AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Sweet Smell of Success
Director: Alexander Mackendrick (Dir)
Release Date:   Jun 1957
Premiere Information:   World premiere in New York: 24 Jun 1957
Production Date:   early Nov 1956--24 Mar 1957; addl shooting early May 1957
Duration (in mins):   96
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Cast:   Burt Lancaster (J. J. Hunsecker)  
    Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco)  
  introducing Susan Harrison (Susie Hunsecker)  
    Marty Milner (Steve Dallas)  
    Jeff Donnell (Sally)  
    Sam Levene (Frank D'Angelo)  
    Joe Frisco (Herbie Temple)  
    Barbara Nichols (Rita)  
    Emile Meyer (Harry Kello)  
    Edith Atwater (Mary)  
    The Chico Hamilton Quintet    
    Chico Hamilton (Himself)  
    Paul Horn (Himself)  
    Carson Smith (Himself)  
    Fred Katz (Himself)  
    William Forrest (Senator Harvey Walker)  
    Joseph Leon (Joe Robard)  
    David White (Otis Elwell)  
    Lawrence Dobkin (Leo Bartha)  
    Lurene Tuttle (Loretta Bartha)  
    Queenie Smith (Mildred Tam)  
    Autumn Russell (Linda James)  
    Jay Adler (Manny Davis)  
    Lewis Charles (Al Evans)  
    Philip Van Zandt (Radio program director)  
    James Hill (Man outside theater)  
    Clifford Odets (Man outside theater)  
    John Fiedler (Soda fountain counter man)  
    Harry Tyler (Coffee shop counter man)  

