Scott: When I think about the best examples of movies as a collaborative art form, two titles immediately jump to mind: Casablanca and Sweet Smell Of Success. The directors of both films—Michael Curtiz and Alexander Mackendrick, respectively—made great projects with different sets of professionals, but in these cases, the individual contributions of their writers and key crew members are just so strong and harmoniously integrated. We’ll get into the majesty of Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay later, but there’s also the luminous black-and-white nightscapes by James Wong Howe and the bold, jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein, which don’t necessarily have to be there for the film to work, but add texture all the same. The use of real exteriors and street life wasn’t that common in 1957, but it lends an important verisimilitude that acts as ballast to an extremely stylized script, holding it firmly in its show-business milieu.
In terms of storytelling, I deeply admire how the film captures the petty insularity of this world, where gossip columnists lord over their little fiefdoms, writing columns that either reflect favors granted or revenge exacted. It’s a bitterly cynical point of view, but Odets and Lehman carry it across convincingly by focusing on a desperate, vicious breed of person who’s disconnected from the rest of humankind. Keep in mind: Column items are written or not written (and fates determined) by the fact that the city’s most powerful gossip columnist doesn’t want an earnest jazz musician to marry his sister. It’s the ultimate tempest in a teapot.
Nathan: Re-watching Sweet Smell Of Success, I was struck by how infrequently J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) looks at Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) when he talks directly to him, or about him. It’s as if eye contact is a privilege J.J. only shares with people he wants to impress or terrify with that cobra-getting-ready-to-strike glare of his, and Sidney hasn’t earned that privilege yet, and probably never will. Mackendrick and Howe use staging and deep focus to speak volumes about how the film’s characters see themselves and their relationships in the shadowy, slimy, but strangely seductive little universe they’re all doomed to share. Howe’s gorgeous but sinister tableaus make even the most shimmering nightclub look and feel more like a prison.
Noel: Scott, you mention the machinations J.J. and Sidney go through to accomplish what amounts to squelching a teenage crush, and watching the movie this time, I was struck more than ever by how ridiculous that whole business is. I’m thinking in particular of the scene where Sidney pulls up to a plate of oysters next to J.J., acting like a statesman revealing diplomatic strategy, and proceeds to detail his latest theory on why the Hunsecker/Dallas romance is dead. I have no doubt that the newspaper-columnist business was every bit as cutthroat as Sweet Smell Of Success implies. I also have no doubt that this movie is more than a little satirical, letting the air out of columnists’ inflated self-importance by revealing how much they have in common with bitchy high-school gossips.
Matt: Mackendrick wasn’t the flashiest director, but there’s a great precision and clarity to Sweet Smell Of Success’ visual storytelling. The camera doesn’t move much, so when it does—to zoom in on people’s faces as they receive devastating news, or to link two different people in a single panning shot—it gives those images enormous impact. Blocking in scenes is tremendously important as well; you can understand the state of Sidney and J.J.’s relationship at any point without listening to their fabulously piquant dialogue by examining their body language and positioning in the frame. When Sidney finally confronts J.J. at the 21 Club over getting shut out of his column, he winds up seated behind J.J. and over his shoulder as the columnist converses with a senator, a manager, and their new project, a young female singer; he’s literally left on the outside of the conversation, looking in. That’s in stark contrast to the big confrontation between J.J. and his sister’s boyfriend later in the film, when Sidney winds up positioned directly between the two men.
Also, to Noel’s point about the crazy lengths Hunsecker is willing to go to in order to ruin his sister’s relationship: The real-world inspiration for Hunsecker, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, once went to even greater lengths to tear his daughter Walda away from a lover. According to biographer Neal Gabler, Winchell actually committed his daughter to a mental hospital for a brief period, and possibly used his connections at the FBI (which he frequently praised in his newspaper columns) to get her lover thrown in jail for 18 months over an unpaid tax bill of just $4,000. When the daughter’s boyfriend got out of jail, he moved to Israel and never came back. The real story is more absurd than the one in the movie!
