‘Sweet Smell of Success’: A Visceral and Vicious Depiction of the Evil that Power-Hungry Men Do

‘Sweet Smell of Success’ concept art by Sean Phillips

 

By Koraljka Suton
There’s an old rule among directors that you see a film in its totality about four times. The first is when you really decide you love the story and you want to make it. The second is just before you go on the floor when, for god or evil, you’ve done the best you can with the script, you’re stuck with it—after whitch you lose sight of it entirely because it’s chaos and you’re just working from the memory of the previous one. The third one—the suicide feeling—is when it’s all put together; at that point you are aware of problems—at each stage, really, you are aware of the same problems—at that point they suddenly hit you back in the face. And the final stage is when you see it with an audience. With ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ it was obvious that it was a direct insult to what they’d come to the cinema to enjoy.Alexander Mackendrick

In the year 1948, a small press agent, dissatisfied with the line of work he was in, wrote a short story for Collier’s magazine. Published under the title Hunsecker Fights the World, future screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s piece was seen as his way of atoning for the type of things he agreed on doing while being an assistant to Irving Hoffman, New York’s leading press agent—namely digging up dirt that big columnists would then use as content-fueling ammunition. Afterwards, Lehman decided to quit his job and begin the process of turning his short story into a hundred-page novella that would subsequently be published as Tell Me About It Tomorrow in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1950. The title Lehman actually had in store for his page-turner was Sweet Smell of Success, but the magazine’s editor in chief declined to have the word “smell” appear in his publication, due to its rather unflattering semantic connotations. Still, a title that was easy to change proved to be the least of Lehman’s worries. When he presented his former boss with the manuscript, Hoffman was allegedly enraged because he felt the story deeply implicated both him and popular gossip columnist Walter Winchell who had the power to make or break careers by simply mentioning a name in his column. Winchell’s role in the New York society of the 1930s, 40s and 50s was perfectly summed up by writer Michael Herr, who called him “the wizard of the American vicarious: gossip columnist, failed vaudevillian, power broker, and journalistic demagogue, one of the most powerful and famous men of his time.” And if that description fails to convey who Winchell really was, maybe the following excerpt from his own autobiography can shed some light on the matter: “I’m not a fighter. I’m a ‘waiter.’ I wait until I can catch an ingrate with his fly open, and then I take a picture of it.”

Lehman’s novella centers around an immoral press agent who supplies a powerful and egotistical gossip columnist with items for his tabloid. The relationship between this corrupt duo becomes even more intertwined and perversely symbiotic when the former is tasked with breaking up the latter’s sister and her boyfriend, using any means necessary. And in the world of show biz, a good smear that has the potential of ruining one’s personal and professional life serves as the ultimate means to an end. Seeing as how Winchell himself was rumored to have used his column for the purpose of breaking up his daughter and the man who wanted to marry her, the likeness between the real-life gossip columnist and the fictional one became all the more apparent. And although the similarities between the fictional press agent and Lehman’s ex-boss did exist, there was one crucial difference: Hoffman did not have to pander to Winchell the way his assumed literary counterpart did. Lehman tried explaining this to Hoffman, but his efforts did not make much difference—the two ended up not talking to each other for a year and a half. Winchell, on the other hand, tried to put a stop to the theories that the main protagonist of Lehman’s novella was indeed based on him, but that too was to no avail. It was precisely because everyone knew the character was modeled after the all-too-powerful gossip columnist that nobody in Hollywood wanted to have anything to do with the source material. Such was Winchell’s power and influence, that even before Lehman’s story was published in Cosmopolitan, his Los Angeles agent tried selling it to major studios, only to fail miserably: “The big problem still remains the resemblance to Winchell. I…went to all places where I thought it would do some good, but I still ran up against the same problem… I’ll say one thing for your story—it set this town on its ear, and Ernest Lehman’s name is probably as well-known out here now as any of the top ten or twelve writers.”

 
Ironically enough, it was none other than Hoffman himself who ultimately kickstarted Lehman’s screenwriting career when he decided to bury the hatchet by offering to write a column about his former employee’s screenwriting potential for The Hollywood Reporter. But Hoffman ended up going the extra mile by letting Lehman write the plug himself: “The world I want to see on film is the world of Toots Shor’s at lunch-hour, Sardi’s at 11 of an opening night, Lindy’s at 2 o’clock of any morning… the world of Winchell and Wilson, Sullivan and Sobol… of columnists on the prowl for items, press agents on the prowl for columnists (…) Now I may be wrong (and I don’t think I am), but just off his past performances I would say that Ernest Lehman is the guy who can write that kind of picture.” Within a single week, Paramount Pictures contacted Lehman—the former press agent would go on to write his first screenplay for the critically acclaimed, Academy-award nominated drama film Executive Suite (1954) with the screenplays for Sabrina (1954; co-written by Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and The King and I (1956) quickly following suit.