Summary: One night in Manhattan, slick, up-and-coming press agent Sidney Falco scans the column of New York Globe writer J. J. Hunsecker, an immensely popular journalist whose column and radio show have great influence in the entertainment world. Because J. J. has, for the fifth day in a row, neglected to publicize any of Sidney’s clients, Sidney’s business is rapidly failing, despite his attempts to placate each client. In consternation, he turns cruelly on his sweet secretary, Sally, but then explains that his drive for success forces him to curry favor with J. J., who is snubbing him for failing to break up the relationship between J. J.’s sister Susie and jazz musician Steve Dallas. Later, at the club where Steve performs, Sidney argues with his uncle and Steve's manager, Frank D’Angelo, who had promised him that Steve and Susie had broken up. Upon learning from cigarette girl Rita that Susie is awaiting Steve in back, Sidney interrupts the two as they celebrate their recent engagement, incurring Steve’s anger. Steve, who values integrity above all else, accuses Sidney of “scratching for information like a dog.” Inside, Rita appeals to Sidney to help her retain her job, which is at risk because she refused to sleep with columnist Leo Bartha, who then ordered her to be fired. Sidney secures a date with Rita, then follows Susie into a cab, where the meek nineteen-year-old questions his relationship with J. J., calling him “a trained poodle.” While reassuring Susie that he considers J. J. a close friend, Sidney confirms the information that Susie and Steve are engaged, then races to J. J.’s customary booth at the 21 Club to inform him. J. J. is dining there with Senator Harvey Walker, starlet Linda James and manager Manny Davis, and when Sidney joins them against J. J.’s wishes, the columnist excoriates him, forcing Sidney to accept the abuse with a smile. When Walker tries to help, pointing out that columnists need press agents to furnish the necessary gossip, J. J. turns his lacerating gaze to the senator, humbling him by stating that he should not travel so openly with Linda, his mistress. Sidney follows J. J. outside, where the columnist greets his informer, police lieutenant Harry Kello, who is long indebted to J. J. for petitioning the mayor to save his job after Kello beat a suspect severely. After Sidney reveals Susie’s engagement, J. J. allows him one more chance to destroy the relationship, stating that Susie is all he has. Desperate to protect his livelihood, Sidney vows that “the cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” He goes to Toot Shor’s club, where Bartha, J. J.’s main competitor, is dining with his wife Loretta. Sidney threatens to reveal Bartha’s dalliance with Rita to Loretta unless the columnist prints an item stating that Steve is a Communist who smokes marijuana, but despite Sidney’s machinations, Bartha calls his bluff, telling Loretta the truth and calling J. J. a disgrace. Sidney then petitions columnist Otis Elwell, who agrees to print the item if Sidney will fix him up with an “available” woman. To that end, Sidney brings Otis to his scheduled rendezvous with Rita, who balks at the implications of the introduction, until Sidney wheedles her into accepting, stating that Otis can help save her job as well as help him save face with J. J. After Sidney leaves, Rita, who has just told Sidney she is “not that kind of girl,” reminds Otis that they slept together years earlier. The next morning, Sidney visits J. J.’s office, where the secretary, Mary, admonishes him for his sleazy tactics but nonetheless allows him to see J. J.’s column before it is printed. Noting an item promoting comedian Herbie Temple, Sidney then goes to Herbie, hoping to win his business, and pretends to call J. J. and arrange for the publicity. Back at Sidney's office, Frank and Steve are waiting, sure that the “smear” in Otis’ column came from Sidney. Sidney allays their suspicion with his customary outraged defensiveness, then, upon hearing that Steve has been fired, secretly calls J. J. and instructs him to order the club owner to rehire the musician, thus winning Susie’s trust. When Susie, horrified after seeing the article, enters the Hunsecker home, J. J. imperiously chastises the terrified girl for not coming to him with her problems. Susie, suspicious and chafing under her brother’s tight control, finds the strength to ask J. J. to get Steve his job back. J. J. complies but asks Steve to meet him at the radio station. Before the meeting, Sidney advises J. J. to bait Steve into causing a scene, hoping to poison Susie against him. Noting Sidney's delight with his devious plan, J. J. calls him “a cookie full of arsenic.” Sidney then joins with J. J. to taunt the upright musician, prompting Steve to ask Susie what she wants. When the overwhelmed girl flees the room, Steve breaks down and rebukes J. J. as a “national disgrace” full of “phony patriotism.” He storms out, after which J. J. forbids Susie to see him again. That night, Sidney joins J. J. at 21 and is taken aback to discover that the columnist now plans to destroy Steve’s career. Sidney balks at J. J.’s command to plant marijuana on the musician, stating he can accept a dog collar but not a noose, but after J. J. offers to let Sidney write his column for three months while he vacations with Susie, Sidney’s greed prevails and he accepts the job. Later, Susie breaks up with Steve, hoping this will save him from further attacks by J. J., but as soon as Steve finishes work that night, Kello arrests him, beating him in the process. Sidney is getting drunk while toasting his “favorite perfume—success” when he receives a message asking him to meet J. J. at his house. There, Susie, who has learned about Steve’s arrest, is planning to commit suicide, hoping J. J. will forever detest Sidney for driving her to desperation. Sidney downplays the threat, berating the girl for “thinking with her hips,” an improvement, he says, over her typical incompetence. When Susie tries to throw herself over the balcony, Sidney barely manages to rescue her. Just then, J. J. enters and, upon spotting Sidney holding a negligee-clad Susie, attacks the publicist, who realizes that it was not J. J. but Susie who called him to the house. To save himself, Sidney proclaims that Steve’s arrest was J. J.’s idea, after which the columnist calls Kello and orders Sidney’s arrest for planting the marijuana. Sidney runs out, vowing to reveal all he knows, as Susie packs her belongings. J. J. begs her to stay, but she coolly informs him she would rather die than live with him. As Kello beats Sidney and J. J. stares into his empty home, Susie strides to the hospital to join Steve. 

Production Company: Hecht-Hill-Lancaster  
  Norma-Curtleigh Productions  
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Alexander Mackendrick (Dir)
  Richard Mayberry (Asst dir)
  Thom Conroy (Dial dir)
Producer: James Hill (Exec prod)
  Harold Hecht (Exec prod)
  Burt Lancaster (Exec prod)
  James Hill (Prod)
  Tony Curtis (Exec prod)
Writer: Clifford Odets (Scr)
  Ernest Lehman (Scr)
Photography: James Wong Howe (Photog)
Art Direction: Edward Carrere (Art dir)
Film Editor: Alan Crosland Jr. (Ed supv)
Set Decoration: Edward Boyle (Set dec)
Costumes: Mary Grant (Cost des)
Music: Elmer Bernstein (Mus score and cond)
  Lloyd Young (Mus ed)
Sound: Jack Solomon (Sd rec)
  Robert Carlile (Sd eff ed)
Make Up: Robert Schiffer (Makeup)
Production Misc: Richard McWhorter (Prod mgr)
  Ruth McCrough Miller (Prod asst)
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: Songs by Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz.
Composer: Chico Hamilton
  Fred Katz
Source Text: Based on the novelette Tell Me About It Tomorrow! by Ernest Lehman in Cosmopolitan , Apr 1950.
Authors: Ernest Lehman