Noel: One more stylistic note on that conversation with the senator and the singer: There’s a curt but effective little double camera move when J.J. warns the senator that “any hep person knows” the manager has brought the singer along for the senator to have sex with. The camera shifts quickly from the manager to the singer as J.J. breaks down the situation. Everything is simplified.
Noel: My first exposure to Sweet Smell Of Success came via Barry Levinson’s movie Diner, which has a minor character who loves Sweet Smell so much that he’s memorized every line, and walks around quoting the film non-stop. And who can blame him? Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets’ dialogue is as jazzy as the soundtrack, mixing Beat poetry and thug-speak in lines like, “If you’re funny, James, I’m a pretzel,” and “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” J.J. and Sidney both work with words for a living—in J.J.’s case, sounding witty is his living—so a big part of their respective acts in public is to show off their skills. We could all take turns sharing our favorite lines (I’m torn between “You’re blind, Mr. Magoo,” and, “I like Harry, but I can’t deny that he sweats a little”), but the lines in and of themselves aren’t as important as how the characters use them to cut and one-up each other.
Scott: Beyond being generally wonderful, one of the things the dialogue does in Sweet Smell Of Success is help bring the New York theater world into the stylized realm of film noir. The film has a real-life analog in Winchell’s story, but the film isn’t shooting for verisimilitude; its shadow biopic heightens the atmosphere around this petty little hornet’s nest, and it all starts with dialogue that showcases its characters’ wit and their ability to use words like daggers. In this world where blind items ruin lives, the pen is definitely mightier than the sword.
Nathan: Stylized and heightened is right. If Odets and Lehman’s dialogue was the film’s only forceful, outsized element, I could see it overwhelming the rest with its phosphorescent intensity. But damn near every element of Sweet Smell Of Success is big and intense; the performances from Lancaster and Curtis, Howe’s dazzling cinematography, and Bernstein’s electrifying score. Sweet Smell Of Success should be much too much. Instead, the film feels like one long climax that somehow never ends or wears out its welcome. Sweet Smell Of Success is like a jazz band where everyone plays as hard and as flashily as they possibly can, until they collapse in a state of complete exhaustion, and the result is glorious music rather than headache-inducing cacophony.
Matt: I love Scott’s comment about how words are power in this world. We never get to read J.J.’s work (if you freeze-frame your Blu-ray as Sidney Falco scans The New York Globe in the opening scene, you’ll see Hunsecker’s column is just a bunch of random paragraphs cut together to look like an essay), but we don’t doubt his ability to command an audience of 60 million people, specifically because of how adept he is at slinging zingers. Hunsecker is a cruel, vindictive monster, but he isn’t a hack. As for great lines, you guys have already mentioned most of my favorites, except for one, from Sidney as he reveals his dream to his mousy secretary: “From now on,” he tells her, “the best of everything is good enough for me.”
New York City
Matt: “I love this dirty town,” Hunsecker says as he assesses the chaos outside New York City’s 21 Club. That famous line perfectly encapsulates Sweet Smell Of Success’ view of Manhattan, a venal, cutthroat world pulsing with excitement and glamour. At one point, J.J. calls Sidney a “cookie full of arsenic.” The movie’s New York is like that too. This apple is big—and rotten to its core.
Sweet Smell is a New Yorker’s New York movie. It sounds like New York; Odets and Lehman both lived and worked in New York, and stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were both born and raised there. They all knew the city’s rhythms and rituals. And it looks like New York, thanks to Mackendrick’s economical but effective use of real Manhattan locations. Most of Sweet Smell was shot on soundstages in Los Angeles; the street sequences were all filmed together in a couple of nights at the end of production. Mackendrick maximized his time in New York by threading scenes into and out of locations; Sidney Falco arrives at the 21 Club (the real one in Manhattan), then pushes his way inside (a Los Angeles set), then returns back outside (the real one again), where a taxicab waits to take him to his next destination. The actual exteriors lend a feeling of authenticity to the false interiors, and the transitions back and forth connect everything we see into a convincing approximation of the city that never sleeps.