After he had established himself as an acclaimed screenwriter, the time was finally right for the celluloid adaptation of his much fussed-about novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow. The film-production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (HHL) optioned the piece and United Artists was to distribute it. But before Lehman sold his rights, he needed to see who he would be working with. He was not at all impressed with the arrogant and womanizing ways of HHL’s founder, actor Burt Lancaster, as well as his partners Harold Hecht and producer James Hill. But after his friend Paddy Chayefsky, who was also working for HHL at the time, won an Academy Award for Marty, Lehman decided to definitely jump on board, under the condition that he also direct the adaptation. He wanted Orson Welles to play gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker but Lancaster decided he would cast himself in the role instead. The prospect of having to direct Lancaster took its toll on the first-time filmmaker. He started having stomach pains, which was something the aggressive actor and his company partners often inappropriately joked about in front of him. Having to work in such a hostile environment, Lehman realized that he had unexpectedly become acquainted with an entirely new level of corruption. And coming from a person who had done “some pretty terrible things as a press agent,” that is saying something. Seemingly out of the blue, Hecht fired Lehman as director the moment United Artist acquired the money that was needed to produce the picture. The alleged reason was that having the movie made by a first-time director would have been too big of a gamble for the production company, seeing as how Lancaster’s own directorial debut The Kentuckian (1955) flopped at the box office. Forty-two years later, Hill told Vanity Fair that they were never going to let Lehman direct the movie anyway, so it would be safe to assume that the only reason they accepted his condition in the first place was so that they could acquire the rights to his novella.

 
Although being denied sitting in the director’s chair, Lehman was tasked with both writing the screenplay and acting as one of the producers, whereas Boston-born filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick was hired to direct. Mackendrick grew up in Glasgow and worked in England for Britain’s Ealing Studios, gaining prominence thanks to comedies such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), both of which starred Alec Guinness. With a new director on board, Lehman was supposed to do some behind-the-camera re-writes during the movie’s production, but was stopped in his tracks by his stress-induced medical condition that required immediate attention and rest. With the screenwriter out of the country and unable to work, Mackendrick asked HHL to get him playwright Clifford Odets (the plays Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!). What was supposed to be a simple task of script doctoring quickly turned into a rather lengthy process. There were multiple re-writes of Lehman’s script—and while the plot remained unchanged, only several lines of his original dialogue were left intact. Odets even changed Hunsecker’s first name from Harvey to J.J., as well as press agent Sidney’s surname from Wallace to Falco. The playwright played with the script in every way, shape and form, crafting a non-linear storyline at one moment and imbuing the script with explanatory narration the next. Both of those attempts were ultimately abandoned, but that did not stop Odets from taking Lehman’s script apart, which resulted in it being re-written even during filming—the playwright was known to write new pages of script on set, while the movie’s cast and crew patiently waited. As Mackendrick later noted: “One of the most frightening experiences in my life was to start shooting in the middle of Times Square with an incomplete script. There never was a final shooting script for the movie… It was all still being revised, even on the last day of principal photography. It was a shamble of a document.” And yet, despite all of the creative chaos (or maybe precisely because of it), Odets’ interference in the script proved to have been game-changing. He not only added much-needed tension to every scene, but also gave every character an important subplot, and thereby relevance, an aspect that was missing from the original screenplay. Also, most of the iconic and highly quotable lines that originated from Sweet Smell of Success were actually his: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic,” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years,” or “Here’s your head, what’s your hurry?”

Its razor-sharp dialogue is, after all, one of the things cinephiles love most about Sweet Smell of Success. Another beloved aspect is that which forms the very core of Mackendrick’s movie—the ruthless and nuanced relationship between the two main protagonists, brilliantly portrayed by the aforementioned Lancaster and the 1950s heartthrob Tony Curtis, who enthusiastically stepped into the shoes of the scheming Sidney Falco, a role he fought hard to get because the studio that had him under contract believed that taking the part would mark the end of his career. But the actor did it anyway, for he wanted to prove that he could be a serious actor, and not just a pretty face. And prove that he undoubtedly did.

