That Old Feeling: Sidneyland

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CHARLES BENNETT/AP

"Sweet Smell of Success"

Sidney (Tony Curtis): "J.J., it's one thing to wear your dog collar. When it turns into a noose I'd rather have my freedom." — from the film "Sweet Smell of Success," 1957



Ernest Lehman had written the story "Sweet Smell of Success" in 1950, when he was an ex-press agent, a nobody, and Walter Winchell was the most powerful newspaperman in America. The veiled fiction about the columnist didn't seem to ruffle him. "I don't fool with the Ernest Lehmans of the world," Winchell supposedly said. "I go after the Westbrook Peglers [a right-wing journalist]." Five years later, Lehman was a big-shot screenwriter ("Executive Suite," "Sabrina") and reluctant to have the romanette-a-clef turned into a movie. But the indie-prod outfit Hecht-Lancaster was a comer — "Trapeze," with Burt Lancaster and Curtis, had hit it big, and "Marty" would win the top Oscar in 1956 — so when they promised Lehman he could direct as well as adapt his story, he bought in.

Lehman should have known by then that Hollywood was just Winchell's Broadway with better weather; chicanery and cupidity know no time zone. At Lehman's first meeting with Lancaster, the actor walked in zipping his fly and declaring, "She swallowed it!" Soon Lehman's writing assignments were extending beyond script work, according to Kate Buford's cogent biography, "Lancaster: An American Life," which gives the fullest account of the making of "Sweet Smell." Barbara Nichols, who was to play the sexy cigarette girl, had spent most of a recent night trysting with the film's producer, James Hill — like Lancaster, a notorious ladies' man. In the wee-smalls of that same night, she visited a woman friend in an apartment upstairs for a heart-to-heart, only to find the woman in bed with Hill. Now Hill had Lehman ghostwrite a patch-up note to Nichols, to go with three dozens roses the producer was sending her.

Lehman was quickly replaced as director by Alexander Mackendrick, a Scotsman just off a prime Alec Guinness comedy, "The Ladykillers." And soon the writer had departed; all the jawing about script changes had given him a spastic colon, and his doctor told him to scram to Tahiti. Per Buford, "Lancaster said, 'Gee, Ernie, I hope we're not the cause of this,' his big arm around the much smaller Lehman's shoulder as he left." (In the movie, J.J. would tell his sister, "Say exactly what's on your mind, dear," his big hand on her upper back like a puppeteer ready to pull the string.)

Clifford Odets — once the great Red hope of the Group Theatre, now considered, too facilely, as a genius that Hollywood crushed into a hack — was hired to punch up the dialogue. And did he ever! On location in New York, writing scenes just before they were to be shot (he pulled all-nighters in his room at the Essex House, or sat in a production van, typewriter on his lap, while the actors froze outside), Odets gave flesh to Lehman's figures, then flayed them with the word-knives of a sadist surgeon. Every line parades its cutting cleverness, exposes character in the same harsh light the movie uses to third-degree the actors' faces, and, often, is paraphrased later for a residual kick. (The movie's dialogue structure couldn't be tighter if you poured a quart of scotch down its throat.) The 20-year gag about the playwright was that he had sold out, gone soft: "Odets, where is thy sting?" Well, it's here.

Lancaster, the preeminent actor-producer in a decade when that meant a lot, at first had no thought of appearing in the film. Then, during one casting conference, he said, "What about me?" He, like Curtis and Odets, was a New York boy; Manhattan had been his boot camp, and the dialogue — spit with verbs — "came out of his mouth," Buford writes, "like his own words punched black and blue." He was also the producer and, according to Curtis "wanted to direct that movie." He challenged Mackendrick during the shooting and planned to fire him before the film was edited. Nobody could agree on the final confrontation; Odets was ordered to rewrite it three times. Lancaster wanted this verbal shootout to be between the two male stars; Mackendrick insisted it be with J.J. and his sister — the one person J.J. loved had to bring him down. And when they screened both versions, they realized the director's cut worked.

