Vile behavior, craven hypocrisy, sexual blackmail, abuse of police power — Sweet Smell of Success has everything that makes a film truly loveable. It also has Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis hitting their career peaks as actors, and cinematography by James Wong Howe that turns the tabloid photography of Weegee into high art. But above all, it has dialogue. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but in Sweet Smell of Success it’s the words that will always kill you.
There may be more zingers per square inch in All About Eve or His Girl Friday, but those films allow for the occasional moment of affection or warmth. In Sweet Smell of Success each one-liner is an edged weapon. “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried.” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in years.” “From now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.” Some of the phrases are used in slashing samurai-style attacks that take out the target with one blow. Others are wielded stiletto-fashion, so the victim doesn’t realize anything is wrong until much later, when he starts to feel strange and, right before the end, wonders why people are looking at him so oddly. Power is the most valued commodity and words, used as weapons, are the medium of exchange, and that makes Sweet Smell of Success one of the most riveting cobra dances ever set to film.
The movie looks back on a world that was already fading at the time of its release: what used to be called cafe society, an odd blend of socialites, politicians, gangsters, old-money scions and movie stars whose ups and downs (particularly the downs) were a major source of vicarious entertainment just before, during and after the Depression. Their theater of operations was Broadway and the constellation of high-toned saloons like “21” and the Stork Club that catered to them. Mingling with the players were the newspaper columnists, who could change roles — from town crier to executioner — in the wink of a reddened eye. In one of Dawn Powell’s novels of the period, a character explains that while the rest of the country read newspapers from front to back, New Yorkers start at the back, where the columnists could be found. The most influential columnist of all, Walter Winchell, commanded an audience of some 55 million people, who either listened to his Sunday radio broadcast or read his daily newspaper column — this at a time when the adult population of America was about 75 million.
Cafe society was undermined by the rise of an even more demotic television culture during the 1950s, and by the 1960s only a few dinosaurs like Ed Sullivan (himself a Broadway columnist who’d made the jump to television in 1948 by hosting a Sunday night variety show) were still lumbering around. One of the many virtues of this movie about unvirtuous people is the way it opens a window into the past, when columnists like Winchell, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper had enough clout to make or break someone’s career, or life. Corporate infotainment culture — which treats trivia seriously and degrades serious issues into trivia — has its roots in this period.
The chief villain of Sweet Smell of Success is J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster), an all-powerful gossip columnist holding court from a table at the “21” Club, and the hero . . . well, there really isn’t a hero in this film, only Sidney Falco (Curtis), a press agent who has to decide between settling for the purgatory of obscurity, or taking a shot at the big time and full-fledged damnation. Of all the curs at Hunsecker’s beck and call, Falco is the mangiest. His office is his apartment: instead of having his name painted on the glass of the front door, it’s stuck on a piece of paper. The closest Sidney comes to showing any backbone is when J.J. holds up a cigarette and says, “Match me, Sidney.” A senator and some hangers-on are sharing the table; Falco, unwilling to look cowed, stammers out a refusal. But he isn’t fooling anyone, and Hunsecker, his point made, lets it slide.
“Match me” is the film’s key line: it works as both an arrogant demand and an intimidating challenge. If Falco can match Hunsecker’s ruthlessness, then he can have the world – or, at any rate, the highly circumscribed piece of it he values the most. We’ve already seen how low Falco will go when he manipulates a girlfriend into sleeping with one of Hunsecker’s rival columnists – a man Falco is bribing to run a slanderous item about somebody Hunsecker wants to see crushed, without any of the blame coming Hunsecker’s way.