 
Even with all of the film’s nail-biting twists and turns, the unhealthy dynamic between the powerful columnist and his faithful lackey remains the central driving force of the story, with the unfolding events providing a frame of reference for the unraveling of their relationship. Hunsecker and Falco complement each other (dare I say complete?) in ways unfathomable to those who do not seek power for power’s sake. Hunsecker is a merciless shark who depends on Falco not only in terms of the items the press agent supplies him with, but also when it comes to the significance that having one such lap dog grants him. For what meaning does power have if one is not able to exert it over others? If you asked Hunsecker, the answer would be—none. Falco, on the other hand, wants what Hunsecker has and willingly accepts being on the submissive end of their little power-play, as long as it eventually secures him a spot at the top of the food chain. “J.J. Hunsecker is the golden ladder to the place I want to get,” Falco unashamedly admits. And what he does is act in perfect accordance with his mission statement. Stooping low could easily be Falco’s middle name, for even when he does have a moment of grace, a chance to step aside and cease being a cog in Hunsecker’s machine, the press agent decides to pass the point of no return after all, if that is what it takes to be where (and who) his idol is.

But as it turns out, nothing comes without a price, a lesson Falco will be forced to learn the hard way. And he is not the only one. For even though Falco is the one doing the legwork, it is Hunsecker’s narcissism disguised as an interest in his sister Susan’s (Susan Harrison) well-being that sets into motion the series of unfortunate events that will befall the girls’ beloved fiancée, leaving neither of them unscarred and unburdened. The gossip columnist’s obsession with Susan is borderline incestuous, but the questionable nature of his affection is taken at face value and never brought into question during the course of the movie—such is the privilege of grandiose men in positions of power. Hunsecker’s relationship with his sibling can, therefore, be seen as the perfect vehicle for him to unleash his inner control-freak, allowing us to witness the extent of his need for importance gained through sole ownership. For that is exactly how he treats both his sister and Falco—as if they were his property. Still, everyone has their breaking point and there comes a time when Susan inevitably reaches hers.

 
Hunsecker’s exertion of power is showcased not only narratively, but also in the way Sweet Smell of Success was shot. The pioneering Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe often filmed Lancaster from a low angle, with a wide-angle lens and lighting that was placed directly above him, which made him look both menacing and superior. This was a specialty of Howe’s, who had become known as “Low-Key Howe” due to his use of shadows and low-key lighting. And while close-ups were shot with the aforementioned wide-angle lenses, Howe used long-focus ones to film the city backdrops, which gave off the impression that the buildings were all crammed together. The atmosphere achieved by the cinematography is impeccable in its gloominess, perfectly capturing the neurotic energy of post-war New York City.

In this day and age, Sweet Smell of Success is held in the highest of regards, praised by critics and audiences alike. Not only was it selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1993, but it also influenced the work of auteurs such as the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese. The year 2002 even saw the opening of a Broadway musical based on the movie, starring John Lithgow as Hunsecker. But when Mackendrick’s film first hit theaters, it was seriously misappreciated. At its San Francisco premiere, the viewers were disgusted by it. Written on one of the preview cards were the following words: “Don’t touch a foot of this film. Just burn the whole thing.” Winchell himself was, of course, very emotionally invested in the film doing badly, so much so that come opening night in NYC, he waited on the other side of the street while his lackeys went into the theater to speak poorly of the movie and report back to him on how the viewers reacted. Needless to say, he could not wait to write a gleeful column about the movie’s financial flop.

 
Many attributed Sweet Smell of Success’ lack of success to the fact that audiences were not happy with seeing Curtis and Lancaster cast against type. But if you asked director James Mangold, that could not be farther from the truth: “The bottom line is, I don’t think that movie failed at that moment at the box office because Tony Curtis wasn’t likable. It failed because it was above the head of the general moviegoing audience. It was just too damned good.” And thanks to its visceral, vibrant and vicious portrayal of the all-prevailing evil that men do, too damned good it still is.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »

 

My screenwriting bible. The musical dialogue. The diabolical hero. The braided black narrative. Still so relevant.
James Mangold

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Clifford Odets & Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

ERNEST LEHMAN

Sweet Smell of Success began as Lehman’s novella titled Tell Me About It Tomorrow, focusing on the seedy underworld of gossip columnists. Lehman was set both to write and direct the film, but the process was so stressful that he developed medical problems and had to bow out. Clifford Odets took over screenwriting duties, and Alexander MacKendrick directed. Despite the production difficulties, Sweet Smell of Success is now regarded as one of the best of the film noir genre, with Odets and Lehman sharing screenwriting credit. In 1993 Sweet Smell of Success was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Below are Lehman’s handwritten thoughts in response to director MacKendrick’s notes concerning the screenplay as of August 1956. Lehman’s two pages provide insight about why he had to leave the Sweet Smell of Success project on doctor’s orders and take “a long and work-free vacation.” Lehman ends with “I loved Tahiti.” —Ransom Center Magazine


 

A MOVIE MARKED DANGER

It was a dangerous movie. And a brilliant one. When Sweet Smell of Success opened on June 27, 1957, however, it was a flop. But Ernest Lehman’s biting tale of a Walter Winchell–like gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, and a terminally hungry press agent—Tony Curtis, in a stunning breakthrough role as Sidney Falco—has echoed down the decades and is being adapted for Broadway by John Guare and Marvin Hamlisch. From Vanity Fair’s interviews with Lehman, Curtis, and producer James Hill, the author reconstructs the appropriately dark and vicious birth of a masterpiece of New York noir. —A Movie Marked Danger

 

ERNEST LEHMAN INTERVIEWED BY TONY CURTIS

Ernest Lehman, known for his work on films such as Sabrina, Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Family Plot, was one of the most critically and commercially successful writers in Hollywood history. Here, he is interviewed by Tony Curtis in 1997.

