Sweet Smell of Success
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlexander Mackendrick
Screenplay byClifford Odets
Ernest Lehman
Alexander Mackendrick (uncredited)
Based onTell Me About It Tomorrow!
1950 novelette in Cosmopolitan
by Ernest Lehman
Produced byJames Hill
StarringBurt Lancaster
Tony Curtis
Susan Harrison
Martin Milner
Sam Levene
Barbara Nichols
Jeff Donnell
Chico Hamilton
CinematographyJames Wong Howe
Edited byAlan Crosland Jr.
Music byElmer Bernstein
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • June 27, 1957 (1957-06-27) (New York City)
  • July 4, 1957 (1957-07-04) (United States)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3.4 million[1] or $2 million[2]
Box office$2.25 million (US)[3]

Sweet Smell of Success is a 1957 American film noir drama film directed by Alexander Mackendrick, starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, and Martin Milner, and written by Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, and Mackendrick from the novelette by Lehman. The shadowy noir cinematography filmed on location in New York City was shot by James Wong Howe. The picture was produced by James Hill of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions and released by United Artists. The supporting cast features Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Joe Frisco, Edith Atwater, David White, and Emile Meyer. The musical score was arranged and conducted by Elmer Bernstein and the film also features jazz performances by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Mary Grant designed the costumes.

The film tells the story of powerful and sleazy 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 grew to become 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."[4]

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


One night in Manhattan, slick, up-and-coming press agent Sidney Falco scans the New York Globe for the column of immensely popular journalist J.J. Hunsecker, an influential media kingpin whose journalistic contributions and associated radio show both dominate the entertainment world. For the fifth consecutive day, J.J. has neglected to publicize any of Sidney's clients, as he is overly protective of his 19-year-old younger sister Susan and has asked Sidney to end her recent affair with budding jazz guitarist Steve Dallas.

Later, at the Elysian Room, where Steve performs with his group, the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Sidney argues with his uncle and Steve's manager, Frank D’Angelo, who had promised him that Steve and Susan would part. Upon learning from his girlfriend Rita, a cigarette girl, that Susan is awaiting Steve behind the club, he interrupts the pair's celebration. Steve, who mainly values integrity, angrily accuses him 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 J. J.’s main competitor, prominent columnist Leo Bartha, who then ordered for her dismissal. After he secures a date with Rita, Susan questions his relationship with J.J. inside a cab, but he reassures her that J.J. is a close friend to him. Outside the 21 Club, J.J. greets his informer, corrupt 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. When Sidney reveals the couple's engagement, J.J. gives him an ultimatum to destroy their relationship. Desperate to salvage his career, he vows not to disappoint J.J.

Sidney attempts to blackmail Leo at Toots Shor's Restaurant and Lounge by threatening to expose his marital infidelity with Rita unless Leo prints an item stating that Steve is a Communist who smokes marijuana. Instead, Leo chooses exposure over compromising his journalistic integrity, which even his wife Loretta praises as his first decent act in years. He then bribes columnist Otis Elwell, who agrees to print the item if Sidney will arrange for him to receive a sexual favor from an "available" woman. At his apartment, Rita balks at the implications of getting acquainted with Otis, but ultimately assents to Sidney's plan in order to stay employed. The next morning, the smear appears in Otis's column and the combo is fired.

As planned, J.J. theatrically gets Steve rehired with a phone call in front of Susan, but Steve rebukes him for being a malignant influence on society. Forced to choose between them, an overwhelmed Susan breaks up with Steve, hoping to save him from J.J.'s vengeance. Planning to destroy Steve's career, an incensed J.J. orders Sidney to plant marijuana on Steve; a shocked Sidney balks, stating that he can accept a dog collar but not a noose, but once J. J. offers to let Sidney write his column for three months while he vacations with Susan in Europe, he acquiesces.

