If you thought Tony Curtis’ acting range was limited to playing heartthrobs in light romantic comedies and swashbuckling adventure films, then you haven’t seen 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success. The film was one of Tony’s first dramatic roles, and unquestionably one of the great performances of his career.
Sweet Smell of Success failed miserably on its release in 1957. Audiences were uncomfortable with the premise, which showed the underbelly of journalism, the entertainment industry, and the slimy lengths those with ambition and no integrity are willing to go for success.
Sweet Smell of Success: A Classic
Today, the film is regarded as a bonafide classic. With perfect performances from Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, stunning film noir cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, the underrated Alexander Mackendrick directing, and a matchless screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, it’s no wonder that Sweet Smell of Success is now considered a masterpiece.
You can purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a small-time press agent in New York City. Falco has friends in high places, and desperately wants to be a big time player in the city’s entertainment and journalism worlds.
And he’ll basically do anything to get there.
One of Sidney’s powerful friends is J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a journalist with a nationally syndicated column. Hunsecker’s influence is such that he can make or break careers. Falco manages to get his clients’ names mentioned in Hunsecker’s column by doing all sorts of favors for him. Hunsecker need only ask Sidney, and his wish is done.
J. J. Hunsecker is even more lacking in morals and integrity than Sidney Falco, so some of the things he asks Sidney to do are pretty sleazy. But Sidney always gets the job done, and Hunsecker rewards him in his column.
That is, until J. J asks Sidney to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s little sister Susie (Susan Harrison) and upcoming jazz musician Steve Dallas (Marty Milner)…
J. J. kind of has the incestuous hots for Susie, so when Sidney can’t convince Susie to stop seeing Steve, it really puts a wrench in J. J.’s plans to keep his sister to himself forever.
Hunsecker starts giving Sidney the shaft socially, and makes no mention of Sidney’s clients in his column, as punishment for his failure.
“You’re dead son, get yourself buried,”
Hunsecker tells Sidney.
The Cat's in the Bag
But Sidney comes up with a new plan to break up Susie and Steve. The plan includes pimping out one of his own girlfriends, Rita (Barbara Nichols), to a rival columnist of J. J.’s, who will then print an untrue story in his column about Steve and marijuana. The false mention will make Steve unemployable.
“The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river,”
Falco says as he assures Hunsecker about the effectiveness of his plan.
The next step of Sidney’s plan?
J. J. will make himself look like a hero in Susie’s eyes by offering Steve a job. Sidney predicts that Steve’s moral code will prevent him from accepting J. J.’s offer, and Steve will probably even suspect that it was J. J. who planted the false story to begin with. As such, he’ll insult J. J., and look like a big ungrateful jerk in front of Susie. Out of loyalty to her brother, Susie will then leave Steve.
“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
J. J. tells Sidney. But, Sidney’s plan works, and Susie leaves Steve after he insults her brother.
The irony of J. J Hunsecker telling Sidney he’s full of arsenic is that J. J. is worse than Sidney: even though Sidney’s plan successfully breaks up Steve and Susie, J. J decides that Steve’s insults were just too much, and that he must further ruin Steve’s career and reputation by having Sidney plant marijuana in his coat pocket. Then a dirty cop who owes J. J. a favor will find the planted marijuana on Steve and beat him senseless. Sidney reluctantly goes along with the plan, and plants the marijuana.
The Sweet Smell of Success
Afterwards, Sidney celebrates the “sweet smell of success” while drinking with his friends. Pleased with Sidney’s dirty work, Hunsecker has even inferred that Sidney can write his column for him while he and Susie take a three month vacation.
But Susie knows that Sidney and her brother are responsible for Steve’s beating and ruined career. And she’s got her own plan of revenge.
When Sidney gets a call from the Hunsecker apartment, he thinks it’s J. J. summoning him, but it’s actually Susie. Sidney goes to the apartment to find Susie obviously distraught over Steve. She attempts to jump off the balcony outside her bedroom.
Sidney catches her in time, and brings Susie back to her bed.
But who do you think walks in, and sees Sidney with his hands all over Susie?
Yep, J. J. Hunsecker.
J. J. infers the worse, and immediately goes into a jealous, manic rage against Sidney. Susie does nothing to stop him, and even encourages her brother’s attack by keeping quiet when Sidney tries to explain he was saving Susie from jumping to her death.
Did Susie ever intend to kill herself, or was it just a ploy to get her jealous brother to catch her and Sidney in a compromising position?
What better way to punish both of the men who ruined her life.
Sidney manages to escape from the Hunsecker apartment, but J. J. calls his dirty cop friend, and instructs him to find Sidney. Now it’s Sidney’s turn for a gruesome beating.
Despite their ruthless tactics, neither Sidney or J. J. get what they want in the end: Sidney doesn’t move up in his career, and J. J. doesn’t get Susie, who leaves her brother to find Steve now that she knows the truth about J. J. Hunsecker and his dealings.
And that’s the end of the film.