 

“How to write great dialogue like this scene? Well you cannot. It’s too perfect. This sequence might be the greatest in it’s genre, writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman somehow manage to establish plot, characters, mood, subtext with five people talking amongst themselves… and Burt Lancaster in full cry. Alexander Mackendrick uses the camera in one deft move to climax this great scene.” —Daniel j. Harris


Open YouTube video

 
Do Make Waves: Sandy, Alexander Mackendrick interviewed by Kate Buford, Film Comment Vol. 30, No. 3.



 
Ad from the May 13, 1957 issue of Life magazine.

 

MACKENDRICK: THE MAN WHO WALKED AWAY (1986)

A Scottish Television documentary from 1986 about Alexander (Sandy) Mackendrick, the director of such brilliant Ealing films as The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore, who then went to the United States and made the masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success. However, he became “the man who walked away” of the title: his disillusionment with Hollywood after a number of bad experiences led him to leave the film business and accept a post as Dean of the Film School at California Institute of the Arts—Cal Arts. He had never quite got used to the life of a freelance director, outside the factory system of the studio, which had suited him better. Mackendrick’s wisdom and insights were invaluable to his students, one of whom was James Mangold (director of Copland, Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line, 3.10 to Yuma). Featuring interviews with Burt Lancaster, James Coburn and Gordon Jackson amongst many others, as well as extensive access to Mackendrick himself, this is a gem: anyone with an interest in this fine director deserves to see it. —robinofgray

 

MACKENDRICK ON FILM (2004)

Mackendrick on Film (2004) is an educational project constructed around the film teachings of legendary pedagogue Alexander Mackendrick. Taking as its starting point Mackendrick’s body of written work contained in his book On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, a 300-page collection of writings and sketches, edited by Paul Cronin with a foreword by Martin Scorsese, Mackendrick on Film is a structured illustrated lecture that features never-before-seen footage of Mackendrick at work in the classrooms and studios of the California Institute of the Arts, new interviews with former students and colleagues, extracts from archived interviews with Mackendrick about his career as a teacher of cinema, rare photos, and a selection of his student handouts, storyboards and sketches.

 

ALEXANDER MACKENDRICK: A DIRECTOR PREPARES

“Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education. One of the dilemmas is that many students—not all—feel that there is some secret set of rules to follow, and if you follow them you get it right, and they get angry with you because you won’t give them the rules. Well, there are no rules. There never were and there never will be, because each circumstance is different and each director works entirely differently.” —Alexander Mackendrick: A Director Prepares

 

JAMES WONG HOWE, ASC

“The poet of the camera,” “an artist in film,” “a painter with light”: these are some of the names given to James ‘Jimmy’ Wong Howe. A pioneer, an innovator, a creator, James Wong Howe is one of the world’s greatest ever cinematographers. He worked on over 120 films between 1922 and 1974, directed two features, and won two Oscars. As well as making films, he worked on documentaries, TV, and commercials. —Meet the Cinematographer Who Changed Films Forever

No one who worked on the film had as significant an effect on its look as cinematographer James Wong Howe. Wong Howe was born in China in 1899, had emigrated to the United States as a young child, and had become a champion amateur boxer before pursuing movie photography. The tough perfectionist would be the perfect match for the egos doing battle on the film’s set. Having helped create Warner Bros.’ signature gritty look during the 1940s, Wong Howe had become known as “Low-Key Howe” for his use of low-key lighting, expressive shadows and gradations of light. On Sweet Smell of Success, Wong Howe filmed the city backdrops with a long-focus lens, making the buildings look bunched together. He shot close-ups of the protagonists’ faces with wide-angle lenses and deep focus, so that the background became as much a part of the composition as the faces themselves. The overall effect was one of overstimulation and suffocation, given even more atmosphere by the smoke that Wong Howe used in virtually every shot. —‘Sweet Smell of Success’: A Film With Staying Power

 
James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, a 1973 documentary about the Oscar-winning director of photography, featuring lighting tutorials with Howe. This film about legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe was produced by the University Film and Video Foundation in 1990.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sweet Smell of Success, courtesy of Mackendrick estate © Norma Productions, Curtleigh Productions, Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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