Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is a landmark in the careers of actors Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, screenwriter Clifford Odets, and director Alexander Mackendrick. It is also a film that pulses with the claustrophobic energy of the sidewalks and interiors of New York City, whether brilliantly shot on location by James Wong Howe, in the stark winter of late 1956 and January 19571, or meticulously recreated on the soundstages of the Goldwyn Studios in Culver City in the month or so that followed. It was a notoriously challenging and even out-of-control production, that started with a pair of stories published by Ernest Lehman at the start of the decade in Collier’s and Cosmopolitan, reflecting, in part, his time as a press agent in the 1940s, and ended with significant box-office failure – audiences recoiling from the acidic spectacle of two of Hollywood biggest stars playing irrepressibly venal characters.

Nevertheless, unlike many of the major financial successes of 1957 – Peyton Place (Mark Robson), Sayonara (Joshua Logan), or A Farewell to Arms (Charles Vidor), anyone? – Sweet Smell of Success has grown in stature over the years and even entered the lexicon. A small demonstration of this is given in Barry Levinson’s wonderfully loquacious Diner (1982), where a minor character keeps reappearing to slavishly quote many of the film’s bon mots. Mackendrick’s opus is also now remembered as one of the great late noirs. An extraordinarily vivid representation of an appalling symbiotic relationship – between all-powerful, all-seeing, and ruthless gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) and smarmy press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) – it skewers the myths of “success” as well as the dog-eat-dog ethos of politics, entertainment, economics, and the “American dream”. At one point, Hunsecker warns against taking a bite out of the obsequious Falco – “a cookie full of arsenic”, he calls him – but it’s the whole pulsating eco-system that leaves a heightened, rancid pall in the air. When Hunsecker enthusiastically declares to Sidney, “I love this dirty town” – while observing a pithy dispute on the sidewalk as a drunk is thrown out of a bar – you can almost smell the garbage, spilled beer, stale cigarettes, and spicily chilled air.

Sweet Smell of Success was a collaboration between a number of companies (including Hecht-Hill-Lancaster), and distributed by United Artists, but it also illustrates the difficulties faced by independent filmmakers within and outside the Hollywood system in the 1950s, where each project risked the future of the entire venture2. It reflects Lancaster’s desire to control his own image as well as the roles he was required to play. As one of the film’s executive producers, along with James Hill (who took the key production lead on this movie) and Harold Hecht (who “discovered” Lancaster, acted as his agent, and was less certain about taking on this lacerating project), Lancaster exerted significant control over the making of the film. In this respect, there are interesting parallels between the character Lancaster plays and the role he had in the film’s production. It represents a significant shift and enlargement of the kind of part he was expected to take on and provides a template for the domineering physicality, steely control, and teetering psychosis of the character studies he would go on to create in films like Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964) and The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968). As David Thomson claims, Sweet Smell of Success is “one of the few films that really ruffled [Lancaster’s] soft-voiced intimation and dug into the disturbed personality” laying just beneath the surface3.

Lancaster’s Hunsecker is the centripetal and centrifugal force anchoring the film. Sitting imperiously at his reserved seat in nightclubs like 21, dishing out unasked for advice, barely veiled threats, and vividly balletic, highwire verbal repartee, he draws the seedy and clambering world of Broadway towards him. But his tentacles also extend restlessly outwards through his daily column, radio, and television appearances, and the ubiquitous billboards and advertisements that appear in the middle and backgrounds of many shots. Very much in control of the mise-en-scene – he fusses over the details of a restaurant table laid in front of him; gestures economically for his car to collect him outside of the nightclub – he is, nevertheless, much less mobile than Curtis’ Sidney and isn’t even seen until about 20 minutes into the film. Although he often looks like a panther ready to strike, and still maintains an acute physical grace, Lancaster’s character lacks the hucksterism, projected self-belief, and “muscles” and “teeth” central to his dominant star persona in films like The Crimson Pirate (Robert Siodmak, 1952), The Rainmaker (Joseph Anthony, 1956), and Elmer Gantry (Robert Brooks, 1960). There is little that is likeable or even ingratiating about Hunsecker – and this speaks to the increasing confidence of Lancaster at this point in the career. Hunsecker’s lack of genuine connection is further emphasised by the Vaseline smeared on Lancaster’s bottle-top glasses to accentuate his myopic vision.

Sweet Smell of Success also takes its place as one of the most blistering portraits of the world of the press and the assorted high-flyers and bottom-feeders it sustains. Although its primary targets are hardly novel or particularly risky – think of the commonly harsh portraits of gossip columnists and press agents in many roughly contemporaneous films like Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950), A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954), and Odets’ The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich) 1955 – it takes its rightful place alongside Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) and Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) as one of the most lacerating Hollywood “newspaper” films of the 1950s.

Although Sweet Smell of Success is populated by a densely variegated groups of actors and characters – the bit and background players that enliven everything never seem like extras – it is dominated by Curtis and Lancaster’s brilliantly contrastive performances. There was plainly a lot at stake for Curtis in taking on this film. Although he had become a significant star, even appearing alongside Lancaster in the previous year’s major box-office hit, Carol Reed’s Trapeze, he was in danger of being written off as a relatively lightweight actor hampered by his limited range and “pretty-boy” looks. As with Lancaster’s Hunsecker, there is a lot of Curtis that feeds into this career-shifting performance. It draws upon his somewhat ingratiating star image as well as his Jewish and Italian-American New York heritage. Curtis dominates the running time and the action, working ceaselessly to create the sense of a character who might dissolve if he stopped moving or talking (and the talking here is a kind of movement). This mirrors the lack of true substance in what he does, but also the complex system of favour that sustains this world and furnishes his existence. At numerous times characters speak of the dog-like eagerness of Sidney – with morally upright and deeply uninteresting jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner) wondering out loud whether he will get into “cat or dog heaven”4 – but he is a more pitiable creature than this suggests. Curtis’ performance is a masterpiece of finely honed behavioural detail. Just watch as he positions his body in a particular way, places himself at a specific angle to a conversation, play acts the indignity of an accusation, or taps on the keys of a typewriter to provide a jazzy piece of punctuation to a dialogue exchange. 