Breaking the Mold with Sweet Smell of Success
After Tony Curtis made a splash in Hollywood with his electric two minute rumba dance in Criss Cross (1949), Tony and his perfect hair were put in a series of bit parts. Tony soon graduated to starring roles that solidified his status as a teen heartthrob. Films such as The Prince Who Was A Thief (1951), No Room for the Groom (1952), Son of Ali Baba (1952), and The Black Shield of Falworth (1955), capitalized on Tony’s good looks and natural athletic abilities–with none other than Gene Kelly teaching Tony how to do his own swashbuckling stunts. But these films did little to showcase Tony’s acting talent.
Though Tony enjoyed being a handsome leading man, he didn’t want to build his career on the shaky foundation of good looks: Tony knew he had talent, and sought a chance to prove he could act.
But it was tough to break the mold Universal put him in. As Tony relates in his 1993 autobiography [aff. link]:
“To break the mold and develop from teen idol, it was a matter of the parts you got. If Universal had let me play some young man out of NYC—striving for something—and put me in movies like Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, [and] Some Like It Hot in the beginning, the studio bigshots would have seen that in me a lot earlier. But they didn’t. Marlon [Brando], because of his beginnings in the theater, was able to get [serious film roles]… They would’t dare give him Son of Ali Baba. But since I didn’t have his kind of credentials or credibility, they put me in The Prince Who Was a Thief and then were stunned when I was able to play those other parts.”
Tony’s role opposite Burt Lancaster in Trapeze (1956) set the stage for him to break that teen idol mold. The more seasoned Lancaster was impressed with Tony’s performance in Trapeze, and Tony was offered the role of the despicable Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success, which Lancaster’s independent production company, Hetch-Hill-Lancaster, would produce. When Harold Hetch approached Tony about the film, he didn’t have to make much of a pitch:
“‘I love it,’ I said. Harold didn’t have to say another word. I was never going to pass up a chance at a serious role.”
The part was a complete one-eighty from the nice guy roles Tony usually played, but he was up for the challenge and ready to prove himself.
Sweet Smell of Success was based on the novella by Ernest Lehman, best known as the writer behind such classic films as North by Northwest (1959) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Lehman originally published his story in 1950 as a serial in Cosmopolitan magazine. As it turns out, magazine editors don’t like to have the word “smell” in their publications, so Lehman was forced to change the title of his novella from Sweet Smell of Success to Tell Me About It Tomorrow.
It took seven years for Lehman’s intriguing story to make it to the big screen in Hollywood, partly because the big studios were too scared to touch it: Lehman, a firm believer in the old adage, “write what you know,” based his novella off of his own experiences working as a “writer of publicity material” in New York. It was rumored that Lehman based the ruthless J. J. Hunsecker off of renown columnist Walter Winchell, and that Sidney Falco was inspired by Lehman’s old boss, press agent Irving Hoffman. Both men held great power over what was written about Hollywood, and no studio dared cross them by turning the unflattering story of Sweet Smell of Success into a film.
But the independent Hetch-Hill-Lancaster Productions, working with United Artists, was willing to take the risk. They hired Lehman to write the screenplay.
Sweet Smell of Success: A Risky Film with Complications
Working with Hetch, Hill, and Lancaster proved quite a challenge for Lehman: hours long production meetings that went nowhere, coupled with odd requests, such as the time James Hill asked Lehman to drop what he was doing on the script to quickly pen a flowery apology note to Hill’s one-night stand—who happened to be Barbara Nichols, the actress playing Rita in the film—all proved to be too much for the author. Lehman developed a spastic colon, and, on doctor’s orders, had to quit the production and go on a long, quiet vacation. Playwright Clifford Odets was then brought in to finish the script and add some of his signature dialogue.
Though Odets’ great talent gave each character in the film dialogue that, in Tony Curtis’ words, fit “like a custom-made suit,” Odets didn’t work quickly: by the time the cast and crew starting filming on location in Manhattan in December 1956, the script was still unfinished.
Sweet Smell of Success began filming before its script had an ending.
As director Alexander Mackendrick later put it:
“We started shooting in Times Square at rush hour and we had high powered actors and a camera crane and police help and all the rest of it, but we didn’t have any script. We knew where we were going vaguely, but that’s all.”
Some scenes were shot just an hour or two after Odets finished writing them. But somehow, the stressful script situation resulted in catchy, classic lines that are still frequently quoted today. As Tony Curtis remembered:
“When we shot the film on location in Manhattan, Clifford would be sitting in the back of the unheated props van, typing pages in the freezing cold at two or three in the morning. One night I went into the prop truck to see what Clifford was up to…I looked over his should as he typed, ‘The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river.’…
A lot of the movie’s characters had lines like that…Clifford’s lines…were always undeniably poetic.”
Perfectionism and Power Struggles on Sweet Smell of Success
Odets wasn’t the only one slowing the production down. Director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick was such a perfectionist, he nearly drove Burt Lancaster crazy with his insistence on thinking through even the most minute detail of a scene, such as the color of the cocktails Hunsecker and Falco would drink before dinner. This was a detail Mackendrick agonized over, even though the film was shot in black and white.
Mackendrick’s perfectionism resulted in genius additions to Sweet Smell of Success—such as the smearing of Lancaster’s browline glasses with vaseline to give a blurry, menacing look to his J. J. Hunsecker, and using a wide-angle lens with overhead lighting above Lancaster to create skull shadows on his face.