At the Elysian Room, Sidney slips the cigarettes into the pocket of Steve's coat. Once Steve finishes work that evening, Kello accosts him outside and assaults him to the point of hospitalization. At a bar, surrounded by his industry cohorts, Sidney celebrates his accomplishment but is then summoned to J.J.'s penthouse apartment. He arrives to find a distraught Susan in her nightgown, about to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony. He barely rescues her, and takes her into her bedroom to rest. Upon arriving to find the two holding each other, J.J. harshly attacks him. Realizing that Susan set him up, he lividly reveals to her that J.J. conspired to frame Steve; he then departs, vowing to reveal the truth and informing J.J. that Susan is permanently lost to him. J.J. then calls Kello and tells him Steve is innocent, ordering Sidney to be arrested for planting the evidence. As Sidney exits the building, Kello stops and brutally beats him. As she packs her belongings, J.J. unsuccessfully begs her to stay; she coolly informs him that death is preferable to living with him. An overwrought J.J. watches from the balcony as she strides into the coming dawn to start life afresh with her lover.



Faced with potential unemployment from the sale of Ealing Studios to the BBC in 1954, director Alexander Mackendrick began entertaining offers from Hollywood.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Lehman’s story had originally appeared in the April 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.[7] It was based on his own experiences working as an assistant to Irving Hoffman, a New York press agent and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Hoffman subsequently did not speak to Lehman for a year and a half.[8] 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 forged a 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?.[8]


By the time Hecht-Hill-Lancaster acquired Success, Lehman was in position to not only adapt his own novelette but also produce and direct the film.[8] 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.[9] 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".[10] 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".[10] 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".[11]

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.[12] 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.[12] Lehman made 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.[12] 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.[13] Ernest Borgnine, contracted to Hecht-Hill-Lancaster since Marty (1955) was offered a role in the film but turned it down as his role was only seven pages long in the script. His refusal led him to be put on suspension from Hecht-Hill-Lancaster.[14]

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".[12] 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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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, although Hecht maintained that Lehman had never been offered the chance to direct. Mackendrick and composer Elmer Bernstein both found Lancaster intimidating, with Bernstein later recalling, "Burt was really scary. He was a dangerous guy. He had a short fuse".[17][18] 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".[18] Mackendrick smeared a thin layer of vaseline on the lenses, preventing Lancaster from focusing his eyes and giving him a perpetually blank gaze. Assisted by cinematographer James Wong Howe, Mackendrick intentionally filmed scenes with JJ from a low angle using a wide-angle lens and with overhead lighting directly above Lancaster, so that the spectacle frames cast shadows on his face.[18]

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".[17]

Musical score and soundtrack

Main article: Sweet Smell of Success (soundtrack)


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".[19] Burt Lancaster's fans were not thrilled with their idol either, "finding the film too static and talky".[19]

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.[19] According to Lehman, Lancaster blamed him, claiming that: "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.'"[19]

Variety estimated the film lost at least $400,000 on its initial run.[2]

Although he and Hecht would fire Mackendrick from The Devil's Disciple for the same painstaking (and costly) approach, Lancaster was quoted as saying that he felt Mackendrick had done a fantastic job for Sweet Smell of Success and that it wasn't his fault the film lost money.[20] He also believed that Curtis should have gotten an Oscar for his role as Falco.[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 magazine said the movie was "raised to considerable dramatic heights by intense acting, taut direction ... superb camera work ... and, above all, by its whiplash dialogue".[19] Time and the New York Herald included the film on their ten-best lists for films released in 1957. The film's critical reputation increased in subsequent decades. David Denby in New York magazine later called 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% rating based on 45 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.[23] At Metacritic it has a weighted average score rating of 100 out of 100 based on 5 reviews.[24] According to The Guardian, British press assessed it a perfect 10/10 based on reviews from multiple British newspapers.[25] A. O. Scott wrote in March 2002 for The New York Times: "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".[26] Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer, again in 2002, 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".[27]


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".[28]

In 2002, Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical was created by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Carnelia and John Guare.[29] It was not considered a critical or commercial success.[30][31]

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.[32] 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.

