Sweet Smell of Success

This article is about the film. For the stage musical, see Sweet Smell of Success (musical). For the Stranglers album, see Sweet Smell of Success – Best of the Epic Years.
Sweet Smell of Success

Theatrical poster
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Produced by James Hill
Written by Ernest Lehman (novelette)
Clifford Odets
Ernest Lehman
Starring Burt Lancaster
Tony Curtis
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Edited by Alan Crosland Jr.
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • June 27, 1957 (1957-06-27)
Running time
96 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.4 million[1]
Box office $2.25 million (US)[2]

Sweet Smell of Success is a 1957 American film noir made by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions and released by United Artists. It was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison and Martin Milner. The screenplay was written by Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman and Mackendrick from the novelette by Lehman. Mary Grant designed the film's costumes.

The film tells the story of powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (portrayed by Lancaster and based on Walter Winchell) who uses his connections to ruin his sister's relationship with a man he deems unworthy of her.

Despite a poorly received preview screening, Sweet Smell of Success has greatly improved in stature over the years. It is now highly acclaimed by film critics, particularly for its cinematography and screenplay. In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical was created by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Carnelia and John Guare in 2002.


Manhattan press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) has been unable to gain mentions for his clients in J.J. Hunsecker's (Burt Lancaster) influential, nationally syndicated newspaper column of late because of Falco's failure to make good on a promise to break up the romance between Hunsecker's younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up-and-coming jazz guitarist.[3]

Falco is losing money and clients. Given one last chance by the bullying, intimidating Hunsecker, he schemes to plant a false rumor in a rival column that Dallas is a dope-smoking Communist, then encourages Hunsecker to rescue Dallas's reputation, certain that the headstrong boyfriend will reject Hunsecker's favor and end up looking bad to Susan.

The plan works, in a way—Dallas can't resist insulting Hunsecker's methods, and, forced to choose between them, the timid Susan breaks up with Dallas in order to protect him from her brother. Hunsecker, however, is enraged by Dallas's insults to him after a brief confrontation. He decides to ruin the boy after all (against Falco's advice) and wants to have marijuana planted on the musician, then have him arrested and roughed up by corrupt police Lt. Harry Kello (Emile Meyer).[3]

It is such a dirty trick that even Falco wants no part of it, at least until Hunsecker promises to take a long vacation from his powerful column and turn it over to Falco in his absence. At a nightclub, Falco slips the marijuana cigarettes into a pocket of a coat belonging to Dallas, who is accosted by Kello outside the club.

Falco is summoned to Hunsecker's penthouse apartment, only to find Susan there by herself and about to attempt suicide.[3] He grabs her just as her brother walks in, but Hunsecker, encouraged by Susan's silence, accuses Falco of trying to assault Susan and begins beating the physically weaker Falco. Falco pleads that he only came to the apartment at Hunsecker's request, prompting Hunsecker to tell Falco that he never called him. As Susan stops Hunsecker from further harming him, Falco realizes that Susan placed the call in order to bring the men to blows.

In a climactic confrontation, Falco reveals to Susan that it was her brother who ordered him to destroy Dallas's reputation and their relationship. Hunsecker makes a call to Kello to come after Falco, who tries to flee but is caught in Times Square by the brutal cop.

Back in the penthouse, Susan, her bags packed, acknowledges to her brother that she attempted suicide, considering death preferable to living with him. She walks out on him, saying that she will go to Dallas and tells Hunsecker that she pities rather than hates him. A mortified J.J. looks at his sister from his apartment, as she walks out into the daylight.


Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster as J. J. Hunsecker in the 21 Club Scene


Faced with potential unemployment from the sale of Ealing Studios to the BBC in 1954, director Alexander Mackendrick began entertaining offers from Hollywood.[4] He rejected potential contracts from Cary Grant and David Selznick and signed with independent production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, enticed by their offer to adapt George Bernard Shaw’s play The Devil's Disciple.[5] After the project collapsed during pre-production, Mackendrick asked to be released from his commitment. Harold Hecht refused and asked him to start work on another project – adapting Ernest Lehman’s novellette Sweet Smell of Success into a film.[6]

Lehman’s story had originally appeared in a 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan, renamed "Tell Me About It Tomorrow!" because the editor of the magazine did not want the word "smell" in the publication.[6] It was based on his own experiences working as an assistant to Irving Hoffman, a prominent New York press agent and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Hoffman subsequently did not speak to Lehman for a year and a half.[7] Hoffman then wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter speculating that Lehman would make a good screenwriter, and within a week Paramount called Lehman, inviting him to Los Angeles for talks. Lehman went on to forge a notable screenwriting career in Hollywood, writing Executive Suite, Sabrina, North by Northwest, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The King and I, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.[7]


By the time Hecht-Hill-Lancaster acquired Success, Lehman was in position to not only adapt his own novellette but also produce and direct the film.[7] After scouting locations, Lehman was told by Hecht that distributor United Artists was having second thoughts about going with a first-time director, so Hecht offered the film to Mackendrick. Initially the director had reservations about trying to film such a dialogue-heavy screenplay, so he and Lehman worked on it for weeks to make it more cinematic.[8] As the script neared completion, Lehman became ill and had to resign from the picture. James Hill took over and offered Paddy Chayefsky as Lehman’s replacement. Mackendrick suggested Clifford Odets, the playwright whose reputation as a left-wing hero had been tarnished after he named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Mackendrick assumed that Odets would need only two or three weeks to polish the script, but he took four months. The director recalled, "We started shooting with no final script at all, while Clifford reconstructed the thing from stem to stern".[9] The plot was largely intact, but in Mackendrick's biography he is quoted from Notes on Sweet Smell of Success: "What Clifford did, in effect, was dismantle the structure of every single sequence in order to rebuild situations and relationships that were much more complex, had much greater tension and more dramatic energy".[9] This process took time, and the start date for the production could not be delayed. Odets had to accompany the production to Manhattan and continued rewriting while they shot there. Returning to the city that had shunned him for going to Hollywood made Odets very neurotic and obsessed with all kinds of rituals as he worked at a furious pace, with pages often going straight from his typewriter to being shot the same day. Mackendrick said, "So we cut the script there on the floor, with the actors, just cutting down lines, making them more spare – what Clifford would have done himself, really, had there been time".[10]

Tony Curtis had to fight for the role of Sidney Falco because Universal, the studio to which he was contracted, was worried that it would ruin his career.[11] Tired of doing pretty-boy roles and wanting to prove that he could act, Curtis got his way. Orson Welles was originally considered for the role of J. J. Hunsecker. Mackendrick wanted to cast Hume Cronyn because he felt that Cronyn closely resembled Walter Winchell, the basis for the Hunsecker character in the novelette.[11] Lehman makes the distinction in an interview that Winchell was the inspiration for the version of the character in the novelette, and that this differs from the character in the film version. United Artists wanted Burt Lancaster in the role because of his box office appeal and his successful pairing with Curtis on Trapeze.[11] Robert Vaughn was signed to a contract with Lancaster's film company and was to have played the Steve Dallas role but was drafted into the Army before he could begin the film.[12]

Hecht-Hill-Lancaster allowed Mackendrick to familiarize himself with New York City before shooting the movie. In Notes on Sweet Smell of Success, Mackendrick said, "One of the characteristic aspects of New York, particularly of the area between 42nd Street and 57th Street, is the neurotic energy of the crowded sidewalks. This was, I argued, essential to the story of characters driven by the uglier aspects of ambition and greed".[11] He took multiple photographs of the city from several fixed points and taped the pictures into a series of panoramas that he stuck on a wall and studied once he got back to Hollywood.[13]

Cellist Fred Katz and drummer Chico Hamilton, who briefly appear in the film as themselves, wrote a score for the movie, which was ultimately rejected in favor of one by Elmer Bernstein.[14]

