‘Sweet Smell of Success’: Rough Customers on the Main Stem

Sweet Smell of Success: Original poster.

Sweet Smell of Success: Original poster. For once, the salacious nature of the poster is appropriate for the story it advertises. The artwork, however, is terrible!

The AFI 100 Movie Quotes list does not include a single line from “Sweet Smell of Success” (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, 1957), but it’s unlikely any other picture has half as many quotable lines as this masterpiece of cynicism. Here’s a tiny sample of memorable lines from the picture, culled from those listed on www.imdb.com (misquotes, where found, have been corrected):

Mr Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table tonight, is a hungry press agent, and fully up to all the tricks of his very slimy trade. Match me, Sidney.

You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.

Everyone knows Manny Davis — except Mrs Manny Davis.

President? My big toe would make a better President!

I love this dirty town.

Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?

I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.

Well son, it looks like we have to call this game on account of darkness.

Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney — you may wanna get back on board.

Sidney, this syrup you’re giving out with . . . you pour over waffles, not J.J. Hunsecker.

The brains may be Jersey City, but the clothes are Traina-Norell.

Harvey, I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.

Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance, “to promise.”

Here’s your head; what’s your hurry?

I like Harry, but I can’t deny he sweats a little.

All of the lines above are spoken by J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a powerful and venomous red-baiting columnist, and they represent a tiny fraction of the memorable things he says over the course of the intense, ninety-six minute picture. Lancaster gave a lot of great performances in his time, but I’d say Hunsecker is his greatest. The rest of the characters — down to the bit players — are equally quotable. (First line, spoken by a newspaper vendor: “Keep yuh sweatshoit on, Sidney . . . Ya wanna hot item fuh Hunseckuh’s column? Two rolls got fresh wit’ da bakuh! Uh ha ha!”)

Unidentified actor (alas!), Tony Curtis: 'Two rolls got fresh with the baker!'

Unidentified actor (alas!), Tony Curtis: ‘Two rolls got fresh with the baker!’

“Sweet Smell of Success” has punchy lines like “La Bohème” has ravishing melodies: you don’t go looking for them; you keep tripping over ’em.

Barbara Nichols, Tony Curtis.  Rita: Are ya listenin'? Falco: Avidly, avidly.

Barbara Nichols as cigarette girl Rita, Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco.
Rita: Are ya listenin’?
Falco: Avidly, avidly.

Though now considered a classic, when it opened (on the same week I was born, as it happens), “Sweet Smell of Success” was a bomb. Nobody went to see it. I like to say more people attended my birth than “Sweet Smell of Success.” To the end of his days, Tony Curtis lamented that the picture failed to find an audience and that he failed to be nominated for an Oscar. The Academy ignored the picture completely. BAFTA nominated Curtis in the Best Foreign Actor category, but he lost to Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men.” It’s hardly surprising, however, because the story is mean as a rattlesnake bite and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Actually, the ending is the happiest one possible in the nightmarish urban jungle created by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman in their screenplay.

Curtis as Sidney Falco: 'Can I come in and see you?' 'No. You're dead, son. Get yourself buried.'

Curtis as Sidney Falco:
‘J.J., It’s Sidney . . . Could I come in for a minute?’
‘No. You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.’

It has often been claimed that the story lacks a hero, or indeed, anyone to root for. This isn’t quite true, but there’s something to the complaint that makes it worth mentioning. We’re supposed to root for Susie Hunsecker (Susan Harrison): we’d like her to work her way free of her megalomaniac brother. The hero of the story is her boyfriend, jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), who is the only person brave enough to stand up to Hunsecker’s potentially career-ending threats. The problem is that we don’t root for her and we don’t care about him. Neither “J.J.’s screwball sister” (as Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) refers to her), nor Dallas makes much of an impression. They have their fair share of punchy dialogue, but the actors in those two roles are inadequate; neither has much screen presence. Miss Harrison was reportedly terrified of and terrorized by the high-power stars and the gale force winds of testosterone on the set. As Harrison plays her, Susie is a victim we worry about, rather than a young woman we root for. Milner, on the other hand, is a wash-out. He’s a terrible actor, far out of his element, whatever that element may have been. Milner didn’t have a big career, but I’ve never understood how he managed to have any career at all.

With a story as black and bleak as “Sweet Smell,” it’s a waste of time worrying about whom to root for or against. It’s wiser to appreciate it for its style, swagger and finesse, for the Weegee style cinematography, the late-fifties Manhattan locations (most of which are now, alas, gone), and its brutal energy. It’s not a great work of art; it’s a great work of pulp. That’s enough for me. If you must root for someone, the best plan is to root for the bad guys — there are a lot of ’em, J.J. Hunsecker being the baddest of the bad.

Burt Lancaster: 'Now frankly, son, I lost you on that last hill. Just give us the punchline.'

Burt Lancaster: ‘Now frankly, son, I lost you on that last hill. Just give us the punchline.’

Cinematographer James Wong Howe didn’t invent the idea of spraying the streets to create reflections and additional light in nighttime scenes, but ever since “Sweet Smell,” you rarely (if ever) will see a movie in which an urban street at night isn’t drenched. It never rains in “Sweet Smell,” but the streets are eternally wet and it’s nearly always night. There are a lot of nice cinematographic touches throughout the picture, but one that I particularly like is the number of shots that feature J.J.’s cool eyes behind his Ray-Ban Clubmaster glasses, glaring out at the world. As for example, this image (one of many) from the montage that plays behind the opening credits:

Go with the Globe: Shades of 'The Great Gatsby.'

Go with the Globe: Shades of ‘The Great Gatsby.’

As the story progresses, The Eyes of J.J. Hunsecker take on the same quasi-mythical significance as do The Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg’s in “The Great Gatsby.” In a later scene, Dallas and his manager (Sam Levene) go to meet Hunsecker at his broadcast. (It’s one of the few buildings in the picture still standing and still being used in the same capacity: it’s the Ed Sullivan Theatre, where “Late Night with David Letterman” is produced.) Look at the clever way James Wong Howe contrives to have Hunsecker’s eyes peering over shoulders in every shot:

Sweet Smell 10 Sweet Smell 09 Sweet Smell 11 Sweet Smell 13

Here’s our first introduction to J.J. Hunsecker. The whole picture is like this scene. “21” Club is another of the few locations still in operation. Aside from it and the Ed Sullivan Theatre, the Broadway district is unrecognizable. In the late seventies and early eighties, you could still see nearly every location in the picture.

There’s a lot more to say about this picture, but for now this will have to suffice.

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