Sweet Smell of Success is a beautifully integrated film where minor characters cycle through the built environment, at one moment part of a brilliantly stylised dialogue exchange and at another propped up at the bar or in background of shot as Sidney restlessly pinballs by. Although the narrative is a little tediously over-focused on the fall out of a love affair between Steve and Hunsecker’s over-protected sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), the film still takes time to render the full economy of this world, how it rabidly upholds itself, and the various ways in which Hunsecker and Falco keep the balls in the air.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a difficult production that ended up costing almost three million dollars, a significant sum in 1957. This was partly a result of the production process itself. Lehman initially insisted on writing the script and directing5. It is unlikely that Hill, Hecht, and Lancaster ever had any intention of letting Lehman direct – he had no experience in this role – and they also found his earlier version of the script lacking the pungent atmosphere they were seeking. Lehman was initially contracted as a means of gaining access to his original novella “Tell Me About It Tomorrow” that forms the basis of the film – published in 1952 in Cosmopolitan, like one of the two earlier stories he wrote featuring the same lead characters – and provide insider information about the world of the gossip columnist, a characterisation strongly redolent of the notorious Walter Winchell (though markedly different in terms of physicality and character). Both screenwriter Odets and Mackendrick were already under contract to Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and were brought in to help refocus the production. Almost everyone who has commented on the film has praised Odets’ extraordinary stylised, idiomatic dialogue, and documented the fraught writing process. Odets hadn’t been credited on an original script in over ten years and was widely seen as a brilliant writer largely past his prime. Behind schedule but fully committed to the project, Odets was on location in freezing New York and often wrote or rewrote scenes mere hours before they were filmed6. This highwire act of screenwriting is particularly remarkable when we observe the masterful scene construction and pointed multi-character dialogue that characterise the film. But it was perhaps the “liveness” of this process that helped create such a crackling, livewire atmosphere.

The significant contribution of Mackendrick should also be singled out. Mackendrick had come to the US after the dissolution of Ealing Studios in England in the mid1950s. His forte was in comedy, though films such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) have a darker edge than many others produced by the celebrated British studio. Ealing’s common focus on the idiosyncratic detail of community would also have prepared the director well. Nevertheless, Mackendrick was still a surprising choice to direct Sweet Smell of Success and the difficulty of the experience impacted his subsequent desire to work in Hollywood (he was fired from his next project for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, 1959’s The Devil’s Disciple, completed by Guy Hamilton). He does a wonderful job of dynamically staging various scenes and resisted many of the demands made by an overbearing Lancaster in terms of characterisation and even plot. But the tension that was apparent on set helped to create a piquant atmosphere. When fondly remembering the experience of watching Sweet Smell of Success, no one really spends much time talking about the overall details of the plot or the somewhat anodyne characterisations of Dallas or Susan. What comes to mind is the vividly captured atmosphere and physicality of the New York streets and nightclubs, the claustrophobic pulse of interiors and exteriors, Wong Howe’s brilliant hard-edged, low-key cinematography, and the timeless exchanges between the vividly etched characters. Although Hunsecker and Falco are appalling creatures you would leave town to avoid, we still long to sit at the table as their snapping insults dismember and drift into the night. “Match me, Sidney.”

Sweet Smell of Success (1957 USA 96 mins)

Prod Co: Norma Productions/Curtleigh Productions/Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions Prod: James Hill Dir: Alexander Mackendrick Scr: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, based on the novella, “Tell Me About It Tomorrow”, by Lehman Phot: James Wong Howe Ed: Alan Crosland Jr. Art Dir: Edward Carrere Mus: Elmer Bernstein, The Chico Hamilton Quintet

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Marty Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Jeff Donnell, Emile Meyer, David White, The Chico Hamilton Quintet


  1. Amongst the locations used were the Brill Building (for Hunsecker’s apartment), 21 Club, and Times Square.
  2. Lancaster and Hecht formed Norma Productions (later Hecht-Lancaster) in 1948. Hill joined the other two to produce Trapeze in 1956. The early productions all featured Lancaster and included such iconic films as The Flame and the Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950), The Crimson Pirate, and Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954). This initial phase of production reached its peak of success with low-budget Best Picture Oscar-winner Marty (Delbert Mann) in 1955 (starring Ernest Borgnine). In the late 1950s, production expanded to a larger number of films including The Bachelor Party (Delbert Mann, 1957), Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Leslie Norman, 1959), and The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960). For the final film overseen by any iteration of this company, Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer, 1962), they reverted to Norma Productions.
  3. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed., London, Little, Brown, 2002, 848.
  4. Another of the film’s major pleasures is the intermittent appearance of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in a few of the nightclub-based scenes.
  5. By 1957, Lehman was a hot screenwriter who’d scripted the very successful Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954), Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956), and The King and I (Walter Lang, 1956), and had co-written Sabrina (1954) with Billy Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor. He would go on to write a range of other screenplays including, most memorably, North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) and The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). His only directorial credit was the disastrous adaptation of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in 1972.
  6. For a brief account of the difficult production conditions encountered in New York, see the opening pages of Kate Buford’s terrific Burt Lancaster: An American Life, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, 3-4.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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