"'Sweet Smell of Success' destroyed us all," said Mackendrick, who would never again direct a major Hollywood film. But that's press-agent reverse-spin. In the projector lamp of history, no one cares whether the film's makers had a good time or whether the film was a commercial and critical flop. (TIME did put it on its 1957 Ten Best list.) What matters is the creepy, elevated pleasure it gives today. The movie proves how savory and nourishing a cookie full of arsenic can be.



THE REAL SIDNEY

"You're a liar, Sidney... Oh, it's a publicity man's nature to be a liar. I wouldn't hire you if you wasn't a liar. I pay you a C-and-a-half where you, you plant big lies about me and the club all over the map... [But] you are a personal liar too, because ya don't do the work that I pay ya for." — Joe Robard (Joseph Leon) in the film "Sweet Smell of Success," 1957



"Go With the Globe," reads the poster on the newspaper delivery truck. "Read J.J. Hunsecker." Hunsecker, the upper half of his face on the poster, seems already to be reading you. The flinty eyes behind those thick glasses stare out like Big Brother's; the film will soon reveal what sort of a big brother he is. Under the opening credits, Elmer Bernstein score blares confidently (though in truth it sounds like leavings from his terrific work on "The Man With the Golden Arm" two years before). The glimpses of midtown midnight Manhattan under the credits put me in mind of a Henry Hook cryptic crossword-puzzle clue — "shining silver trash" — for which the answer is "aglitter" (silver = AG; trash = litter); the movie gleams like a diamond trying to pass itself off as a rhinestone. A truck dumps a pack of newspapers in front of a newsstand, and they flop, like a bunch of fish the papers will soon be wrapping, just as Bernstein's horns scream to a finish.

Sidney's walk-up office in the West 40s isn't much for decor: a tatty front room with a fat water streak down the wall and a desk for his adoring secretary Sally (Jeff Donnell), and behind this a small bedroom where Sidney changes clothes between appointments. But it's metaphorically sumptuous, as the dressing room where Broadway's self-proclaimed star of the future dons his tailored shirts and form-hugging suits. It's also Sidney's dressing-down room. Insults are his perennial plats du jour; he dishes them out — one term of endearment is "Lump!" — and sometimes he takes them.

Sometimes? All times. Sidney is orally assaulted by virtually every character in the film: J.J., his secretary, his sister, her boyfriend, her boyfriend's manager, another columnist, the columnist's wife, two of his clients, a cigarette girl and a fat cop. I can't think of another character in cinema history who gets harangued by so many or with such good reason. Yet Sidney is a resilient cuss; he can repackage any insult to suit the next guy in line. When a columnist in a night club spumes to Sidney that he and J.J. have "the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster," Sidney walks over to another scribe and uses the words, nearly verbatim, as a characterization of J.J. And when Hunsecker himself launches a devastating attack, Sidney, half the time, smiles. Gee, he's taken the trouble to lambaste me; I have his undivided scorn; now I can make my pitch.

What he can't accept is a compliment or concern, especially from the ladies. When Sally murmurs that she wishes she could help him, Sidney feels obliged to shoot down the neediness at once: "And what will you do... open your meaty, sympathetic arms...?" That "meaty" is a zinger. It shows how practiced Sidney is at hurting people; he can do it so acutely without hardly trying. Does he even know who's on the receiving end of his barbs? At one point he calls Sally "Sam," even as he sometimes addresses J.J.'s secretary Mary (Edith Atwater) as "Maida."

The other woman who wants Sidney is Rita (Nichols), a puffy blond cigarette girl who has a few miles on her hips. Sidney has occasionally shared her bed; now he sees a way he can help Rita and, always more important, himself. She's in danger of losing her job because she said no to one of J.J.'s rivals, Leo Bartha. Sidney needs a third columnist, Otis Elwell (David White), to print the slur about Dallas, thus currying J.J.'s favor. So when Elwell also promises to get the cigarette girl her job back, Sidney pimps Rita to him. The three of them wind up in Sidney's office, with Elwell uttering the oldest line in his little black book: "Don't I know you from somewhere?" Rita throws a righteous fit but finally accedes. After Sidney leaves them alone with two drinks and an unmade bed, Rita, in a deliciously acrid twist, sullenly acknowledges that they had met before. "Palm Springs. Two years ago. Don't tell Sidney."

