Sweet Smell of Success (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced by James Hill; directed by Alexander Mackendrick; screenplay by Cifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, from the novelette by Ernest Lehman; photographed by James Wong Howe; art direction by Edward Carrere; editorial supervision by Alan Crosland, Jr.; costumes designed by Mary Grant; music by Elmer Bernstein, songs by Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz; starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Marty Milner, Jeff Donnell, Sam Levene, Joe Frisco, Barbara Nichols, Emile Meyer, Edith Atwater and The Chico Hamilton Quintet. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 96 min, 1957. A Criterion Collection Release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
On a visit to Martin Scorsese’s loft for an interview years ago, I was delighted to see a pinned-up slip of paper with one of my favorite movie lines: “Are we kids, or what?” Leave it to Scorsese to pick up on a phrase so ingeniously oblique that it’s stayed with me for decades, yet so fleeting that film scholar James Naremore gets it wrong (“friends” instead of “kids”) in his BFI book about the picture it comes from: Sweet Smell of Success, the 1957 classic directed by Alexander Mackendrick, now available from the Criterion Collection in a dazzlingly good DVD or Blu-ray edition.
The above-quoted line is a good entryway to the film. The speaker is diabolical gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), whose machinations propel the story. Presiding over his table at Manhattan’s stylish 21 Club, he’s just finished a brief colloquy with a United States senator, an unctuous talent agent, and a bewildered-looking young woman, addressing the senator but humiliating all three in a characteristic sneak attack: “Now here you are, Harvey, out in the open where any hep person knows that this one [pointing at the agent] is toting that one [pointing at the bimbo] around for you. Are we kids, or what?” The politician is chastised, the others are mortified, and we know for certain that however self-absorbed and childish his columns are, the power-flaunting Hunsecker is not a kid, and probably hasn’t been since he was twelve.
Also present in the scene is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), one of the press agents who feed enticing items about their clients to Hunsecker and his ilk, knowing the clients will vanish if the stuff doesn’t get printed. Hunsecker is the film’s center of gravity but Falco is the psychological hub. He has lost Hunsecker’s favor because he hasn’t yet followed an order to squelch the romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan and Steve Dallas, a jazz musician. Young though they are, Susan and Steve aren’t kids either, and they’re determined to get married. But big brother is a formidable force, and his press-agent factotum is equally ruthless in his own craven way. Sidney is a Falco who always hears the falconer, and to paraphrase Yeats’s poem, he’s poised and ready to loose sheer anarchy upon the world, or at least the influential corner of it that Hunsecker reigns over from his table at 21.
Sweet Smell of Success originated in magazine stories and a novella by Ernest Lehman, then a rising young writer fresh from his own stint as a Broadway press agent. The novella “caused a sensation,” Lehman wrote in a brief essay reprinted in Criterion’s program booklet, because it “dared to take on a feared and powerful columnist” whose identity was easily discernable. The model for Hunsecker was Walter Winchell, the era’s most prominent practitioner of the gossip column as power tool.
Winchell could literally make and break careers with a single phrase in his column, which had fifty million readers, or a snappy remark on his radio show. He was politically progressive during the Depression and much of World War II, endorsing New Deal policies and lambasting Nazism before many of his fellow Jews were doing so; that’s the Winchell who rescues the country in Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, a cautionary fable in which Hitler sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 presidential election. Winchell subsequently morphed into a Cold-War zealot, however, enthusiastically denouncing commies, promoting McCarthyism, and hanging out with J. Edgar Hoover.
There was still another Winchell—the private Winchell, the weird Winchell—who also shaped Sweet Smell of Success. Hunsecker’s obsession with Susan’s love affair is based on Winchell’s fierce attachment to his daughter, the unfortunately named Walda Winchell, whose romance with a Broadway hustler named William Cahn drove her father to ferocious measures, using his influence to ruin Cahn’s career (such as it was) and do the same for his daughter’s acting ambitions. When this didn’t work, Walter confronted Walda in court with a handpicked psychiatrist, who prescribed shock therapy for the errant daughter, perhaps followed by lobotomy if all else failed. Winchell kept harassing Cahn after the affair ended, probably using his pull with Hoover to get the IRS on board. Cahn’s surrogate in the movie receives a less complicated punishment. Falco plants reefers in Steve’s coat pocket—he’s a jazz musician, after all—and place an item in someone else’s column saying a certain guitar player is a dope fiend and a communist with puppet-masters in the Kremlin. Career destroyed, mission accomplished.
