The Story (continued)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Early Evening - Day Two
At the Twenty-One Club, a table is set for Sidney and Hunsecker. Sitting side by side, they discuss the day's events, with Sidney concluding that his masterminding of the split in the couple's relationship has succeeded: "It's all over because any hour now, that boy will give her up." Hunsecker isn't so certain ("this syrup you're giving out with, you pour over waffles, not J.J. Hunsecker"), and pulls on Sidney's tie as he replies: "What do you mean, this lousy kid'll give up my sister?...Am I supposed to forget how that kid talked to me today?" Hunsecker displays two steamship tickets for the next sailing of the Mary, to take Susie away with himself for an extended period of time, while Steve is destroyed on the homefront:
I want that boy taken apart...I know how to handle Susie. You just, you just handle the boy - preferably tonight.
J.J. hands Sidney a handwritten note (from his inscribed pad), with unspoken instructions ordering Sidney to have his "fat cop friend" rough up Dallas: GET HARRY KELLO TONIGHT. And then Hunsecker reveals to his horrified, resistant, and balking handyman how he has been injured by the young, idealistic musician. Because so many millions of readers place their faith in him every day, the omnipotent columnist feels justified in avenging the hurt:
Hunsecker: You've got a God-given brain, Sidney, use it. Do you think this is a personal thing with me? Are you telling me I think of this in terms of personal pique? Don't you see that today, that boy wiped his feet on the choice, on the predilections of sixty million men and women in the greatest country in the world? If you had any morals yourself, you'd understand the immorality of that boy's stand today. It wasn't me he criticized. It was my readers. (After a pause, with Sidney beginning to rise from the table.) Don't remove the gangplank, Sidney, you may wanna get back on board.
Sidney: J.J., it's one thing to wear your dog collar. But when it turns into a noose, I'd rather have my freedom.
Hunsecker: The man in jail is always for freedom.
Sidney: Except, if you'll excuse me, J.J., I'm not in jail.
Hunsecker: You're in jail, Sidney. You're a prisoner of your own fears, your own greed and ambition; you're in jail.
Sidney: You're blind, Mr. Magoo. This is the crossroads for me. I won't get Kello. Not for a lifetime pass to the Polo Grounds. Not if you serve me Cleopatra on a plate.
Hunsecker: Sidney, I told you -
Sidney: J.J., I swear to you on my mother's life I wouldn't do that. Not if you gave me a column would I do it for y-- (Sidney stops, appalled by what he has said, but realizing its implications. Hunsecker grins back.)
Hunsecker: And who do you suppose writes the column while Susie and I are away for three months? The man in the moon? (Sidney sinks back to his seat.)
The unscrupulous, arrogant Hunsecker offers a persuasive bribe to Sidney to stoop real low and summon the detestable Kello. He promises a three month guest editorship of his column while he is cruising with Susie, if Sidney will do his bidding and accept his proposition to contact Kello. As Hunsecker predicted, Sidney is a 'prisoner of his own fears, his own greed and ambition.' The pawn-like Sidney helplessly agrees to the task, thereby attaining his goal of 'becoming' Hunsecker himself (for three months).
At a counter in a small, deserted diner, Susie fearfully disobeys J.J. by meeting with Steve. Both are despairing about their broken romance, and the power that her brother wields over them. Admitting to weakness ("I'm weak, I can't change"), Susie describes how Steve's challenge to her father has frightened her. Susie has decided to say goodbye forever, fearing Hunsecker's retaliation: "My brother is capable of doing very great harm and I can't let that happen." As she holds her hands over her ears to drown out his words, he tells her that she doesn't have to be manipulated by him like a ventriloquist:
Right out of that mouth I love, like a ventriloquist's dummy, your brother is saying goodbye.
He is unyielding to her wish that he find happiness elsewhere - "I won't give you up." After they kiss, and after Steve has walked off with his beleaguered manager D'Angelo, Susie is left in the foreground of the long entrance hall - "still standing there." Her lonely, bowed figure leans against the wall.