Sidney, whom Susie rightly pegs as having a "clever little mind," is always being outsmarted: by Rita, by a columnist (Lawrence Dobkin as Leo Bartha) whom he tries to blackmail into running an item, by Hunsecker and finally by J.J.'s sister. Sidney — who we know is making a hefty $250 a week, just from two clients we hear complain to him during the movie, so is probably earning much more — is a cheapie who won't wear a topcoat on a winter night: "And leave a tip in every hat-check room in town?" But his thrift earns an insult from J.J. Leaving "21," J.J. asks him, "Where's your coat, Sidney? Saving tips?"

But then, J.J. is a master of the castrating word or glance; a man at his table can laugh at the wrong moment, and from the guillotine look J.J. shoots him, the guy may as well have said, "I voted for Hitler." So if Sidney is to swim back into J.J.'s orbit, he'll have to do the crawl. J.J. wants to see whether Sidney's pugnacity will overcome his need to grovel; how much will he scrap, and how much scrape? We watch J.J. watching Sidney from the great height of his own megalomania. It happens that Lancaster was five inches taller than Curtis, 6ft.2 to 5ft.9, but in the scene outside "21" Burt is literally head and shoulders above Tony, as if Sidney were walking in the gutter.

Lancaster was so secure in his stature that he could take the dominant but smaller role of J.J. (he's on screen for 36 mins., Curtis almost 90). Similarly, he could have relied on old, endearing mannerisms and played J.J. as the handsome, expansive con man, flashing those famous ivories as he suckered the rubes with his clipped, booming voice. Instead, he wears thick glasses, with what looks like a false nose under them. He turns his athletic energy inward to present a man nearly imploding with pent tension. He intones that Odetsian odes in a whisper, so that everyone, not just on screen, would lean in closer, the more vulnerable to his bite when he struck.

And buzzing around J.J., like Moscone the fly around sly-fox Volpone, is Curtis' Sidney. Mackendrick mentioned the Ben Jonson play to the actors as they shot outside "21" late one night; but he might also have said that Sidney was the fly to J.J.'s taut, watchful spider, and 52nd Street was his web. Whatever Sidney's floating status as villain and victim, Curtis was the victor in the movie. I'll bet that when he first read the script he thought exultantly, "That's me all over!" Curtis may have spent the 50s playing pretty boys at Universal, but he was still Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx, and "Sweet Smell" gave Curtis the role he was born to play — even as he knew Sidney was born (and condemned) to play J.J.'s well-tailored foil. "Look at the way Sidney looked," Curtis told Buford. "So...perfect. Great-looking, lean, silk shirts, tapered trousers. Couldn't get out of that environment. He's there forever."

His mouth luscious and sneering, his eyes mascara'd like a silent-screen sheik, Curtis' Sidney is all bustle and rancor, ever moving, biting his nails, full of unfocused nervous energy. Coming into his office ("What is here? A wake?") to find his uncle and Dallas steaming about the smear item Sidney had planted, Curtis paces, runs fingers through his greasy hair, and then picks up their cue: they want a fight, OK, he'll bounce, circle, jab and jabber like a boxer in a Garden prelim. Out on 52nd Street with J.J., he pleads, "Stop beating me on the head, let me make a living" — and on the second phrase Curtis rubs his thumbs against his forefingers like a cartoon usurer and glances imploringly to heaven. Sidney: such a thespian he is. For Curtis, the performance may not have been career-making, but it was actor-making. It expanded and forever defined what we mean by "Tony Curtis": the slick shtarker, oily and irresistible.

The problem role should be Susie, J.J.'s 19-year-old "screwball sister." (Odd, since J.J. is at least twice as old; why couldn't she have been made his daughter?) She's kooky and vulnerable, always looking as if she's just been slapped or thinks she's about to be. When she questions Sidney's "friendship" with J.J. — "Who could love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?" — she might be speaking to herself. And her boyfriend is just too square to compute as a 50s jazz musician. (What's he got that she wants? Sidney's answer: "Integrity. Acute. Like indigestion.")