Principal photography

Mackendrick shot the film in late 1956, and was scared the entire time because Hecht-Hill-Lancaster had a reputation for firing their directors for any or even no reason at all.[15] The filmmaker was used to extensive rehearsals before a scene was shot and often found himself shooting a script page one or two hours after Odets had written it. Lancaster’s presence proved to be intimidating for numerous individuals involved with the production; at one point, Lehman had been approached to direct the film, but declined due to his fear of Lancaster. Mackendrick and composer Elmer Bernstein both found Lancaster difficult to work with, with Bernstein later recalling, “Burt was really scary. He was a dangerous guy. He had a short fuse.” [15][16] Mackendrick decided to use Lancaster's volatility to work for the character of JJ, asking that Lancaster wear his own browline glasses, which Mackendrick felt gave him the presence of "a scholarly brute." [16] Mackendrick smeared a thin layer of vaseline on the lenses, preventing Lancaster from focusing his eyes and giving him a perpetually blank gaze; Mackendrick then intentionally filmed scenes with JJ from a low angle using a wide lens with overhead lighting directly above Lancaster, so that the frames cast shadows on his face.[16]

Shooting on location in New York City also added to Mackendrick’s anxieties. Exteriors were shot in the busiest, noisiest areas with crowds of young Tony Curtis fans occasionally breaking through police barriers. Mackendrick remembered, "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".[15]

Musical score and soundtrack

Sweet Smell of Success
Soundtrack album by Elmer Bernstein/Chico Hamilton Quintet
Released 1958
Recorded June 12, 1957 & July 12, 1957
Genre Film score
Label Decca
DL 8610 & DL 8614
Producer Hecht, Hill & Lancaster
Elmer Bernstein chronology
Fear Strikes Out
Sweet Smell of Success
The Tin Star
Chico Hamilton Quintet chronology
Chico Hamilton Quintet
Sweet Smell of Success
South Pacific in Hi-Fi
Jazz Themes Cover
Professional ratings
Review scores
The Guardian[18]

The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by Elmer Bernstein, but the picture also featured jazz themes performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and two soundtrack albums were released on the Decca label in 1958.[19] Allmusic's Blair Sanderson noted, "The soundtrack to Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 motion picture Sweet Smell of Success combines orchestral music by the versatile Elmer Bernstein and modern jazz by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, including numbers performed in the film's club scenes. Both provide a moody backdrop to the cynical showbiz drama and intersect at several key points through the use of a common theme, the tune 'Goodbye Baby'. ... For his part, Bernstein employs richly dissonant big band sonorities and nocturnal urban blues in his score, and much of his music has the hard-edged, gritty sound that was associated with big city life in the 1950s. Hamilton's exploratory improvisations and Bernstein's studio orchestrations make this a highly sophisticated film score".[17] In The Guardian, John L. Walters called the soundtrack "the sonic equivalent of a well-mixed Manhattan: seven cool cues by drummer Chico Hamilton's adventurous band, and 14 orchestral blasts by Elmer Bernstein".[18]

Track listing

Soundtrack: All compositions by Elmer Bernstein except as indicated

  1. "The Street (Main Title)" - 2:41
  2. "Hot Dogs and Juice (Goodbye Baby)" (Chico Hamilton, Fred Katz) - 2:29
  3. "Sidney and Susie" - 2:48
  4. "Hunsecker's Price" - 1:58
  5. "Tropical Island Mood" - 2:42
  6. "The Smear" - 1:38
  7. "Toots Shor's Blues" - 2:49
  8. "Nite Spot Rock" - 1:58
  9. "Susie's Problem" - 2:11
  10. "Hunsecker Operates (Goodbye Baby)" (Hamilton, Katz) - 1:33
  11. "Goodbye Baby Blues" (Hamilton, Katz) - 3:34
  12. "The Trap Is Sprung" - 2:05
  13. "Love Scene (Susan - The Sage)" (Hamilton, Katz) - 3:37
  14. "Out of Darkness" - 3:43

