Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is an acerbic, dynamic and intense film that exposes the diseased under-side of New York City's glamorous night life, revealing brutality, capriciousness, greed, evil, psychological violence, corrupt American ambition, betrayal and cynicism. The taut, little-seen, menacing, late film noir classic is the first American film of Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick, better known for Ealing Studios light comedies such as Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).
The sharp-edged, stylized screenplay, by Ernest Lehman (known for Sabrina (1954), The King and I (1956), and later for North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)) and the acclaimed left-wing American playwright Clifford Odets (known for Golden Boy (1939), Humoresque (1946) and The Big Knife (1955)), was based on Lehman's own original novelette (retitled as Tell Me About It Tomorrow when published in Cosmopolitan in 1950). Although Lehman was originally assigned to direct the film, he dropped out due to health reasons.
The film's quotable dialogue (extensively contributed by Odets) of the metropolitan locale is corrosively rich, slang-filled, sharply intelligent, and fast-paced, while the superb, crisp, low-key lighting of the black and white cinematography from veteran James Wong Howe emphasizes the harsh shadows and dark, unglamorous recesses of the corrupt and seamy environment of wheeling and dealing. Further realism was provided by the on-location shoot in mid-town Manhattan, capturing the restless hustle and bustle of big city life in the mid-50s when TV viewing was competing with newspaper circulation. [Both of Martin Scorsese's New York-based film Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) owe their look to this uncompromising urban masterpiece.]
The film provides an exposé of the poisonous world of NYC tabloid publicity with its attendant diseases: a witchhunt, insider trading, blackmail, deceit, double-dealing, and pimping. The urban-jazzy, sometimes discordant score by Elmer Bernstein (and Chico Hamilton's jazz Quintet) enhances the swanky, pungent underworld maelstrom of nightclubs and restaurants (the 21, the Elysian, Toots Shor's), the theatre district, brutish cops, cheap offices, crowded sidewalks, and dead-end alleys. Although the bleak film was considered a box-office and critical failure (it lacked even a single Academy Award nomination), it has gained considerable critical prominence ever since.
Since the uncompromising and decadent film is essentially an engrossing character study of unscrupulous, unattractive men in the artificial world of media power, phenomenal performances are derived from the two domineering and repugnant male leads - Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (in a breakthrough role with his greatest career performance). Both stars played their unsympathetic roles against type - it was Lancaster's first villainous role as J.J. Hunsecker - a stern, cold-blooded, morally corrupt, monomaniacal, and treacherous newspaper columnist (allegedly based, in part, on influential real-life Broadway gossip columnist Walter Winchell who could similarly make and break reputations). The film also follows the nimble exploits around the night-time city of the second ingratiating and obsequious character, Sidney Falco (a name with predatory, bird-of-prey connotations) - a success-seeking, hustling, slick, unethical and smarmy, PR press agent.
One of the film's posters succinctly describes the two major leads and their perverse, evil and interchangeable characters - and the attraction/repulsion quality of their interaction:
- J.J.: who commands the minds of sixty million readers of his column - and the bodies and souls of big shots and big names who bask in the sunshine of success
- Sid - who'd sell out his own girl if he could stand up there with J.J. - and suck in the sweet smell of success!