The titles of episodes two and three from the first season of Breaking Bad — "Cat's in the Bag..." and "...And the Bag's in the River" — are a direct quote from Sweet Smell of Success, which has been described by the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, as his all-time favorite movie.[33]

Publication Country Accolade Year Rank
Sight and Sound UK Top 250 Films[34] 2012 171
Empire UK The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time[35] 2008 314
The New York Times US The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made[36] 2004 *
Films101.com US The Best Movies of All Time (10,059 Most Notable)[37] 2013 124
Total Film US 100 Greatest Movies of All Time[38] 2010 *
Time US All-TIME 100 Movies[39] 2005 *
Entertainment Weekly US 100 Greatest Movies of All Time[40] 1999 49
100 Greatest Movies of All Time (Second Edition)[41] 2013 100

(*) designates unordered lists.

American Film Institute recognition

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.[42]

See also


  1. ^ Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo 2000 p 183
  2. ^ a b "New York Soundtrack". Variety. April 2, 1958. p. 4.
  3. ^ "Top Grosses of 1957", Variety, January 8, 1958: 30
  4. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 12, 2020.
  5. ^ Kemp 1991, p. 137.
  6. ^ Kemp 1991, p. 139.
  7. ^ a b Kemp 1991, p. 140.
  8. ^ a b c Kemp 1991, p. 141.
  9. ^ Kemp 1991, p. 142.
  10. ^ a b Kemp 1991, p. 143.
  11. ^ Kemp 1991, p. 144.
  12. ^ a b c d Kemp 1991, p. 145.
  13. ^ "Hikari Takano Interviews | Robert Vaughn Interview Transcript - Open Source Transcripts - Robert Vaughn Interview Transcript Ro | hikaritakano.com". www.HikariTakano.com. Archived from the original on April 14, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  14. ^ "Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012): A Personal Remembrance and an Unforgettable Interview". The Hollywood Reporter. July 9, 2012.
  15. ^ Kemp 1991, p. 146.
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ a b c Kemp 1991, p. 147.
  18. ^ a b c Naremore, James (July 6, 2010). Sweet Smell of Success: A BFI Film Classic. British Film Institute. ISBN 978-1844572885.
  19. ^ a b c d e Kemp 1991, p. 161.
  20. ^ a b Karney, Robyn. Burt Lancaster.
  21. ^ Kashner, Sam (April 2010). "A Movie Marked Danger paragraph". 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. ^ "Article clipped from The Guardian". Newspapers. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  26. ^ Scott, A.O (March 15, 2002). "Another Bite From That Cookie Full of Arsenic". The New York Times. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  27. ^ Sarris, Andrew (April 21, 2002). "Bogdanovich's Hearst Bests Welles', But Ensemble Is Missing Altman". New York Observer. Archived from the original on September 29, 2008. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  28. ^ "Librarian Announces National Film Registry Selections". National Film Registry. March 7, 1994. Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  29. ^ Zoglin, Richard (March 17, 2002). "Baby, It's Dark Outside". Time. Archived from the original on March 19, 2005. Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  30. ^ Jefferson, Margo (March 24, 2002). "Why Sweet Smell of Success Went Sour on Stage". New York Times. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  31. ^ Jones, Kenneth (June 15, 2002). "Sweet Smell of Success Ends Broadway Run June 15". Playbill. Retrieved October 15, 2019.
  32. ^ Kemp 1991, p. 152.
  33. ^ "From Mr. Chips To Scarface: The 10 Essential Films For Any Fan Of 'Breaking Bad'". UPROXX. September 3, 2013. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  34. ^ The Greatest Films Poll. Sight & Sound. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  35. ^ The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Empire. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  36. ^ The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  37. ^ "The Best Movies of All Time (10,059 Most Notable)". Films101.com. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  38. ^ "Film Features: 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Total Film. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  39. ^ "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.
  40. ^ "Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Entertainment Weekly. Published by AMC FilmSite.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  41. ^ "100 All-Time Greatest Movies, by Entertainment Weekly (2013)". Entertainment Weekly. Published by AMC FilmSite.org. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  42. ^ "Sweet Smell of Success". The Criterion Collection.


Further reading