Jazz Themes: All compositions by Chico Hamiliton and Fred Katz

  1. "Goodbye Baby" - 4:58
  2. "Cheek to Chico" - 2:09
  3. "Susan (The Sage)" - 2:30
  4. "Sidney's Theme" - 1:55
  5. "Jam" - 1:45
  6. "Night Beat" - 2:20
  7. "Concerto of Jazz Themes from the Soundtrack of "Sweet Smell of Success"" - 16:31


On Soundtrack (tracks 1, 3-9, 12 & 14):

On Soundtrack (tracks 2, 10, 11 & 13) and Jazz Themes


A preview screening of Sweet Smell of Success was poorly received, as Tony Curtis fans were expecting him to play one of his typical nice guy roles and instead were presented with the scheming Sidney Falco. Mackendrick remembered seeing audience members "curling up, crossing their arms and legs, recoiling from the screen in disgust".[20] Burt Lancaster's fans were not thrilled with their idol either, "finding the film too static and talky".[20] The film was a box office failure, and Hecht blamed his producing partner Hill. "The night of the preview, Harold said to me, 'You know you've wrecked our company? We're going to lose over a million dollars on this picture,'" Hill recalled.[20] However, Lancaster blamed Lehman, who remembers a confrontation they had: "Burt threatened me at a party after the preview. He said, 'You didn't have to leave – you could have made this a much better picture. I ought to beat you up.' I said, 'Go ahead – I could use the money.'"[20]

Sweet Smell of Success premiered in New York at Loew’s State in Times Square on June 27, 1957.[21] Critical reaction was much more favorable. Time said that the movie was "raised to considerable dramatic heights by intense acting, taut direction ... superb camera work ... and, above all, by its whiplash dialogue".[20] Both it and the New York Herald included the film on their ten-best lists for 1957. The film's reputation improved over time, with David Denby in New York magazine calling it "the most acrid, and the best" of all New York movies because it captured, "better than any film I know the atmosphere of Times Square and big-city journalism".[22]

Sweet Smell of Success holds a 98 percent "fresh" rating based on 45 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and a 100 metascore rating based on 5 reviews at Metacritic.[23][24] Though Mackendrick's direction of the actors and his staging of the scenes are at times extraordinary, in recent years critics have praised only the film's dialogue, "courtesy of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, a high-toned street vernacular that no real New Yorker has ever spoken but that every real New Yorker wishes he could", A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times.[25] Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer wrote, "the main incentive to see this movie is its witty, pungent and idiomatic dialogue, such as you never hear on the screen anymore in this age of special-effects illiteracy".[26]


In 1993, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[27]

In 2002, Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical was created by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Carnelia and John Guare.[28]

In its "100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains" list, the American Film Institute (AFI) named J. J. Hunsecker number 35 of the top 50 movie villains of all time in 2003.

Filmmaker Barry Levinson paid tribute to Sweet Smell of Success in his 1982 film Diner, with one character wandering around saying nothing but lines from the film.[29] In an early scene from Levinson's 1988 movie, Rain Man, Sweet Smell of Success is seen playing on television.

The Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Contract" is an homage to the film, with Mo Rocca playing a gossip columnist who is clearly based on J.J. (in both appearance and attitude) and other characters from the episode quoting the film's lines many times.

Publication Country Accolade Year Rank
Sight and Sound UK Top 250 Films[30] 2012 171
Empire UK The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time[31] 2008 314
The New York Times US The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made[32] 2004 *
Films101.com US The Best Movies of All Time (10,059 Most Notable)[33] 2013 124
Total Film US 100 Greatest Movies of All Time[34] 2010 *
Time US All-TIME 100 Movies[35] 2005 *
Entertainment Weekly US 100 Greatest Movies of All Time (1999)[36] 1999 49
Entertainment Weekly US 100 Greatest Movies of All Time[36] 1999 49
100 Greatest Movies of All Time (Second Edition)[37] 2013 100

(*) designates unordered lists.