Later in the Evening - Day Two
A dissolve from the previous scene opens the next scene - set at Joe Robard's club that night, where the quintet is playing for a 20th Anniversary party. Sidney watches as a black police car - anonymous but obviously Kello's - brakes sharply across the street from the club. He sits by and orders a Coke at the bar. After he overhears D'Angelo notify the club owner that Steve doesn't feel good and will be leaving after the next set, he reacts instinctively. To carry out Hunsecker's machinations, he unobtrusively plants marijuana (in a pack of Cambridge cigarettes) in Steve's overcoat that hangs on a coat-rack near the club's entrance.
After planting the evidence, Sidney experiences quite a fright when D'Angelo shouts out: "Hey! Mr. Falco" - but then reassures him: "they broke it off tonight for good. Tell that to Hunsecker. Tell him we agree. He's a big man, he wins all the marbles." There is a moment of indecision and hesitation - as Sidney looks back - at the bandstand and at the coat-rack - should he retract his dirty work? Outside, he tips an appreciative, grinning Kello to the fact that Steve is leaving early and will have the marijuana on him. But Sidney detests his Judas traitorship to the fat, sadistic, and revolting cop who now terrorizes him:
Kello: Hey Murph, how do ya like this face? Well I'll be doggone, it's melting. Something got ya scared, Sidney? Listen, rectify me a certain thing. Weren't you kiddin', Snooks, when you told J.J. I was fat?
Sidney: (as he departs) Rest in peace, Kello, you're skinny. But J.J. says you sweat.
Kello: Is that a fact? He's a dilly, ain't he? I get the distinct impression, Snooks, that you don't like me. Could I be wrong?
Sidney: You could be right, ya fat slob.
Kello (guffawing and mocking): Come back, Sidney, I wanna chastise you.
Sidney watches from a vantage point above the street on a walkway (a detached, morally superior location away from the repulsive Kello), where he can see both the police car (and detectives) and the club below. With a head movement, he signals Kello when Steve departs with his guitarcase, and then walks away to avoid witnessing the brutality of the arrest. Seen from an ominous angle, the police car follows Steve down the sidewalk - and soon, Kello emerges from the car. The loud clash of cymbals in the club symbolizes the start of the off-screen arrest - and beating.
Meanwhile, Sidney celebrates his good fortune and newfound success by getting drunk and buying a few drinks for acquaintances in Toots Shor's Restaurant. He has reached the pinnacle of his own twisted goals - thereby explaining the film's acrid title:
I'm toasting my favorite new perfume - Success!
Late Night or Very Early Morning - Day Three
On his way to meet J.J. Hunsecker (a phone call message from Susan has summoned him, although he believes it's from J.J.), he crudely brushes off Herbie Temple, the comedian at the Palace Theatre, who asks to be represented ("We want you to handle our account").
In Hunsecker's quiet and seemingly empty apartment, Sidney walks into Susie's half-open bedroom doorway. The curtains of the window blow into the room, and Susie is out on the terrace. Tricking him to arrive there, she is half-undressed with only a slip under her expensive fur coat, leaning over the balcony, and contemplating suicide. Susie has just returned from the hospital after hearing about Steve's beating and arrest as a pot-smoker - but was turned away from seeing him. She blames Sidney and J.J. as being responsible for the assault and false arrest of her boyfriend. She threatens to commit suicide, claiming that J.J. will then punish Sidney for allowing her to jump:
I'm sorry about Steve, not myself. I'm sorry about my brother, and I'm sorry about you too, Sidney. Because you're going down with the ship...This ship. Don't you know how my brother is going to see you after tonight? You're gonna be the man who drove his beloved little sister to suicide.
