“Match me, Sidney…”
Hollywood loved their exposés in the early 1950s. Films like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) showed audiences the ugly side of show business with exacting clarity. It was a time of hypocrisy, where filmmakers bit the hand that fed them and dealt with the firestorm of controversy that followed.
Their complaints can be tidily summed up with this excerpt from The Hollywood Reporter’s review of Ace in the Hole: ” [It’s] 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.” Unable to outlast the criticism, as well as the swift hand of the HUAC, the era of the exposé was all but finished by the mid 50’s.
Sweet Smell of Success is an exception to the rule. Released in 1957, amidst political witch hunts and the decline of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film dared to attack infamous columnist Walter Winchell. It received grave opposition from the trifecta of the Production Code, the HUAC, and Winchell himself who, like William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane (1941), did not appreciate the likeness (at one point, screenwriter Ernest Lehman suggested Orson Welles play the part of Wichell doppleganger J.J. Hunsecker). Despite everyone’s best efforts, the film forged ahead with Lehman, star Burt Lancaster, and director Alexander Mackendrick at the helm.
Watching it now, nearly seven decades later, it’s a miracle the film didn’t blacklist everyone involved. The venom that drips from Hunsecker’s opening scene affirms all that is lowly about the gossip game. Seated in the back of the 21 Club, Hunsecker delights in crushing the aspirations of men like Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent who botched a major assignment.
Falco was assigned to break up a romance between jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and Hunsecker’s little sister Susan (Susan Harrison), but the mishap has left him groveling for a second chance. “Match me, Sidney–” Hunsecker rattles off, the demand and request of a man privileged enough to make both.
It’s an emasculating ordeal to witness, and one that both men return to throughout the film. Falco so desires to be Hunsecker, to reach his rung on the social ladder, that subjecting himself to humiliation is well worth it. Various characters pick up on this, and taunt 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 Susan refers to the press agent as her brother’s “trained poodle,” a remark that nicks Falco’s already bruised ego.
Tony Curtis was still considered a heartthrob at this point, and its a credit to his acting that he makes Falco into such a repulsive character. Even when he’s given a chance to do something moderately decent, Curtis resists and digs further into the film’s running them: that society rewards those who value success.
J.J. Hunsecker is the tastemaker behind these hollow values. He’s a man who made his moral compromises long ago, and shows no sign of regret. Affectionally known as “J.J.” by the New York socialites (much in the way Winchell was dubbed “W.W.”), Hunsecker lives and breaths by his reputation, reveling in it while wielding its perks like a skilled surgeon.
Hunsecker’s attempt to spoil Susan’s romance is the only thing that suggests humanity beneath his horn-rimmed glasses. This was another slight at Winchell, whose relationship with his daughter Walda was said to contain an odd, incestuous element (such accuracy surely irritated the columnist, especially with the character’s fatherly tone and protective attitude). Lancaster embraces the character’s shallow menace with vigor, brilliantly shaking off his doomed hero past (The Killers, I Walk Alone) and proving that Kirk Douglas wasn’t the only leading man who could play despicable. His Hunsecker so reeks of filth it’s as if he sprayed it on prior to each take.
Ernest Lehman provides a hotbed of prose for the cast. A unique blend of gutter slang and dense wordplay, the script, which was based on his 1950 novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow!, was actually being reworked well into the film’s production. Lehman’s bouts with anxiety eventually forced him off the set, however, and Clifford Odets was brought in to finish things up. A fellow New York playwright, Odets harbored a distrust of the legal system that showed in his revisions (which were often times written up between takes). In spite of its slapdash assembly, though, the final product is a masterpiece of style– the type of tight, toxic banter that one only finds in the finest films noir.
Odets is responsible for several 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.”). It’s truly a testament to Lancaster, Curtis, and the rest of the cast that they keep from becoming slaves to the written word. In the decades since, the screenplay has taken on even greater relevance, inspiring playwrights like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, whose “Mametspeak” and “Walk-And-Talk” signatures owe much to what is found here.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe compliments the script’s aesthetic behind the camera. The film’s crisp black-and-white presents a bleak vision of New York City, where personal agendas are more common than bourbon at a bar. Ignoring the exaggerated shadows of 1940s film noir, Howe instead uses the dark as a truth teller, with overhead table lamps making Hunsecker look grotesque in appearance. Less flamboyant, but equally effective.
Mackendrick also manages to leave his visual fingerprints on the film. The final scene, in which a liberated Susan storms out on her brother, plays solely through imagery. Hunsecker watches from a penthouse window as she refuses to look back. Instead, he is greeted by the sunlight that brings his nighttime domicile to a close. Mackendrick aligns Hunsecker’s perspective with the viewer for the first and only time here, and the results are intentionally discomforting. Not only do we feel sorrow, we do so willingly, and with full knowledge of his twisted nature.
Released in June 1957, Sweet Smell of Success was anything but at the box office. It was a flop financially and critically, the latter of which included a scathing review from Winchell. Fans refused to buy Curtis in a sleazy role, while Lancaster lived long enough to see himself become the villain. Thankfully time, as it so often does with art, has proven just to this unjust classic, and retrospective views of the film has been far more appreciative. Today, it is among the most celebrated exposés of all time.
“Match me, Sidney–” may just be a slick line, but the film’s portrayal of degradation for fame will remain long after these clubs have closed and these careers have curtailed. A+
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 specialist 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.