The film effortlessly captures the symbiosis between the newspaper columnists, who had to pound out copy seven days a week to feed the hungry audience, and press agents, who landed well-paying clients by promising them access to the columnists. A press agent who got too big for his britches could find himself frozen out; if he went too long without wrangling a plug, he would start hemorrhaging clients. Sidney is in the doghouse with Hunsecker because he has failed to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s young sister, Susan, and a clean-cut musician named Steve Dallas, the guitarist for a band starting to win some attention. (In an exceptionally hip touch, the film uses the Chico Hamilton Quintet, a real-life Third Stream jazz group noted for its ambitious music and interracial lineup — a rarity at the time.) Hunsecker’s objection to the relationship seems grounded less in concern for Susan’s well-being — Dallas, played by a big block of wood named Martin Milner, is clearly the world’s squarest jazz musician — than an obsessive need to control her every action.
If there were any doubt that this is a dog-eat-dog world, the two most menacing characters speak of Falco as though he were a particularly appetizing dish. Harry Kello, a police officer who does violent favors for Hunsecker, calls Sidney “the boy with the ice cream face.” Later on, Hunsecker eyes Falco and says: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” The real clincher comes when Kello grabs Falco and tells another cop to “Come take a look at this face,” then says, “Well I’ll be doggone — it’s melting!” The predators always know when another animal has been wounded, and act accordingly.
The very production of the film was shot through with connivance and paranoia. The director, Alexander Mackendrick, nursed a Falco-like hunger for bigger things after crafting what he called “cute English comedies” for Ealing Studios — notably The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Anxious that the film might be taken away from him, Mackendrick fussed over intricately choreographed scenes and shots, generating a mountain of footage that only he could make sense of in the editing room. This added to the chaos of the production, and helped swell the budget from $600,000 to about $3 million. Meanwhile, coproducer Harold Hecht, angry that Lancaster had brought a third partner into the production company without consulting him, was secretly rooting for the movie to flop. It did so, quite spectacularly — Lancaster himself called it “a total disaster,” and a United Artists bigwig said it seemed the film “was made in defiance of the box office.”
Yet even at the time of its release, Sweet Smell of Success garnered respectful reviews, particularly for its two principals. Curtis and Lancaster had been buddies since they co-starred in Trapeze, and when Lancaster’s production company moved ahead with Sweet Smell of Success, Curtis lobbied ferociously for the role of Sidney Falco, seeing it as a way to escape the increasingly silly costume epics that threatened to suffocate his career. During the shooting of exterior scenes, police had to barricade streets and hold back teenaged fans straining for a glimpse of Curtis; whenever they caught a glimpse of him, their screeching forced reshoots, helping inflate the film’s production costs. But when it was over, Curtis knew he’d achieved his goal. “There was never a movie like Sweet Smell of Success,” Curtis gloated in his 1993 memoir. “For me, Sidney Falco was crucial. That picture really put a lot of people in my pocket, and I owed it all to Burt.”
Film critic Roger Ebert, who includes Sweet Smell of Success in his book The Great Movies, says Hollywood players still joke about going into their “Sidney Falco mode.” References and tributes crop up in the oddest places. Barry Levinson’s filmmaking debut, Diner (1982), features a supporting character who compulsively quotes the dialogue. During its heyday in the 1980s, Spy magazine featured a monthly column full of lethal gossip about the inner workings of the New York Times, gathered by a writer who signed off as J.J. Hunsecker. Tom Cruise’s cuddly press agent in Jerry Maguire couldn’t be less like Falco, but Cruise claimed to have studied Curtis’ work as he prepped for the movie.