American Film Institute recognition

100 Years ... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) -- nominated[38]
100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains -- #35 Villain (J.J. Hunsecker)

Home media

Sweet Smell of Success was released on DVD (Region 1) and Blu-ray (Region A) as part of The Criterion Collection in February 2011. The release includes new audio commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore, Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, a 1986 documentary produced by Scottish Television featuring interviews with director Alexander Mackendrick, actor Burt Lancaster, producer James Hill, and others. James Wong Howe: Cinematographer, a 1973 documentary about the film's director of photography, featuring lighting tutorials with Howe, a new video interview with film critic and historian Neal Gabler (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) about legendary columnist Walter Winchell, inspiration for the character J. J. Hunsecker, and a new video interview with filmmaker James Mangold about Mackendrick, his instructor and mentor. There is also a booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins, notes about the film and two short stories introducing its characters by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and an excerpt about Clifford Odets from Mackendrick’s book On Film-making, introduced by the book’s editor, Paul Cronin.[39]


  1. Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo 2000 p 183
  2. "Top Grosses of 1957", Variety, January 8, 1958: 30
  3. 1 2 3 Dirks, Tim. " Sweet Smell of Success (1957)". Filmsite. Retrieved April 16, 2009.
  4. Kemp 1991, p. 137.
  5. Kemp 1991, p. 139.
  6. 1 2 Kemp 1991, p. 140.
  7. 1 2 3 Kemp 1991, p. 141.
  8. Kemp 1991, p. 142.
  9. 1 2 Kemp 1991, p. 143.
  10. Kemp 1991, p. 144.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Kemp 1991, p. 145.
  12. "Hikari Takano Interviews | Robert Vaughn Interview Transcript - Open Source Transcripts - Robert Vaughn Interview Transcript Ro | hikaritakano.com". www.HikariTakano.com. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  13. Kemp 1991, p. 146.
  14. Butler, David. (2002) Jazz Noir: listening to music from Phantom Lady to The Last Seduction. Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-275-97301-8, p. 136
  15. 1 2 3 Kemp 1991, p. 147.
  16. 1 2 3 Naremore, James (July 6, 2010). Sweet Smell of Success: A BFI Film Classic. British Film Institute. ISBN 1844572889.
  17. 1 2 Sanderson, Blair. Jazz and Orchestral Themes Recorded for the Soundtrack of The Sweet Smell of Success – Review at AllMusic. Retrieved August 11, 2015.
  18. 1 2 Walters, J. L., The Guardian Review February 29, 2008
  19. Edwards, D., Callahan, M., Eyries, P., Watts, R., & Neely, T. Decca Album Discography, Part 4: Main 12-inch 8000 Series (1949-1960) accessed August 11, 2015
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 Kemp 1991, p. 161.
  21. Kashner, Sam (April 2010). "A Movie Marked Danger". Vanity Fair. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  22. Kemp 1991, p. 162.
  23. Sweet Smell of Success at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: March 1, 2013.
  24. Sweet Smell of Success at Metacritic. Last accessed: March 1, 2013.
  25. Scott, A.O (March 15, 2002). "Another Bite From That Cookie Full of Arsenic". The New York Times. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  26. Sarris, Andrew (April 21, 2002). "Bogdanovich's Hearst Bests Welles', But Ensemble Is Missing Altman". New York Observer. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  27. "Librarian Announces National Film Registry Selections". National Film Registry. March 7, 1994. Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  28. Zoglin, Richard (March 17, 2002). "Baby, It's Dark Outside". Time. Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  29. Kemp 1991, p. 152.
  30. The Greatest Films Poll. Sight & Sound. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  31. The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Empire. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  32. The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  33. "The Best Movies of All Time (10,059 Most Notable)". Films101.com. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  34. "Film Features: 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Total Film. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  35. "Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Movies". Time. Internet Archive. February 12, 2005. Archived from the original on June 28, 2011. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  36. 1 2 "Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Entertainment Weekly. Published by AMC FilmSite.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  37. "100 All-Time Greatest Movies, by Entertainment Weekly (2013)". Entertainment Weekly. Published by AMC FilmSite.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  38. "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition): Official Ballot" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  39. "Sweet Smell of Success". The Criterion Collection.

See also


Further reading

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