at least likable roles playing a vicious newspaper columnist and an amoral flunky of a press agent, respectively.
Yet the stature of “Sweet Smell of Success” has grown over the years. In 1993 it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry honoring movies that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The American Film Institute included Lancaster’s character, J.J. Hunsecker, among its 50 top movie villains of all time. And sharp lines of film dialogue — “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic” and “Match me, Sidney” (as in light a match for my cigarette) — courtesy of screenwriters Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, have found their place in movie lore.
This brilliantly acerbic movie is out this week in newly restored DVD and Blu-ray editions from the Criterion Collection ($39.95, not rated). An expose of a popular and powerful Broadway newspaper columnist/radio host named J.J. Hunsecker (modeled after Walter Winchell) and press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis), “Sweet Smell of Success” reflects a bygone entertainment era. The film is set in midtown Manhattan’s theater and nightclub district in the mid-1950s, a period in which influential entertainment columnists could make or break an actor or a musician with a positive item or a vicious smear in their well-read columns.
Hunsecker is the most powerful of all such writers. Falco is far below him in the pecking order, being paid by performers and clubs to get their names into newspaper columns like Hunsecker’s. In exchange, Hunsecker uses Falco to do his dirty work.
Falco’s task, which at the movie’s beginning he has so far failed to accomplish, is to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s much younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Nothing is considered out of bounds to Falco or Hunsecker, including falsely labeling Dallas a marijuana smoker and a communist, planting drugs on him, and pimping out a nightclub cigarette girl in exchange for another columnist’s cooperation.
“Sweet Smell of Success” is an example of Hollywood movie-making at its collaborative best, a point enhanced by the DVD’s excellent array of documentaries, interviews, essays and other material. It was based on several short stories (included here) written in the early ‘50s by a former press agent, Ernest Lehman. (Lehman went on to become one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, with credits including “Executive Suite,” “North by Northwest” and “The Sound of Music.”) He was hired by one of Hollywood’s most successful independent production companies, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, to write a screenplay and direct a movie based on his work. But when United Artists, the distributor of H-H-L’s films objected to a first-time director such as Lehman being in charge of the movie, he was replaced by Alexander Mackendrick. And when Lehman became ill during the filming of the movie, Clifford Odets was hired to work on the screenplay.
Mackendrick, born in America, raised in Scotland, and best known for his light satirical comedies (“The Man in the White Suit,” “The Ladykillers”) made for England’s Ealing Studios, had recently signed a contract with H-H-L. Though he often clashed with Lancaster, who was both the star and a producer of the movie, over filmmaking decisions — to the point where he almost got fired mid-production — the end results reveal Mackendrick as a skilled craftsman with a strong sense of visual mobility and flare, particularly in his scenes shot on location in New York. (A Scottish TV documentary from 1986 about Mackendrick, featuring interviews with the director and Lancaster, is included here.)
As for Odets, the writer who had once been the most celebrated left-wing playwright (“Waiting for Lefty,” “Golden Boy”) to come out of New York’s theater scene in the 1930s, had by the mid-‘50s been deeply scarred by his reluctant appearance before the witch hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As Gary Giddins notes in an excellent essay about the film which accompanies the DVD, Odets’ work on “Sweet Smell of Success,” where he contributed much of the sharp and piercing dialogue to Lehman’s overall plot, represented his first major involvement in a movie in 10 years.
Other major contributors to the production were cinematographer James Wong Howe, composer Elmer Bernstein and the jazz combo led by drummer Chico Hamilton. Howe, who had been working in Hollywood since the silent era, uses his noirish photography to present nighttime in New York City as mean and treacherous. (A 1973 documentary about Howe looks at his cinematography and includes a tutorial on film lighting.) Bernstein’s jazzy big-band score, supplemented by the sparer material by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, epitomizes the cool but flashy style of the mid-‘50s.
Towering above the production are the performances of Lancaster and Curtis. Lancaster, then one of Hollywood’s top leading men, risked his star stature by portraying an evil man who had become corrupted by his own power. Despite their clashes, according to Kate Buford, Lancaster’s biographer, Mackendrick later praised Lancaster: “He had a moral courage at playing roles that are quite against any star image.” A new DVD documentary with film historian and Walter Winchell biographer Neal Gabler explores the man whom Hunsecker is based upon.
As for Curtis, he’s nothing short of a revelation here. Best used in comedies and romances (“Some Like It Hot,” “Operation Petticoat”) and disastrous when his Bronx accent is misplaced (as in “Spartacus”), he makes a powerful impression as the scheming, nail-biting, integrity-challenged Falco.
Clearly ahead of its time when it was first released, “Sweet Smell of Success” has proven to be a lasting, powerful study of venality and complicity. Viewers watching it more than 50 years later should have no problem appreciating it.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene and Barbara Nichols
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writers: Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets
Distributor: Criterion Collection