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Norma-Curtleigh Productions 28/6/1957 dd/mm/yyyy LP8995

PCA NO: 18585
Physical Properties: Sd: Westrex Recording System

Genre: Film noir
Subjects (Major): Ambition
  Brothers and sisters
  False accusations
  Moral corruption
Subjects (Minor): Attempted suicide
  Cigarette girls
  Jazz music
  New York City
  Radio stations

Note: Although the jazz band in the film is referred to in the opening credits only as “Chico Hamilton’s Quintet,” individual band members Chico Hamilton, Paul Horn, Carson Smith and Fred Katz are introduced by name during the scene in which the band first plays. The novelette on which Sweet Smell of Success was based was first published in Cosmopolitan in 1950 under the title Tell Me About It Tomorrow! According to memos found in the MPAA/PCA file on the film in the AMPAS Library, the story ended with “Susie Hunsecker” accusing “Sidney Falco” of rape, after which he is murdered by columnist “Harvey Hunsecker,” whose name was changed to “J. J.” for the film. Before the story’s publication, Lehman’s agent attempted to sell it, and in 1949 several different producers asked the PCA office for an official ruling on the story. In PCA file memos dated May 1949, PCA director Joseph Breen declared the story unacceptable because of its elements of incest and marijuana. Although as late as Jul 1956, PCA durector Geoffrey Shurlock stated that the story remained unacceptable, and a Jan 1957 memo suggested the inclusion of an honorable policeman to offset the negative portrayal of police lieutenant “Harry Kello,” the producers received a PCA seal for the film without making substantial changes to the original story.
       In addition to PCA objections, the story was also burdened with its connection to influential columnist Walter Winchell. Writer Ernest Lehman had fictionalized his own experiences as a press agent, and the story’s portrait of the beloved but ruthless columnist was recognizable to many as being based on Winchell. As noted in an Apr 2000 Vanity Fair article, even the incident in which J. J. tries to break up Susie’s relationship came from Winchell’s own life, in which he maneuvered the breakup of his daughter, Walda, and producer William Cahn. Winchell’s tremendous power in the entertainment industry, as Lehman stated in modern interviews, frightened off many studios from attempting to adapt the story into a film. Winchell (1897—1972) began his career in the 1920s as a Broadway theater columnist whose slangy, vibrant writing set the tone for a new, less formal journalistic style. His popularity expanded with the launching of his nationwide radio program. In addition, he originated the gossip column, breaking the previous prohibition against publicizing negative facts about public personalities. Although he based his career on appealing to 1930s populism, in the 1950s, Winchell joined McCarthy-era Communist hunters. This, along with his highly publicized psychological cruelty, is skewered in the character of J. J. Hunsecker. As noted in modern sources, Sweet Smell of Success solidified the columnist's reputation as a megalomaniac and began the destruction of his popularity and reputation, which were shattered by the time of his death.
       The following information, unless otherwise noted, was provided by modern sources. When Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (H-H-L) bought the property in 1955, Lehman was attached as writer-director, and a 10 Aug 1955 HR news item noted that the producers were considering Frank Sinatra. After Lehman scouted locations in spring 1956, the producers fired him, stating that United Artists had refused to support an untried director. In the Apr 2000 Vanity Fair article, however, Hill asserted that he never planned to allow Lehman to direct. At that time, according to a Dec 2000 LAT article, the producers considered Orson Welles to play J. J., until Lancaster suggested himself for the role. Tony Curtis recounted in his autobiography that he petitioned relentlessly for the role of Sidney, eager to leave behind his swashbuckling image for more dramatic challenges. Norma-Curtleigh Productions, a combination of H-H-L subsidiary Norma Productions and Curtis' independent production company, co-financed the picture.
       The production suffered several difficulties. In modern sources, Lehman stated that he considered the three producers to be unethical, and as a result of their maneuverings, he developed a spastic colon that caused him to leave the production. H-H-L hired playwright Clifford Odets for rewrites, many of which were demanded at the last possible moment. Several HR production charts indicate production delays, including the 22 Feb 1957 chart, which states “shooting postponed 10 days, script revision.” Alexander Mackendrick, making his American film directing debut with Sweet Smell of Success , fought with Lancaster about many elements of the story, including the ending and the interpretation of the character “Steve Dallas.” As noted in the Vanity Fair article, after the film was completed, Lancaster fired Mackendrick from his previously scheduled directing duties on the 1959 H-H-L picture The Devil’s Disciple (see above). In addition, Susan Harrison, who made her acting debut in the film, felt overwhelmed by the strong personalities of the star, director and producers. Despite universally positive reviews for her portrayal of Susie, she worked in only one more film, 1960's Key Witness (see above). Sweet Smell of Success also marked the feature film debut of character actor John Fiedler (1925--2005), although his first speaking role was in Twelve Angry Men (see below), which was also shot in New York, a few months later. Fiedler's many television and film roles include the voice of "Piglet" in the Walt Disney ^Winnie the Pooh cartoons.