But Burt Lancaster was a perfectionist control freak himself, and the two men would continuously butt heads throughout filming. When Mackendrick and Lancaster couldn’t agree on where Lancaster should sit during a restaurant scene—should Burt’s Hunsecker sit on the outside of the booth’s bench or slide to the inside—Tony Curtis remembered that:
“Sandy raised his voice to Burt, and then Burt went ape-shit. He got up and pushed the table over, sending all the plates and glasses and food crashing to the floor. Then he raised his fist to hit Sandy…but [Sandy] didn’t back down…Burt took a deep breath, everyone calmed down, and we did it Sandy’s way.”
Sweet Smell of Success Fails at the Box Office
Odets’ write-as we-go script approach, combined with Mackendrick’s perfectionism, and the power play problems with Lancaster, took the film’s budget from $600,000 to a total end cost estimated to be as high as $3.4 million. ($300,000 of that number alone went to Clifford Odets for his work on the screenplay.)
Unfortunately, thought critical reception of Sweet Smell of Success was mostly positive, audiences stayed away. There was no way the film would turn a profit.
Mackendrick felt confident going into the film’s first preview in San Francisco in June of 1957, but changed his mind after watching the audience’s reaction during the screening:
“The effect of Sweet Smell on the people sitting in front of me was like dripping lemon on an oyster. They cringed with the body language of folding arms, crossing legs, shrinking from the screen.”
As Tony Curtis succinctly put it:
“This is a feel-BAD movie.”
Theater attendance for Sweet Smell of Success wasn’t helped by the fact that Walter Winchell and other influential Hollywood gossip columnists all wrote negatively of the film that portrayed their world in such a seedy light.
Burt Lancaster attributed the film’s failure to the departure of Ernest Lehman, and confronted him about it at a post-preview party:
“’You didn’t have to leave—you could have made this a much better picture. I ought to beat you up.’”
To which Lehman replied,
“’Go ahead—I could use the money.’”
Tony Curtis' Underappreciated Performance
And of course there was the fact that theatergoers went to Sweet Smell of Success expecting to see the handsome Tony Curtis in one of his typical, nice guy, heartthrob roles. When that didn’t happen, audiences stayed away. Tony lamented in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link] that his stellar performance in the film was overlooked:
“As for me, people were surprised to see me playing such a serious part. The movie wasn’t for teens, my core audience, and when the word got out that I was playing a despicable press agent, a bad guy, I got bum-rapped…So I was very disappointed, not with the picture—I knew what a good film it was and what a good performance I had given in it—but with the reaction to it. The media just refused to acknowledge me as a serious actor.”
Though the media refused to acknowledge Tony’s acting skills, his performance is the strongest in the film. As Alexander Mackendrick accurately observed, Tony
“could act Burt off the screen.”
It’s Tony Curtis who carries Sweet Smell of Success.
Tony and the Rat Pack
Off camera, Tony Curtis spent a lot of time with his buddy Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack at this stage of his career:
“I became an honorary member of Frank’s Rat Pack; I never went on stage with Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey Bishop, or Peter Lawford, but anytime they had a get-together, I was invited. Whenever those guys got up to any kind of mischief, I was there. They treated me like a kid brother, which brought out the best in everyone.”
One of those mischievous incidents that “brought out the best in everyone” was a trip to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where the light-drinking Tony couldn’t keep up with Frank and the rest of the boys. After a few Jack Daniel’s, Tony was “practically unconscious.”
Naturally, Dean and Frank thought this would be a good time to throw Tony, fully dressed, into the swimming pool:
“I climbed out of the pool…freshened up, and went back down to the casino. I was still a little dizzy, but at least I was keeping my eyes open. When Frank saw me, he said, ‘Where have you been?
‘Somebody threw me in the pool,’ I said. ‘I had to go upstairs and change.’ Frank said, ‘Who in the world would do that?’ I told him I thought he might have had something to do with it, but he denied it, and I couldn’t be sure I had remembered it right.”
Tony Curtis Plays Jazz Flute for Frank Sinatra
Tony shares in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link] that during the filming of Sweet Smell of Success, he was the recipient of one of Frank’s legendary acts of thoughtfulness.
Tony was learning how to play the flute for the film, and he’d often go over to buddy Frank’s house to practice.
So, yes, this means that Tony Curtis played jazz flute for Frank Sinatra.
One day, Frank noticed the flute Tony practiced with was subpar:
“I’d come over to Frank’s house and practice playing my flute for him. Frank was impressed that I was learning this new skill for my part in the movie, and he noticed that I was playing a cheap flute I’d picked up. So without telling me, he went out one day and bought me a magnificent flute, a priceless gift that I cherish to this day.”
Comical imagery of Tony playing jazz flute for Frank aside, Tony said that Frank exhibited the traits he admired most in a person, namely his unfailing self-confidence, while Frank paid Tony a great compliment when Dean Martin’s wife Jeannie asked who his favorite actor was. Frank’s response:
“Tony Curtis…Because he beat the odds.”