Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Tony Curtis Puts the Cat in the Bag, and the Bag in the River, Proves He’s More than Just a Pretty Face, Becomes an Honorary Member of the Rat Pack, And Plays Jazz Flute for Frank Sinatra.

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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 to 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.

I’m sad to say that Sweet Smell of Success is, quite mysteriously, not one of the Tony Curtis films TCM will feature this month.  But you can purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff. link], and it’s well worth watching.  This is a film that makes you think, and warrants more than one viewing to fully appreciate the talent and thought behind each moment unfolding on screen.

Let’s get to the plot!

Tony Curtis as small time press agent Sidney Falco.

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.

Well, 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.

J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the influential columnist that can make or break Sidney's career.

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

Sidney works on his game plan, and 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. 

Just as Sidney predicts, Steve (Marty Milner) confronts and insults J. J. after the job offer.

“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. himself 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 to the “sweet smell of success” while drinking with his friends.  Hunsecker has even inferred that Sidney can write his column for him while he and Susie take a three month vacation. 

But Susie’s got her own plan of revenge, as she realizes that Sidney and her brother were responsible for Steve’s beating and ruining his career.

When Sidney gets a call from the Hunsecker apartment, he thinks it’s J. J. summoning him, but actually, it’s Susie.  She’s obviously distraught over Steve, and attempts to jump off the balcony outside her bedroom.  

Sidney catches her in time, and brings Susie back to her bed.

Sidney saves Susie from jumping to her death. Or does he?

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.

I wonder if Susie actually ever intended to kill herself, or if it was 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. 

So 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.


Susie leaves her brother for Steve after all.

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 before graduating 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, but did little to showcase his acting talent.  

A quick side note, Tony did many of his own stunts in his swashbuckling adventure films, and it was none other than Gene Kelly who taught Tony the tricks of the trade!

Though, as we know, Tony Curtis 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 had put him in.  As Tony would relate 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) would 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 author Ernest Lehman, pictured here with Alfred Hitchcock, would gain greater fame for writing the original screenplay for the Hitchcock classic, North By Northwest (1959).

Lehman's Novella

Sweet Smell of Success was based on the novella by Ernest Lehman, who you may know best 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 magazines, 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.

Sweet Smell of Success: A Risky Film with Complications

But the independent Hetch-Hill-Lancaster Productions, working with United Artists, was willing to take the risk, and Lehman was hired to write the screenplay.

Working with Hetch, Hill, and Lancaster proved to be quite a challenge: hours long production meetings that went nowhere, coupled with such odd requests as this one from James Hill, who asked Lehman to drop what he was doing on the script, and 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 Lehman.  He 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.

Famed playwright Clifford Odets was brought in to replace Lehman.

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.

Can you imagine filming a movie without knowing how it would end yet??!

Director Alexander Mackendrick and Burt Lancaster behind the scenes of Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

Director Alexander Mackendrick would look back on the film and say that

“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.”

Sometimes scenes were shot just an hour or two after Odets finished writing them.  Tony Curtis would describe Odets and the stressful script situation that somehow resulted in the catchy, classic lines that are still frequently quoted today:

“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.”

Mackendrick's perfectionism may have gone too far at times, but it did lead to the genius lighting of Lancaster that produced skull shadows on his face, creating a menacing look perfect for J. J. Hunsecker.

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.  And remember, this was a black and white film…

Mackendrick’s perfectionism would result in genius additions to Sweet Smell of Success—such as smearing Lancaster’s browline glasses with vaseline to give a blurry, menacing look to his J. J. Hunsecker, or using a wide-angle lens with overhead lighting above Lancaster to create skull shadows on his face.  

Lancaster and Mackendrick fought over things as seemingly trivial as what side of the booth Lancaster's character would sit on.

But Burt Lancaster was a perfectionist-control freak himself, and the two men would really butt heads throughout filming.   When the two couldn’t agree upon 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 said that

“Sandy raised his voice to Burt, and then Burt went ape-sh- -.  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, took a film that had been budgeted to come in at $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!)

And unfortunately, thought critical reception of Sweet Smell of Success was mostly positive, audiences stayed away.  There was no way this film was going to 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 so perfectly 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's Underappreciated Performance

And of course there was the fact that theatergoers went 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 would lament in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link] that his stellar performance 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.”

And it’s really a shame that he was so overlooked, for Tony’s is hands down the strongest performance in Sweet Smell of Success.  As director Mackendrick would say, Tony “could act Burt off the screen,” and it’s certainly Tony who carries the film. 

His Sidney Falco is a despicable character, but he’s also somehow funny and charming.  Despite Sidney’s cold heart and obvious cut-throat ambition, Tony makes the character human: Sidney Falco is selfish and willing to do just about anything to get ahead, but even Falco has his limits, and Tony makes that clear through Sidney’s disgust at J. J. Hunsecker’s final order to ruin Steve Dallas’ career by planting the marijuana in his coat pocket.  Sidney does it, but it’s obvious through the subtleties of Tony’s  performance that Falco doesn’t like it.  This moral conflict Tony so perfectly shows adds further dimension to the character and his overall performance.

Tony and Frank with respective wives Janet Leigh and Ava Garner. Talk about power couples!

Tony and the Rat Pack

Off camera at this stage of his career, Tony Curtis was spending a lot of time with his buddy Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack:

“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.”

An honorary member of the Rat Pack. Tony with Dino and Sammy.

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 with good buddy Frank Sinatra.

Tony Plays the Jazz Flute for Frank

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.

HOLD ON.  Is anyone else struck by the comical imagery of Tony Curtis playing the jazz flute for Frank Sinatra???!

“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.”

Frank and Tony behind the scenes of Kings Go Forth (1958).

Comical imagery aside, it’s a sweet story that endears both Tony and Frank to me.  These two shared a great friendship and respect for one another.  Tony would say Frank exhibited the traits he admired most in a person, namely his unfailing self-confidence, while Frank admired Tony’s great drive.  When asked by Dean Martin’s wife Jeannie who his favorite actor was, Frank replied 

“Tony Curtis…Because he beat the f – – – – – – odds.”

Breaking the Mold and Beating the Odds

That he did, and Tony also beat the odds with his performance in Sweet Smell of Success. Though the film was not the box office success he hoped it would be, Sweet Smell did open new doors for Tony: those who were willing to look could see that he was not just a pretty boy actor riding the fleeting tide of popularity with teen audiences, and Tony found himself being offered a wider variety of roles. 

Tony Curtis had successfully broken the mold. 

And some of the most memorable films of his career were just around the corner.

More Tony Curtis Next Week!

And that wraps it up for Sweet Smell of Success.

Be sure to join me next week as I review 1959’s Operation Petticoat, a dream come true film for Tony that paired him with his childhood idol, Cary Grant.

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I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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