“Match me, Sidney…”
Hollywood had become overrun with exposés by the 1950s. Films like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) peeled back the scum of their respective industries, dropping men and women into society’s underbelly with little in the way of sympathy. It was a time of ethical examination, where filmmakers bit the hand that fed them and often dealt with the response of those they critiqued, as a write-up in The Hollywood Reporter so thoroughly exemplified, calling Ace in the Hole “a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology that… is nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions… democratic government and free press.” Naturally, with such negative press, these pictures fell by the wayside, unable to outlast their flaccid box office returns and the impending influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Sweet Smell of Success ignored any such concerns. Released in 1957, amidst political witch hunts and the decline of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film defied media moguls with brazen enjoyment, going after noted columnist Walter Winchell in particular. Adapted from Ernest Lehman’s 1950 novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow!, the picture predictably found stern opposition from the Production Code, the HUAC, and a still powerful Winchell, who, like William Randolph Hearst before him, didn’t appreciate the onscreen attack. Lehman, unphased by this studio squeeze, actually requested Orson Welles play the part of Winchell doppelganger J.J. Hunsecker, if, for no other reason, to echo his controversial turn in Citizen Kane (1941). But the powers that be at production house HHL (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster) decided otherwise, and chose Burt Lancaster, whose matinee looks were worlds away from Winchell’s stocky exterior. Boston born Alexander Mackendrick was brought in to direct on Lehman’s request (after a failed attempt at directing himself), and the film proceeded under scrutinous outside eyes.
Watching it now, nearly seven decades later, it’s a miracle the film didn’t indict everyone involved. The hatred that drips from Hunsecker’s opening exchange with Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) confirms all that is lowly about the gossip game, right down to the revolving door of senators, hookers, and personal agents. Seated at his regular 21 Club table, the cruel columnist delights in crushing the aspirations of press agent Falco, whose botched job has earned him “dead man” status and sneering advice to “get himself buried.” Falco was assigned to break up a romance between jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and Hunsecker’s little sister Susan (Susan Harrison), but this ruined opportunity has left him groveling for a second chance. “Match me, Sidney–” Hunsecker rattles off, serving as demand and request from a man privileged enough to make both.
It’s an emasculating ordeal to witness, and the power shift between these two men drive the picture’s black soul. Falco so desires to inhabit Hunsecker’s designer shoes, to reach his rung on the golden ladder, that subjecting himself to threats and public humiliation seem necessary evils along the way. Various people confront this corrupt elephant in the room throughout the film, taunting Falco outright: “There isn’t a drop of respect in you for anything alive… you’re too immersed in the theology of making a fast buck.” Even sweet Susan, the assigned target of his second chance, refers to the press agent as her brother’s “trained poodle,” a remark that noticeably nicks Falco’s bruised ego. In moments such as these, Curtis’ knack for finding pity in a contemptible role makes his descent far more compelling than it ever should be. Still considered a teen heartthrob by 1957, the Bronx actor has no qualm playing morally questionable, and this commitment goes on to embody the film’s running thesis: that society is overrun by vultures who value celebrity, power, and, of course, success.
The organ grinder behind these tantalizing treasures, J.J. Hunsecker, is meanwhile devoid of any sort of emotional conflict. He is a man who made his moral decisions long ago, and has since cauterized his soul to reflect only the outward illusion of decency. Respectfully referred to as “J.J.” by the New York nightlife (much in the way Winchell was famously dubbed W.W.), Hunsecker lives and breaths by his refined reputation, reveling in his power while wielding its perks like a skilled surgeon.
Attempts to spoil Susan’s relationship capture the only two traits that make him tick: a perverse stroking of ego, and incestuous undertones that struck close to Winchell’s relationship with his daughter Walda. Such accuracy surely irritated the real life columnist, especially with the character’s fatherly tone and protective attitude furthering the creep factor. Lancaster inhabits this creepiness marvelously, suppressing a large build and shaking off his doomed hero past (The Killers, I Walk Alone) with frightening conviction. Proving that close pal Kirk Douglas wasn’t the only guy who could play bad, the actor reeks so fully of deviance it’s as if he sprayed it on prior to each take. As an antagonist, he generally avoids the empathy that’s afforded peers like Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard) and Jonathan Shields (The Bad and the Beautiful), instead harnessing evil as infectious as the dialogue he delivers.
