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‘Sweet Smell of Success’: A Film With Staying Power

SPECIAL TO THE BALTIMORE SUN

Night, New York, mid-1950s.

In the lobby of the legendary “21" club, a darkly handsome young man enters a phone booth and dials the number of a table just inside the crowded dining room.

“J.J., it’s Sidney,” he says, creasing a worried forehead with his thumb. “Can you come outside for one minute?”

“Can I come out? No.”

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“I have to talk to you, alone, J.J., that’s why.”

“You had something to do for me--you didn’t do it.”

“Can I come in for a minute?”

“No. You’re dead, son--get yourself buried.”

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For a small cadre of movie fans, these words carry a delicious frisson of anticipation, introducing a pivotal scene in “Sweet Smell of Success,” one of the most oddly compelling films of its time. The 1957 melodrama stars Tony Curtis as an ambitious press agent named Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster as a corrupt newspaper columnist named J.J. Hunsecker.

Hunsecker, at a table with a U.S. senator, a theatrical agent and a blond ingenue, is at first shown from an oblique angle, the tensile strength of his back fairly rippling with menace. The camera travels with a nervous Sidney as he navigates the stylishly infested waters of the restaurant; when he reaches the table, J.J. is calmly sipping a cup of coffee .

An incendiary scene ensues. J.J. needles Sidney (“Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one; none too pretty and all deceptive”) and chides the senator for being seen in public with a woman not his wife.

Throughout the sequence, the camera angles give J.J. an architectural monumentality on a par with the city he dominates. As his toxic aria reaches its crescendo, J.J. pulls out a cigarette and explains that Falco knows “all the tricks of his very slimy trade.” Then he holds the unlighted cigarette up and delivers the death blow, three little words spoken with clipped, lethal ferocity:

“Match, me, Sidney.”

The “21" scene of “Sweet Smell of Success” contains everything that its aficionados most cherish about the movie--crackling dialogue, razor-sharp performances, a swank, elegant look. In this sequence and throughout the movie, some of the era’s finest film artists --Curtis, Lancaster, writers Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Alexander Mackendrick--are working at the top of their game. But even many of its fans don’t know that the electricity on screen was the product of a frenzied effort marked by passion, ego, political intrigue and harrowing twists of fate.

Despite the energy and genius that bullied “Sweet Smell of Success” to the screen, the film was not well received when it was released. For most of its life, the black-and-white melodrama has remained a cult classic for aficionados who can quote its dialogue by heart when they see it on cable television or during an occasional repertory theater run.

Still, if most people aren’t familiar with “Sweet Smell of Success,” they have surely seen a movie informed or inspired by it. Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Barry Levinson and, most recently, Spike Lee have paid homage to the film in their work. What’s more, John Cusack has announced plans to produce and star in a remake of the film, and a Broadway musical starring John Lithgow is scheduled to open in 2002.

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Considering its frenzied production, unpromising debut and curious afterlife, “Sweet Smell of Success” might be the most obscure influential movie ever made.

“Sweet Smell of Success” had its roots in real life: Ernest Lehman’s. In 1950 Lehman published a novella in Cosmopolitan magazine called “Tell Me About It Tomorrow.” The story, about a power-drunk Broadway columnist named Harvey Hunsecker and an ambitious publicity agent named Sidney Wallace, was the third in a trilogy of stories featuring the two characters, whose ambition and greed drive them into an increasingly perverse symbiosis.

Lehman’s novella was something of a fictionalized memoir. During the 1940s he had worked for Irving Hoffman, a press agent who routinely supplied items to Broadway’s tabloid titans. None was as titanic as Walter Winchell, the syndicated Hearst columnist whose indomitable ego and inimitable patois had made him the most powerful journalist in America during the 1930s and ‘40s.

As most of Lehman’s colleagues recognized at the time, Hunsecker was based on Winchell, right down to his political demagoguery and alliterative initials. Even the plot point of Hunsecker’s breaking up his sister’s romance echoed an episode in Winchell’s life when he scuttled a relationship between his daughter and a small-time Broadway producer.

By 1955, when “Sweet Smell of Success” (the story’s original title) was purchased by Lancaster, Lehman had escaped the publicity game and was continuing a career as a screenwriter, having written the scripts for “Executive Suite” and “Sabrina.” But “Sweet Smell of Success” marked a turning point for Lehman: Not only would it be the most personal work of his screenwriting career, but it also would mark his debut as a director.

Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, or HHL, the production company Lancaster started in 1948 with agent Harold Hecht and producer James Hill, had first considered Orson Welles for the role of J.J. Hunsecker, but one day during a meeting at the company’s Beverly Hills office, Lancaster suggested that he take on the role himself.

“Sweet Smell of Success” was a twofold risk for Lancaster. As a producer he was taking on a story based on a powerful real-life personality, and one that involved incest, drugs and still-fresh McCarthyism. As an established star, the risk was even bigger: Although audiences had accepted Lancaster as a villain before, as J.J. Hunsecker he would be playing a man who was not just flawed but depraved.

If it was a stretch to imagine Lancaster as Hunsecker, today it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the streetwise charmer who sprints coatless through wintry New York streets with only his ambition and disingenuous smirk for cover.

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Curtis lobbied Lancaster relentlessly for the role of Falco, a character for whom he felt an instinctive affinity. Just as Falco aspired to climb the “golden ladder to the places I want to get,” Curtis was eager to break out of the roles he had played in such swashbucklers as “Son of Ali Baba” or “The Black Shield of Falworth.”

He believed so strongly in “Sweet Smell of Success” that, when he finally got the role, he invested in the movie. “At last I got myself a really important movie,” Curtis recalls. “It was a really major film for me.”

As the young couple that serves as the catalyst for the crisis in the film, HHL cast a young actor named Martin Milner as jazz musician Steve Dallas and unknown Susan Harrison as J.J.'s sister. Lancaster had met Milner on the set of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”; producer Hecht had discovered the 18-year-old Harrison waiting tables in the Limelight Club in Greenwich Village.

In the spring of 1956, Lehman started scouting locations in Manhattan. But soon after his return to Los Angeles, he was fired by HHL. “I was told that United Artists [the parent studio] suddenly got cold feet at the idea of a first-time director, as a result of Burt Lancaster having got his feet wet unsuccessfully,” Lehman recalls, referring to “The Kentuckian” (1955), which Lancaster had directed with unfortunate results.

“The Kentuckian” excuse turned out to be a ruse. “We were never gonna let Ernie direct!” James Hill said in a Vanity Fair article published earlier this year. The bait-and-switch tactic was a common one for HHL, whose principals were known in Hollywood to be as ruthless as they were daring.

Still, Lehman stayed on as the movie’s writer and producer.

Alexander Mackendrick Becomes Director

The man who took over as director was Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick, from England’s Ealing Studios. A Boston-born director, he had directed Alec Guinness to darkly comic perfection in “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers.”

“Sweet Smell of Success” would be Mackendrick’s Hollywood debut, as well as a chance to broaden his artistic palette. “I’d always hankered after the chances of working in melodrama,” he wrote in 1990. Mackendrick was an imposing man of formidable personality. If Hecht, Hill and Lancaster thought they had found an easy foil for their own power struggles, the ego clashes of the coming months would prove them wrong.

Before Lehman and Mackendrick set to work on the script, the director took cinematographer James Wong Howe and production designer Edward Carrere to New York to scout locations and to work out how to “open up” a screenplay that Mackendrick had described as “all talk.”

But upon their return, disaster struck. Lehman was diagnosed with a spastic colon (brought on, the writer is still convinced, by the stresses of working for HHL), and the man who created “Sweet Smell of Success” was forced to take a restorative trip to Tahiti.

Mackendrick now found himself leading a project badly in need of retooling, without a writer and with scarcely a month before production was scheduled to begin.

Twenty years before, Clifford Odets had electrified the contemporary theater with such radical plays as “Waiting for Lefty” and “Awake and Sing!” Since that time, the playwright had alternately enjoyed and suffered an ambivalent relationship with Hollywood, appreciating the money it offered but resenting the compromises it purchased.

By 1956 Odets was under contract at HHL. At Mackendrick’s request, the producers pulled Odets off another project to tweak the “Sweet Smell of Success” script. What started as a simple job of script doctoring resulted in a major overhaul. Following meticulous notes Lehman had written with Mackendrick, the playwright injected the script not only with movement, densely layered exposition and a slightly sharper political edge, but also with the metaphorical language that is still quoted today:

“I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years.” “Here’s your head, what’s your hurry?”

Odets changed Lehman’s Sidney Wallace to Sidney Falco, and Harvey Hunsecker to J.J. Hunsecker, thereby introducing two of the most evocative names in movie history.