Like Citizen Kane, Sweet Smell of Success stands on its own as a piece of virtuoso filmmaking, but it also delivers a world of hurt to a real-life target: Walter Winchell, whose nasal, yapping voice and trademark gray fedora (emulated by Internet gossip Matt Drudge) contributed heavily to the popular image of reporters. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the hugely popular Winchell rapped out newspaper columns and radio broadcasts loaded with inside dirt on celebrities and politicians, delivered in a high-velocity barrage so dense with slang that it bordered on a separate dialect. An impoverished childhood and years of scraping by on the vaudeville circuit gave Winchell a bottomless well of anger at society’s upper crust, and he gloried in his power to make or break careers. “My column showed you into office and my column can show you out again,” he bragged to one politician, and it was no empty boast. He brought a long memory and sulfurous rancor to his feuds. “I’m not a fighter, I’m a ‘waiter’,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I wait until I can catch an ingrate with his fly open, and then I take a picture of it . . . Vindictive? You’re gahdamb’d right. You botcha ne, I botcha you!” Winchell may seem comical now, but the fear he generated was no laughing matter. When Lyle Stuart gave Winchell a taste of his own medicine with a sensational 1953 biography, Stuart found most of his showbiz friends crossing the street to avoid him — they were terrified of being seen with Winchell’s nemesis and incurring the big man’s wrath.
What Winchell understood better than anyone, according to biographer Neal Gabler, was that “gossip, far beyond its basic attraction as journalistic voyeurism, was a weapon of empowerment for the reader and listener. Invading the lives of the famous and revealing their secrets brought them to heel. It humanized them, and in humanizing demonstrated that they were no better than we and in many cases worse.” Winchell’s truculence concealed flashes of genuine wit, and he enriched the vernacular with a trove of what became known as Winchellisms. Films were “moom pictures”; births were “blessed events”; couples didn’t marry, they “Lohengrinned” and then went off to “Adam-and-Eve-it” on their honeymoons. H.L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway wrote appreciatively of Winchell’s early style. Later on, as politics grew to dominate the mix and Winchell mutated from a populist gadfly to a McCarthyite sleaze, the style became assaultive and crude. Theater critic and raconteur Alexander Woolcott, writing in 1933, dubbed his time “the age of the two Walters,” the other one being sobersides political commentator Walter Lippmann. To watch the squawking political commentators on Fox News and other cable venues is to realize that the wrong Walter ended up holding sway.
The germ of Sweet Smell of Success was a novella by Ernest Lehman, who during the 1940s worked for Irving Hoffman, a high-living Broadway press agent and friend of Winchell. The story, published in Cosmopolitan, was steeped in Lehman’s mingled fascination with and revulsion at what he called “that dangerous world of aggressive people with healthy egos.” Though Lehman disingenuously claimed the columnist villain wasn’t based on Winchell, nobody who read the novella could miss the inside details. Hoffman, anxious about potential blowback from Winchell (Lehman had once worked for him, after all), even called Lehman into his office and begged to know what he’d done to deserve this punishment. Winchell apparently shrugged it off, considering Lehman too small-time to bother with, but Lehman still found himself shunned by many old press agent cronies, who were fearful of being seen with him.
Several producers were interested in adapting the novella, but Lehman eventually signed with a new production company formed by Burt Lancaster with former agents Harold Hecht and Jim Hill. They had just scored a prestige hit with the film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s television play Marty, and were looking for something with a bit of edge. By this time, Lehman was doing very well as a screenwriter, with big credits like The King and I, Sabrina and Somebody Up There Likes Me on his resume. When the producers reneged on their promise to let Lehman direct the picture, Lehman withdrew from the project. Leaving the film was a relief. “I was afraid of it,” Lehman admitted later. “I was doing very well in Hollywood. Who needs problems?” The producers tapped playwright Clifford Odets to redo the script and get the project rolling.
One of the biggest surprises underlying Sweet Smell of Success is the fact that its crackling dialogue is almost entirely the work of Odets, whose writing in plays like Waiting for Lefty is stiff and declamatory. Lehman’s novella is a perfectly good piece of work, but it suffers from some tired devices – e.g., Sidney’s life has been marked by attempts to get out of his brother’s shadow. Odets turns out to have been the perfect man for the adaptation. Not only did he despise his target’s Red-baiting politics, Odets had seen Winchell up close on a number of occasions. Once, when Winchell’s assistant Herman Klurfeld spoke admiringly of Odets’ plays, Winchell invited the playwright to have breakfast with them at Lindy’s. Later, after listening to the gossip-monger’s bloviations from his perch at the Stork Club, Odets called him “a great bore and vanity of all vanities.” After a 1938 encounter on the street, during which Winchell did little but brag about his wealth while the Depression kept its grip on America, Odets asked his diary “how a human being could have so little sense of other human beings.” Odets completely restructured Lehman’s story and script, adding scenes and dialogue and sharpening conflicts between characters. The producers couldn’t delay filming, lest they lose their permits for shooting on New York’s streets, so script pages would arrive barely a few hours before certain scenes were filmed.