Uncertain, but hoping that she's bluffing, Sidney belittles and ridicules Susie's 'delicate' intentions to carry through with her adult threats. He patronizes her as someone who has a negligible effect ("nervous and incompetent"):
I've heard this woman-talk before. Why don't you start growing up, huh? Start thinking with your head instead of your hips. (He pours himself a drink.) By the way, I got nothing against women thinking with their hips, that's their nature. Just like it's a man's nature to go out and hustle and get the things he wants. Susie, look at yourself. You're nineteen years old, just a kid, and you're falling apart at the seams. You tiptoe around on those bird legs of yours, nervous and incompetent, with a fatality for doing wrong, picking wrong, and giving up even before you start a fight. (She locks herself in her bedroom.) ...To give credit where credit is due, Susie, that body of yours deserves a better fate than tumbling off some terrace.
From another section of the terrace, he sees Susie dashing toward the parapet's ledge to throw herself off. He rushes towards her just as she jumps, and saves her by catching her. He pulls her back into the room ("Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?") where she first falls on the floor and then flops across her bed. As he leans over her sobbing figure on the bed and apologizes ("If I said anything, or did anything to hurt you...?"), a rigid-faced, menacing Hunsecker arrives home.
After reassuring Susie ("It's all right, Susie, I'm here"), he immediately misreads the situation and assumes the worst - that Falco has sexually assaulted his sister. He claims to be unaware that Dallas has been picked up "on a marijuana rap." Thinking that Sidney has attempted rape ("Is that why you put your hands on my sister?"), he punches Sidney several times in the face, while Susie refuses to defend Falco. She mutely and innocently stands by to watch the violent retribution, even though Sidney pleads with her to admit her suicide attempt.
Horrified by the furious assault, Susie finally screams for her brother to halt his raging attack. And Sidney blurts out the truth of Hunsecker's phoniness - that he is mixed up with Steve's persecution:
You're defending your sister, you big phony! Didn't you tell me to get Kello? Didn't you - ?
Susie looks at her brother in silent disbelief after hearing that both venal men are responsible for Steve's hospitalization. J.J.'s cool explanation can't suffice: "Just as I know he's lying about your attempted suicide, you know he's lying about me." As Hunsecker leaves the room to make a phone call, Sidney retorts to Susan that she has grown up - and knowingly used him to avenge Steve's injuries:
You're growing up - Cute.
As Sidney leaves the apartment, affirming that Hunsecker has "lost her" and will "never get her (Susie) back," Hunsecker summons Lieutenant Kello. He calls the corrupt cop to tell him that Sidney planted the marijuana cigarettes on Steve Dallas and that he should be arrested. J.J. has an answer for Falco's motivation: "Jealousy - behind my back he was trying to make my sister." From the front door, Sidney calls back, threatening to expose and reveal the entire smear campaign: "That fat cop can break my bones, but he'll never stop me from telling what I know." [This line, expressing just retribution for corruption, was added to appease the censors.]
The results of both men's actions have unexpectedly backfired. Now that it has been confirmed that her brother was behind the whole plan to separate her from Steve, Susie packs a small suitcase and prepares to leave - to go to Steve - the one thing that J.J. had wanted to prevent. At the half-opened front door, she announces that she is leaving for good:
I'd rather be dead than living with you. For all the things you've done, J.J., I know I should hate you. But I don't. I pity you.
Dawn - Day Three
Out on the street as the dawn light approaches, Sidney receives his just reward in his third encouner with Lieutenant Kello. He is cornered by police cars and Kello on a sidewalk - at street level. Only the sounds of fists punching Sidney's crumpling body are heard - the scene is blocked by a cop standing in the foreground. Falco's limp form is carried from the sidewalk as he is taken into custody.
And outside Hunsecker's apartment, Susie emerges, pauses on the dark and shadowed sidewalk, begins crossing the street, and strides into the early morning sunlight to escape her brother's nocturnal possessiveness. The symbolism is clear - she walks forward to a new and truly independent future, leaving her anguished, emotionally-punished brother alone on his upper terrace. Her love and admiration for him has turned, irretrievably, to hatred. She strides forward as a free agent, away from her entrapment, toward true freedom.
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AMC Filmcritic's Review of Sweet Smell of Success