Lehman’s script provides a hotbed of stylistic prose for these two fine gents to snack on. An intentional blend of gutter slang and theatrical density, the writer’s wordplay, right down to the sleazy title, was actually being reworked well into the film’s production. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be long before anxiety concerns forced Lehman off the set, leaving rewrite duties for local penman Clifford Odets to fulfill. Odets, a playwright who named names for the HUAC in 1952, housed a deep-seeded distrust of the establishment that showed in his revisions; which were often times written up between takes. Despite this copy-and-paste process, however, the final draft is a triumphant achievement, ripe with quips and cynical quotes that perfectly blend with Lehman’s original story.
Odets would go on to provide several of the film’s best lines, ranging from colorful insults (“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”) to caustic warning shots (“Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney. You may wanna get back onboard.”) that play into the savory after hours atmosphere. Witticisms and indulgent monologues dart this thing at a breakneck pace, and it’s a credit to both Lancaster and Curtis that they keep from becoming slaves to the wryly written word. In the decades since, it’s become easy to spot the screenplay’s influence on playwrights like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, whose “Mametspeak” and “Walk-And-Talk” signatures owe their very existence to Hunsecker’s heated exchanges.
Behind the camera, cinematographer James Wong Howe conveys visuals that feed into the story’s predatory nature. Shot on location in New York City, the film’s crisp black-and-white canvas serves as a haunting vision of modern society, where everyone wants to get ahead, and agendas appear more often than bourbons at a bar. Bypassing the shadowed mystery that distinguished 40s noir, Howe instead uses the dark as a truth teller, with overhead table lamps failing to obscure as much as they make Hunsecker look like the grotesque being he truly is. Less flamboyant, but equally effective.
As for Mackendrick, the Scottish filmmaker is able to put his chops to good use though creative blocking and camera placement. In a film mainly driven by dialogue, subtlety is key, and Mackendrick excels in this regard, whether it be head-snapping frame cuts or club rendezvous worthy of a Weegee spread. Each environment lends itself to verbal flamboyance, though even in moments of silence, the director rarely squanders a chance to embellish his subject matter. The film’s final scene, a liberated Susan storming out on her scheming sibling, plays out through haunting imagery and little else. Hunsecker watches from a penthouse window as his desired object refuses to look back, instead greeted by the light that brings his nighttime kingdom to a close. Mackendrick aligns Hunsecker’s perspective with the viewer for the first and only time here, and the results are uncomfortably pitiful. Not only do we feel sorrow, we do so willingly, and with full awareness of his twisted intentions. As such, the film forces a self-examination of right and wrong that lingers long after, leaving Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score to close things out in style.
Released on June 26th, Sweet Smell of Success proved to be anything but a hit at the box office. It flopped outright while critics, including a delighted (if slightly irked) Winchell tore its nihilistic tone to shreds. Fans refused to buy Curtis as a corrupted sleazeball, while Lancaster finally lived long enough to see himself become the villain. No hero, no moral, no ticket sales. But time, as it so often does with art, has proven kind to this unkind classic, and retrospective appraisal of the film has been far more just. Joining the ranks of Ace in the Hole and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, which arrived a month prior, this “brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face” has stood the test of time as a Hollywood triumph. “Match me, Sidney–” may be media ego talking, but the film’s rich portrayal of degradation for fame’s sake will remain long after the clubs have closed and the careers have curtailed. A+
Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions & United Artists
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Produced by James Hill
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets
Based on the story by Ernest Lehman
Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, and Sam Levene
Cinematography by James Wong Howe, A.S.C.
Music by Elmer Bernstein
TRIVIA: Robert Vaughn was initially cast in the role of Steve Dallas, though the young actor was drafted into the Army and subsequently replaced with Martin Milner.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.