Nathan: Sweet Smell Of Success is such a New York movie, that, according to this nifty article on the film’s making, the jittery Odets started to experience intense panic at the prospect of returning to New York for the film, since he associated the city with all the theatrical lions he feared he disappointed and betrayed by leaving the lefty world of New York theater for the big-money world of Hollywood. The piece makes it sound like New York was almost a disease for Odets, a virus that got under his skin and contaminated him from within. In that respect, the New York of Sweet Smell Of Success isn’t just a dirty town—it’s damn near diseased to the core, yet strangely glorious all the same.
Noel: I’ve only ever been to New York once (and it wasn’t in the 1950s), but I’ve always loved this movie’s sense of the spaces of the city, and who belongs where: the jazz musicians in their smoky dives, Sidney hovering around the fringes, and J.J. holding court at his usual table in the best club in town. In a way, Sidney has the best of things, even if he has to “scratch around like a dog,” and even though he can’t afford to wear an overcoat because he can’t afford to tip the coat-check girls. He may covet J.J.’s life and insist he’s on his way up to that level (“where the air is always balmy”), but when Sweet Smell Of Success begins, the whole city is open to him, in a way I’m not sure it’s really open to J.J.
Scott: The New York of the film is vicious, another “cookie full of arsenic,” but cookies can look awfully sweet, and I feel like the city isn’t entirely sinister here, at least until someone takes a bite and tastes the poison on the inside. Those beautiful shots of Times Square at night, that hip Bernstein score, those gorgeous women like Susie and Rita, the cigarette girl, who are completely ruined by the men in this film—it’s a seductive place that Mackendrick and Howe work hard to create. They give the film a compelling tension between the romance of the big city and the ugly reality, which is necessary for the audience to understand why Sidney is so desperate to gain status there, and so willing to do horrible things to make it happen. If this was Des Moines, I doubt he’d put up much of a fight.
Nathan: Co-screenwriters Lehman and Odets invested a lot of themselves in Sweet Smell Of Success. In writing the novella that inspired the film, and then the original screenplay, Lehman drew upon his experiences working for a prominent press agent, while Odets brought to the project decades of firsthand knowledge of just how show business, power, money, and mad lunging for the big brass ring can corrupt an innocent soul, and thoroughly transform the already weak and willing. (While discussing Odets, why not indulge in Odets-like hyperbole?) Sweet Smell Of Success depicts show business as one giant Faustian bargain in which everyone, from a senator to a hapless vaudevillian to a jazz guitarist, must prostrate himself before the enormous, all-encompassing power of J.J. Hunsecker. The film depicts show business as a business more than anything else, one where the grasping venality of capitalism is ruthlessly and thoroughly exposed. But just as Hunsecker loves his dirty town, Sweet Smell Of Success loves the dirty, dirty business of show.
Scott: The only person we actually see perform in Sweet Smell Of Success is Steve Dallas, and frankly, being a jazz guitarist—even an up-and-comer with an agent, like Steve—isn’t really show business. Steve wouldn’t have to rely on good press from men like J.J. Hunsecker to get ahead, and the only reason he attracts any press at all is because he’s seeing Hunsecker’s sister. As for the other performers, Sidney uses an early look at one of Hunsecker’s columns to con an ancient vaudevillian into taking him on as a press agent, but that’s an even greater confirmation that nobody really needs succubi like Sidney and J.J. to make their careers. The real drama in Sweet Smell Of Success winds up happening around show business, between the agents and columnists who want their piece of the pie. The industry itself would get along just fine without them.
Noel: The fascinating, still-relevant question raised by Sweet Smell Of Success is just that, Scott: Would the industry get by without the people leeching off it? And if not, then which leech is more important? Does J.J. need agents like Sidney to “furnish him with items,” or can J.J. write his column by himself? At the risk of getting too inside-baseball, that’s a question we critics discuss among ourselves constantly, every time a publicist keeps us from seeing a movie we need to see, or denies our request to interview a celebrity. Don’t they need us?