       According to an Oct 1956 “Rambling Reporter” item in HR , Fay Spain was considered for a lead role in the film. When the film began production in Nov 1956, HR production charts included Ernest Borgnine in the cast. Press materials found in the film’s copyright record note that most of the scenes were shot on location in New York City, including in Times Square, the Brill Building, the 21 Club and Schraft's. The publicity materials also state that cinematographer James Wong Howe dabbed Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to create a shine and cause his stare to appear more menacing. HR noted on 18 Jan 1957 that the director and producers planned to sit in the audience of Hollywood’s Jazz City while Chico Hamilton’s Quintet auditioned some of the film’s songs, in order to gauge popular reception. HR news items add the following actors to the cast: H. M. Wynant, Joe Di Reda, Artie Lewis, Nicky Blair, Kirby Smith, Joseph Gray, William Kendis, Arthur Tovey, Gayl Gleason, George Paris, Susuma “Mike” Imai, Paul Bryar and Ralph Montgomery. Their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources also add Bess Flowers and Jane Ross.
       Upon its release, Sweet Smell of Success was rejected by critics and audiences, who disliked seeing the popular actors in such unsympathetic roles. A 6 Jan 1958 NYHT article stated that the film’s cost of $1.3 million would not be recovered. The picture, however, was included in both Time and the NYHerald-Tribune lists of the Ten Best Films of 1957, and it later gained the reputation among film historians as one of the decade’s finest films. Many reviewers consider it to be the first film to acknowledge openly the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ Hollywood blacklist. (For more information on HUAC, see the entry for the 1947 RKO film Crossfire in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 .)
       In May 1959, NYT reported that the U.S. Information Agency had blocked eighty-two films, including Sweet Smell of Success , from being shown in twelve overseas countries, for fear that the pictures were “painting a false picture abroad of the United States.” In Nov 1996, DV announced that Lehman was planning to produce a Broadway musical version of Sweet Smell of Success along with producer David Brown, a former Cosmopolitan editor who originally bought the story. The play ran from 14 Mar—15 Jun 2002, starring John Lithgow and Brian d’Arcy James, with book by John Guare, lyrics by Craig Carnelia and music by Marvin Hamlisch. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   29 Jun 1957.   
Box Office   6 Jul 1957.   
Daily Variety   19 Jun 57   p. 3.
Daily Variety   27 Nov 1996.   
Daily Variety   4 Sep 1997.   
Film Daily   19 Jun 57   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Aug 1955.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Sep 1956   p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Oct 1956   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Nov 1956   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Nov 1956   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Jan 1957   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Jan 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Jan 1957   p. 6, 8.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Jan 1957   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Jan 1957   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   25 Jan 1957   p. 20.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Jan 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   6 Feb 1957   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Feb 1957   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Feb 1957   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   22 Feb 1957   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   6 Mar 1957   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Mar 1957   p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter   22 Mar 1957   p. 4, 17.
Hollywood Reporter   25 Mar 1957   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   1 May 1957   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   2 May 1957   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   3 May 1957   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Jun 57   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Apr 1995.   
Los Angeles Examiner   30 May 1957.   
Los Angeles Times   25 Dec 2000.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   22 Jun 57   p. 425.
New York Times   28 Jun 57   p. 29.
New York Times   6 Jan 1958.   
New York Times   24 May 1959.   
Vanity Fair   Apr 2000   pp. 415-432.
Variety   19 Jun 57   p. 6.

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