The film's central actor, Burt Lancaster, also served (with his press agent Harold Hecht) as the head of the film's production company (with hits including The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Apache (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Best Picture winner Marty (1955), and Trapeze (1956)). And this was screenwriter/producer James Hill's first film as a full member of the newly-named HHL (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster) production company (formed in 1953) - but it became the company's first major box-office failure. [Lancaster was one of the first film actors to become an independent film producer.] Homage was given to this film by one of the characters in Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), who quotes liberally from the rich dialogue. And the film played on a hotel TV screen in the room of autistic savant Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988). Unbelievably, it was remade by playwright John Guare as a Broadway musical (!) in 2002 (with music by composer Marvin Hamlisch), with John Lithgow in the Hunsecker role - but it was a doomed remake that closed a month after it opened.The Story
Early Evening - Day One
The film, covering a period of approximately 36 hours (with two long nocturnal sequences), opens with changing views of night-time Manhattan's streets and skyscrapers under the credits. Large, blazing neon signs advertise various theatre marquees and commercial products. A loud bell sounds as the camera enters the loading dock of a large newspaper building. A truck backs up with a large poster adorning its side: GO WITH THE GLOBE, READ J.J. HUNSECKER - The Eyes of Broadway. [At the top of the poster, a rectangular logo displays the thick, horn-rimmed and spectacled eyes of the famous columnist.] Bundles of newspapers slide down moving belts into the hands of workers, who load the stacks onto trucks that are soon flagged by an urgent foreman to start their delivery rounds. The camera follows - tracking from varying angles - one truck as it enters traffic, with its blaring headlights, and delivers part of its heavy payload to a sidewalk street-corner booth outside a hot-dog stand.
The first impatient patron to buy the early edition of the next morning's New York Globe newspaper on the crowded sidewalk is a well-dressed, glamorous pretty-boy Broadway press agent named Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), familiar to the near-blind vendor. His comic words to Sidney only make sense after repeated viewings of the film:
You want a hot item for Hunsecker's column? Two rolls got fresh with a baker. Ha-ha.
The weasely, two-bit, pandering Sidney has a reputation for struggling (and often failing) to place promotional items for media exposure for his show-biz clients into Hunsecker's popular syndicated column titled: "The Eyes of Broadway." [In the film, the name is pronounced "hun-sucker," emphasizing the insulting and corrupt sexual and personal power that he wields.] In the stand that is jammed with customers at the counter, Sidney grabs his orange juice and roll and expertly finds J.J. Hunsecker's column within the many pages. [The column is identified by the 'spectacled eyes' logo, with an accompanying picture of the famed writer.] After quickly scanning the column, he realizes, with clear disappointment, that he has been shut out and ignored again, and the coverage he has promised his clients has been blackballed.
He viciously and aggressively tosses the paper in an outside trash bin and walks to his nearby office down the street. [A pawn shop, travel agency, and a photoservice are his next-door neighbors.] His walk-up office (a combination two-room apartment and front office) is represented as cheap - a cardboard sign is crudely taped to the front door window, reading:
Inside, his beleaguered, homely and faithful secretary Sally (Jeff Donnell), who repeatedly lies for her seedy employer, is fending off another phone call from one of the success-starved publicity man's disgruntled clients:
Sally: That's the third time he's called today.
Sidney: He probably wants me to break a leg.
Sally: No, an arm, he said. I told him you were sure the item would be in Mr. Hunsecker's column in tomorrow's paper.
Sidney: It isn't.
For five consecutive days, the tough national columnist Hunsecker has frozen out poverty-threatened, go-between Sidney and failed to mention one of his clients. Although in a challenging bind with Hunsecker, the manipulative and aspiring Sidney is athletically resilient and resourceful - "Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off." On the phone, he lies to one of his disgruntled clients, jazz-club owner Joe Robard (Joseph Leon), insisting with sweet-talk that he purposefully asked Hunsecker to withhold an item until he could give it a "fine, fat paragraph." [Sidney stands before a bulletin board plastered with past clippings from Hunsecker's column.]
Snapping back, Robard tells the deceitful Falco that he has failed as both a personal and professional liar:
Oh, it's a publicity man's nature to be a liar. I wouldn't hire you if you wasn't a liar. I pay you a C-and-a-half wherein you, you plant big lies about me and the club all over the map...you are a personal liar too, because you don't do the work that I pay you for.
Pathetically love-struck by Sidney, Sally sympathetically offers to comfort him and moons over him, but he brutally rejects his insignificent aide:
Sally: I wish I could help in some way, Sidney.