By the way, on the subject of the relationship between show business and the newspaper business, there’s one aspect of J.J.’s column that I’m not sure makes immediate sense to modern-day audiences. I think we can all extrapolate from an old-time giant like Hunsecker to a modern-day TV personality like Oprah or Ellen, who has the power to make some entertainer’s future with a single mention. But I also like the movie’s brief mention of the joke-writers who feed J.J. little gags he can sprinkle in, which is how Woody Allen got his start. The moment in Sweet Smell where one of those comedians calls J.J. with a joke about foreign cars that J.J. already ran last week—prompting Sidney to remark, “A man has just been sentenced to death”—is one of my favorite era-specific scenes.
Nathan: It’s worth noting that Hunsecker makes the switch to television, as gossip columnists like Winchell and Chicago’s Irv Kupcinet did before him, and we see him getting ready for his television show as well, as in his nightly haunts. In some ways, Hunsecker is an anachronistic figure; he writes for the fucking newspapers. In others, he’s a very contemporary figure, a not-so-proud grandfather to today’s gossip-obsessed online culture. Hunsecker and Falco are certainly locked together in a closed system of mutual exploitation and parasitism; it’s an intriguing question whether the culture at large needs them, or they’re merely vultures.
Scott: Can we talk about how good Tony Curtis is in this movie? It would be easy enough for Sidney Falco to be merely unctuous—his actions alone are reprehensible enough for that. But Curtis makes us feel the desperation underpinning it all. Being a publicist in any age is humbling work—groveling for coverage, spinning relentlessly, suffering the abuses of clients and members of the press alike—but Sidney’s sole lifeline is J.J. Hunsecker, and J.J.’s awareness of that leads him to exact favor after favor after favor. Does Sidney want to break up a perfectly happy couple? Does he want to whore out Rita, the cigarette girl who asked him for help? Even at Sidney’s worst—or especially at his worst—Curtis’ eyes hint at his regret and soul-sickness. He’s more human than J.J., and he suffers for it.
Noel: I’m with you on Curtis, Scott. He plays Sidney as a guy who may actually be the smartest person in the room at any time, but knows he’s mostly using his formidable wit on petty bullshit. And he still gets called “the boy with the ice-cream face.”
Nathan: Sidney’s delicate, almost feminine beauty—he seems to be wearing as much makeup as any cigarette girl—is referenced throughout, which contributes to the film’s undercurrents of homoeroticism and sadomasochism. J.J.’s need to dominate, control, and/or humiliate everyone in his sphere frequently seems to have a sexual component, even when it’s directed at Sidney or his own sister.
Matt: In a quirky twist of fate, this film about a fictional press agent named Sidney Falco (loosely based on real-life press agent turned novelist and screenwriter Ernest Lehman) later inspired a real-life New York publicity firm named Falco Ink. Many of their emails come from “Sidney Falco”—and a colleague of mine who obviously hadn’t seen Sweet Smell Of Success once called their office with a question and asked for Sidney. I imagine she isn’t the only one who’s made that mistake.
The other real-life figure we haven’t mentioned who certainly flashed through my mind on a couple of occasions during this particular viewing is Nikki Finke. She didn’t have an audience nearly as large as J.J. Hunsecker’s during her heyday at Deadline, but she nonetheless occupied a similar position of power and fear. A Sweet Smell Of Success remake is totally unnecessary, but I have to think an update based around a publicist and a Finke analog could be pretty interesting. I know HBO made a pilot loosely based on Finke, starring Diane Keaton, but didn’t pick it up for a series. I’d be very interested to see that, and to compare it to Sweet Smell. Sadly, that cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in an HBO vault somewhere.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Movie Of The Week Keynote on Sweet Smell Of Success’ “moral tarpit.” And tomorrow, Nathan Rabin looks at the Hollywood career of Success co-writer Clifford Odets, who also inspired the character of Barton Fink.