Winchell inspired enough fear and loathing among liberals to make studios wary of Sweet Smell of Success. Eventually the independent company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, owned by Lancaster and two producers, signed Lehman to write and direct a movie version—only to replace him twice over, hiring Mackendrick to direct and Clifford Odets to rewrite the script. Mackendrick had grown up in Scotland, not New York, and made his reputation with comedies, not melodramas, but insiders who’d enjoyed the pitch-dark overtones of The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) knew he was exactly right for this picture. Odets was also an excellent selection, no longer the working-class conscience of Depression-era theater (and remorseful namer of names before a Red-hunting congressional committee) but still a vigorous and uncompromising writer. Taking on a Red-baiter like Winchell was surely a pleasure for him.
A picture as hard-edged as Sweet Smell of Success wouldn’t have been made before the middle Fifties, when Production Code puritanism was wobbling. And even then the censors had qualms. Most broadly, they saw that Hunsecker’s love for Susan was fundamentally incestuous. Another problem arose in the poignant scene where Falco manipulates a hapless cigarette girl into having sex with a smarmy columnist from whom he needs a favor. A third objection involved a cop named Harry Kello (Emile Meyer), whose brutality figures in the downbeat finale. And the marijuana cigarettes violated the code’s antinarcotics clause.
The producers finessed these complaints, and Sweet Smell of Success emerged as a conspicuously hard-boiled number even by the lofty standards of late noir. A big reason for this, as Naremore notes in his Criterion commentary track, is that the audience has no one to root for; of course Steve and Susan are unswerving straight arrows, but intentionally or not, they come across as callow and dull, if only because they’re played by inveterate sweety-pie Martin Milner and experience-free Susan Harrison, an eighteen-year-old who apparently got the role because she looked a little like Winchell’s daughter. This makes the sheer nastiness of Hunsecker and Falco all the more disturbing; and when a flat-out ogre like Kello the cop comes along, melodrama shades into Grand Guignol. The film did wretchedly at the box office, putting one more nail into the coffin of classic noir.
The reputation of SSS has gone way up since then, and Criterion’s edition is outstanding in most respects, beginning with its stunningly good image quality. Extras include a 1986 documentary about Mackendrick made by Scottish television; comments about him from filmmaker James Mangold; a fascinating Winchell overview from biographer Neal Gabler; and an odd tribute to cinematographer James Wong Howe in which he demonstrates his craft by lighting a scene unlike anything in SSS. The booklet contains Lehman’s early Hunsecker-Falco stories (but not the novella) and brief selections by and about Mackendrick as well as a lively essay by Gary Giddins, who emphasizes Elmer Bernstein’s jazz-inflected score more than space allows me to do here.
I could write much more about the cinematic brilliance of Sweet Smell of Success, which benefits enormously from its settings—some real locations, others precise studio reproductions—and from Howe’s razor-sharp lighting and edgy traveling shots. The picture’s bite also comes from Odets, who was hired for a three-week rewrite but stayed on for months, sometimes banging out lines the same day a scene was shot; his “ricochet dialogue,” whereby words are spoken to one person but aimed at another, is crucial to the story’s power. Naremore is a longtime auteurist, but he’s right when he acknowledges that this is not an auteur picture. Every element is inseparable from all the others, and the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its darkly gleaming parts.
In its day, Sweet Smell of Success was the most bitterly trenchant investigation of media manipulation the movies had yet produced, and it speaks even more directly to our own “fair and balanced” era. Winchell’s Cold-War viciousness was pernicious and destructive, but it doesn’t beat the fabricating, truth twisting, and outright lying of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and other Hunsecker heirs who dominate today’s twenty-four-hour-news cycle. Compared with them, Hunsecker and Falco are playing for small stakes. What’s needed now is a double-or-nothing SSS that addresses our own imperiled time—a Hollywood production with major stars, an urgent subject, a script commingling politics and poetry, and the courage to trade immediate profits for long-term impact. We need a movie that Hollywood can market with the original Sweet Smell of Success tagline and mean what it says: The Motion Picture That Will Never Be Forgiven—Or Forgotten. Are we kids, or what?!
David Sterritt is the author of several books, most recently The Honeymooners, from Wayne State University Press.
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3