Sidney: You could help with two minutes of silence.
Sally: I hate to see you like this. Sidney, if you feel nervous -
Sidney: So, what'll you do if I feel nervous? Open your meaty, sympathetic arms?
When she breaks down from his verbal abuse, he apologizes by admitting his tawdry shortcomings but still discards her wounded concern:
I'm no hero. I'm nice to people where it pays me to be nice. Look, I do it enough on the outside, so don't expect me to do it in my own office.
Falco's livelihood and path upward to the "balmy" top (heaven?) is dependent upon currying approval and favor (kissing-ass) with the influential, self-important and stoic Hunsecker (on his "golden ladder") who can make or ruin an aspiring individual's career. He has failed dismally on his latest personal assignment - to break up the romance between Hunsecker's younger sister and an up-and-coming jazz musician. Therefore, an unyielding Hunsecker has denied any column space to Sidney's pandering attempts at publicity, and has exiled or banished Sidney from his sight.
Sidney: He's punishing me. His kid sister is having a romance with some guitar player. He asked me to break it up. I thought I did, but maybe I didn't. Now I gotta go find out. And Hunsecker's the golden ladder to the places I wanna get.
Sally: But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?
Sidney: Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!' Or, 'Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.' I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players...In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.
[Throughout the script, there are numerous allusions to animals - here, Sidney is reminded of his desperate aspirations to rise above his low-dog, self-loathing status as a former pool hall gopher - or as a shrimp or mouse, by ruthlessly playing the "dog eat dog" game. He admits that one day he will succeed: "Every dog will have his day." Other references in the film include mention of a guinea pig, 'dog and cat heaven,' and even mosquitoes shot with an elephant gun.]:
After changing his clothes in his bedroom (without closing his door for privacy), Sidney leaves his office without his topcoat - to save money on checkroom tips (answering Sally's reminder to not forget his coat with: "And leave a tip in every hat-check room in town?").
Evening - Day One
The next scene, introduced by the snapping fingers of the guitar player to set the tempo, is within the Elysian Room where a group of five, suited-and-tied jazz musicians on a bandstand play a rhythmic number. The youthful guitar player, the leader of the cool-sounding quintet, is pleasant-faced, short blonde-haired Steve Dallas (Martin Milner, better known for his starring appearances: as Tod Stiles in the early 60s TV show Route 66, and for playing the role of Pete Malloy in the late 60s-mid 70s TV cop show Adam-12). In the vestibule, Sidney glares at Dallas with stark antagonism, since Steve is the object of Sidney's failed favor for Hunsecker. The club's buxom blonde, ditzy cigarette girl Rita (Barbara Nichols, a former stripper) accosts Sidney for his apparent neglect. After asking about whether Susie Hunsecker (J.J.'s sister) has recently been at the club or not, he crassly ignores Rita's request for help as he walks away:
Can I talk to you a minute?...Sidney, I'm in trou(ble) - .
Unscrupulous in his treatment of others, Sidney moves on to talk to the quintet's manager (and his own uncle), Frank D'Angelo (Sam Levene), who is seated at the bar and looking on appreciatively at his band's performance. To the best of Frank's knowledge, Steve Dallas is "washed up with Susie Hunsecker," and he is gratified since he has Steve's "best interests at heart." He reasons that "Steve shouldn't get mixed up with no bimbo at his age." After Rita whispers in Sidney's ear that Susie is out in the back waiting for Steve, Sidney tells Frank that he's reached a danger point - he's "walking around blind...without a cane."