Just as Citizen Kane used inside references to William Randolph Hearst’s relationship with Marion Davies to such wounding effect, Sweet Smell of Success turns on a personal detail: Winchell’s campaign to destroy Billy Cahn, an aspiring Broadway producer who took up with Winchell’s daughter, Walda. Unlike the film’s Steve Dallas, Cahn was an operator whose own friends called him a con-artist and huckster. (An acquaintance recalled how Cahn once tried to raise money by hiring a limousine and heading out to find crap games in Newark, N.J.) But he seems to have genuinely loved Walda and treated her well. This cut no ice with Winchell, who reviled Cahn in his column and, when Walda persisted, tried to have her committed. Cahn eventually gave up, but Winchell kept after him. He also kept after Walda, short-circuiting her dreams of an acting career by threatening to use his power against any producer who so much as considered her for a role.
But the most damaging aspects of Sweet Smell of Success were based on publicly available information. The newspaper delivery trucks bearing pictures of Hunsecker’s eyes recall one of Winchell’s pet phrases: “Winchell — he knows all, he tells all.” Odets was particularly shrewd in targeting Winchell’s sanctimoniousness — his belief that he was one of the pillars supporting American society. When Steve Dallas makes the mistake of facing Hunsecker down, the columnist is consumed with rage. “That boy today wiped his feet on the choice and the predilection of 60 million men and women in the greatest country in the world,” he snarls to Falco. “It wasn’t me he criticized. It was my readers.”
Though Winchell’s power was considerably diminished by the time Sweet Smell of Success opened, there was no shortage of sycophants ready to assure him that the film was a bomb. Lehman heard that Winchell lurked across the street from the theater on opening night, trying to gauge the public’s reaction. Hoffman himself circulated in the lobby, doing his best to spread bad word of mouth. But Winchell had other things to worry about. One of his old targets, comedian Jack Paar, was using his platform as host of The Tonight Show to ridicule him, and Winchell couldn’t make any headway in the new medium. The old scourge of Broadway came across as obnoxious and abrasive on camera, and two attempts to launch Winchell-based shows went down in flames. His best television work was his last, as the narrator of The Untouchables (1959-1963), where his rat-a-tat-tat delivery was perfectly suited to the show’s gangster melodramas. As his celebrity melted away, Winchell was left virtually alone to contemplate a life hollowed out by the endless pursuit of his career. When he died in 1972, only Walda attended the funeral. The final shot of Sweet Smell of Success — Hunsecker isolated in his grand apartment, facing the loss of what he values the most — could almost have served as a prophecy of Winchell’s twilight years.
Ironically, the one aspect of the film that has the least to do with Winchell is Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker. Winchell’s over-the-top style was immune to parody, so Lancaster wisely opted to go in the other direction: as Hunsecker, he keeps his face carefully composed and hardly ever raises his voice. (The effect was made even more sinister by cinematographer James Wong Howe, who positioned lights to give Hunsecker’s face a skull-like cast behind the horn-rimmed glasses.) Lancaster, an athletic man, is virtually motionless in many of his scenes. Hunsecker’s stillness has the quality of a snake coiled and ready to strike, which he does plenty of times.
“I wasn’t really portraying a columnist, but a heel,” Lancaster said later. “Otherwise I’d have spent time in newspaper offices, studying the characterization. No, I just played a heel who happened to be a columnist.”
Which ended up being a pretty good description of Winchell himself.