No one who worked on the film had as significant an effect on its look as cinematographer James Wong Howe. Wong Howe was born in China in 1899, had emigrated to the United States as a young child, and had become a champion amateur boxer before pursuing movie photography. The tough perfectionist would be the perfect match for the egos doing battle on the film’s set.

Having helped create Warner Bros.’ signature gritty look during the 1940s, Wong Howe had become known as “Low-Key Howe” for his use of low-key lighting, expressive shadows and gradations of light.

On “Sweet Smell of Success,” Wong Howe filmed the city backdrops with a long-focus lens, making the buildings look bunched together. He shot close-ups of the protagonists’ faces with wide-angle lenses and deep focus, so that the background became as much a part of the composition as the faces themselves.

The overall effect was one of overstimulation and suffocation, given even more atmosphere by the smoke that Wong Howe used in virtually every shot.

“Sweet Smell of Success” became notorious for the conflict, crisis and chaos of its production. By most accounts the best and worst of it was embodied by Odets, who would work furiously through the night and give Mackendrick handwritten pages in the morning, which the director would then shoot that very day.

Just days into production, Mackendrick found himself high on a crane above Times Square with bevies of Tony Curtis fans thronging below, shooting a movie with an unfinished script, no ending and a rapidly ballooning budget.

Midway through the production, as he did on every movie he worked on, Lancaster decided he knew better than Mackendrick how the movie should be shot, and an ever-escalating battle of directorial wills ensued.

“Sandy and Burt got so mad at each other,” Curtis recalls. “I didn’t take sides, because they were both intelligent movie makers.”

Adding to the stress was a more shadowy presence.

“My memory’s a little vague on the film,” makeup artist Robert Schiffer recalls, “except going to New York and having Walter Winchell hide around corners and send people around to find out what we were saying and doing.”

But as dysfunctional as the production was, Curtis remembers it as a thrilling time of creative ferment. He recalls one night on location: “We were in the back of a prop truck, they have Clifford Odets sitting with a blanket around him with his wiry hair, typing the next day’s scenes, and he typed out on the sheet of paper, ‘Sidney: The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.’ I saw it come right from his heart to his mind to his hand.”

At the first screening of “Sweet Smell of Success” in San Francisco, the audience was repulsed. “Don’t touch a foot of this film,” read one preview card. “Burn the whole thing.” Part of the filmgoers’ disappointment had to do with seeing Curtis and Lancaster cast so drastically against type in such an unequivocally sordid story. This was, after all, a year in which the most popular movies were such noble endeavors as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or tame dramas such as “Old Yeller” and “Peyton Place.”

The New York press was understandably supportive of a film that represented their city and profession with such visceral glee. The Daily News called it “sensational and shocking.” Time magazine named “Sweet Smell of Success” one of the 10 best movies of 1957.

No review mentioned Winchell’s name. But as he did during its production, the columnist hovered around “Sweet Smell of Success” throughout its release. On opening night in New York, he waited across the street, sending his minions into the theater in order to bad-mouth the movie and report back to him the audience’s reaction. Months later, he crowed in his syndicated column about the film’s financial losses.

HHL took a financial hit with the film, beginning a downward spiral that would culminate in the company’s unraveling in 1959.

Although “Sweet Smell of Success” never quite arrived back in 1957, it has never entirely disappeared. Through the years its most ardent proselytizers have been other filmmakers, who worship the film’s dialogue, acting and restless urban energy.

Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Stephen Frears, Spike Lee and Cameron Crowe have acknowledged their debt to a film that shows up in movies as varied as “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Barton Fink,” “The Grifters,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Bamboozled.” David Henry Hwang used bits of Odets’ dialogue in “Swimming With Sharks,” his indictment of the movie industry.

But no director has paid as explicit an homage to “Sweet Smell of Success” as Barry Levinson, who has quoted the movie not once but twice in his own films. Throughout “Diner,” a supporting character appears parroting Odets’ choicest lines, and the movie is shown briefly on a television screen in “Rain Man.”

“I would have been 14 or 15,” Levinson says of the first time he saw “Sweet Smell of Success,” when it opened in Baltimore in 1957. “The first thing that stood out for me [was] the way they talked. I loved the dialogue. It just jumped off the screen.”

“The bottom line is, I don’t think that movie failed at that moment at the box office because Tony Curtis wasn’t likable,” says director James Mangold. “It failed because it was above the head of the general moviegoing audience. It was just too damned good.”

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Ann Hornaday, former Baltimore Sun film critic, is researching a book on “Sweet Smell of Success.”


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