In the shadows of the club's rear fire escape steps, 19 year-old Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison), wearing an expensive mink coat, eagerly awaits her forbidden lover. [Actress Susan Harrison is the mother of Darva Conger, the vilified bride on Fox's infamous reality TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire that aired in the winter of 2000.] During the quintet's intermission, Steve is summoned to the back courtyard where he asks her about his proposal of marriage: "What's the answer?" Affectionate, fluttering and doe-eyed, she moves closer to him and answers: "Steve, I'll try to make you a good wife." In close-up, they kiss and embrace, and clasp tightly together. She asks him to postpone public celebration for a few days until she tells her brother ("I'm telling him in the morning at breakfast"). Obviously, Steve is worried that her domineering, over-protective and controlling brother will be disapproving because he isn't considered good enough for her, and he suggests being with her to bolster her up ("He isn't gonna like this, and he makes you nervous, not me. No, I take that back, he makes me nervous too").
In the meantime, Sidney (Hunsecker's 'stooge' and 'snoop') has been misled about Steve's whereabouts by the other members of the quintet. When he finally locates the loving young couple, Steve has already confessed his love for Susan. Indignant that he has been dismissed and insulted by the non-nonsense musician, Sidney and Steve square off:
Steve: What were you doing around my hotel the other night?
Sidney: I beg your pardon, I haven't been in a bowery in years...
Steve: Look, the next time you want any information, don't scratch for it like a dog. Just ask for it like a man!
Since Steve must return to the next musical set, he bids Susan goodbye with a kiss ("Just don't leave me in a minor key"). Inside the club, Sidney listens to naively-sexy, dumb-blonde Rita tell about her recent refusal of a proposition to have sex from club patron and newspaper columnist Leo Bartha - and the consequences: "I'm being fired for what I didn't do." Sidney tells Rita that he is "avidly" paying attention, although he is only half-listening and half-interested (he's more attentive to the other people in the nightclub - the returning musicians and Susan and Steve's parting). But he is amused by her telling of the story that led to her threatened job loss by her boss Van Cleve:
And by the time I could have been put in a Tropical Island mood, I was out on the street. That night, Van Cleve calls me into his office. He's got nothing against me, he says, only he can't afford to antagonize columnists. So I tell him how I still have Sonny at the military academy. Sidney, do you think you could do something?...Do you still keep your key under the mat?
After she offers herself to him (for old times' sake), Sidney promises to see her at his apartment/office at two-thirty in the afternoon to provide comfort (and he'll leave the key under the mat).
In front of the club (before a poster showcase that features a picture of Steve on guitar), Sidney escorts and then joins Susan for a taxi-cab for a ride to 1619 Broadway - she lives in a penthouse with her brother. During their trip, Susan asks Sidney about his real feelings for her controlling, "monster" brother, since he is being treated like a "trained poodle":
Someday I'd like to look into your clever little mind and see what you're really thinking...Who could love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops, like a trained poodle?
And she responds to his question about her "strong" feelings (and possible plans of "wedding bells") for Steve: "It makes me feel good to know that some people want me for myself, not just because I'm my brother's sister." At her apartment door, she asks Sidney to tell her brother: "Tell him for me that Steve is the first real man I've ever been in love with." Fearing that a crisis is looming with J.J., Sidney proceeds to take the taxi on to the Twenty-One Club, where Hunsecker regularly holds court. But outside the club, Sidney reluctantly runs into another resentful and indignant client , Jimmy Weldon, who threatens to fire him for "larceny" ("Take your hands out of my pocket, thief").
Inside the Twenty-One Club, Sidney asks about Hunsecker's commanding presence: "Is he here?" The club's captain responds that the famed columnist is "surrounded" by "a senator, an agent and a thing with blonde wavy hair" at his customary dining room booth/table. From Sidney's perspective, a doorway is seen framing Hunsecker's table in the far distance (with Hunsecker's back to the camera). Falco nervously bites his nails, and then rushes to a rear phone booth, where he telephones Hunsecker. Desperate, Sidney asks for J.J. to come out and talk alone, but is denied the request by the angered columnist:
Hunsecker: You had to do something for me - you didn't do it.
Sidney: Could I come in for a minute?
Hunsecker: No. You're dead, son. Get yourself buried. (He hangs up.)