But Susan Harrison, who was indeed 19 when the movie was shot — and who slipped until anonymity until two years ago, when her daughter Darva Conger married a lummox on a TV millionaire show — carries the burden as smartly as she wears that mink. She stands up to Lancaster and Curtis, fully justifying Mackendrick's belief that the film, finally, is about Susie; in the last shot, when she walks out into the first morning sun we've seen, we can believe that J.J. the vampire has lost some of his power. Harrison helps make Susie one of the great crippled lovelies of late-period film noir.

"Sweet Smell" is noir, oui — but as brisk as the winter nights on which Sidney refuses to wear a topcoat. Mackendrick, whose aim was to play it "fast and high," wastes no time on dead spots for the audience to mull over what's just been said. The actors, servants of the superb dialogue, speak it quickly and crisply, without trying to find meaning in Method or profundities in pauses. Lancaster and Curtis never go outside their roles to remind us that they're really lovable scamps on a holiday in the sewers; that may have been what kept their performances from being admired then, and what makes them admirable now. Similarly, "Sweet Smell" is cherished today because it never stoops, or even stops, for a hug from the audience. It wanted only to be understood. And now it is.



BROADWAY SIDNEY

Sidney: "I am J.J. Hunsecker! It's who I'm gonna be, only bigger." — from the Broadway show "Sweet Smell of Success"

All this talent: it seemed so, potentially, right. Playwright John Guare: "The House of Blue Leaves," "Six Degrees of Separation" and the 1981 Lancaster movie "Atlantic City." Composer Marvin Hamlisch: "The Way We Were," "A Chorus Line," "They're Playing Our Song," "The Goodbye Girl" — all pulsing odes to Manhattan. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley have confected some of the most enchanted theatrical evenings of the last two decades. Still I wondered: why a musical? Broadway songs are for what you can't say, for what's in your heart. Sidney, J.J. — what heart? And their success, which J.J. bathes in and Sidney just sniffs at, has as much to do with what they hide as what they say. These men do not explain themselves. They bark; the long note of a song's musical climax is not in their emotional repertoire.

For a judicious review of the show, see Richard Zoglin's piece in TIME; I'll just fill in some connections and breaks the show makes with the movie. For a start, the Broadway version gives a backstory to the film's 36 hours. It wants to tell how J.J. got Sidney into his awful career commitment: by discovering him, when he was just a nebbish — Sidney Falcone, dazzled by the Hunsecker hubris — and educating him in the ways of venality. (It's basically "The Producers," but without the gaiety, the color or the synchronized goose-stepping.) As played by Brian D'Arcy James, who has the young Neil Sedaka's face and prepubescent tenor singing voice, Sidney is a grinning naif who can't wait to be corrupted. J.J. takes him as a protégé, creates him out of nothing, to use him and then destroy him, return him to nothing: zero, with a bullet.

Lithgow's J.J. is a plausible bad guy, though less potent than Lancaster's. Lithgow, his soft lankiness worlds removed from Lancaster's coiled muscularity, puts surface charm on the scoundrel. He smiles, he effuses, he sings. This J.J. enjoys his venality, his sacred-monstrosity (it's good to be the king of the night); Lancaster's J.J. is rigid, watchful, a calculating machine, a new species — the prototype post-human. Something in Lithgow's J.J. wants to be loved, whereas Lancaster's J.J. simply is what he does. (Motivation? That's for infomercial spielers.) The difference in the two men is encapsulated in the way they say, "I love this dirty town." Lithgow spreads his arms wide, eager to be hugged or even mugged by the Manhattan night; Lancaster almost whispers it, as if quietly satisfied that New York occasionally rises or sinks to his expectations of it.

J.J. here refers to cafe society as "the fizz in champagne — carbonated history." The problem with this musical is not that it has expanded or altered the movie's plot but that it can't create any fizz of its own. (That's what happens when you decide to promote Susie and Dallas from foils into virtual coequals in stage time with J.J. and Sidney.) The show is not so much dark as drab; it lumbers instead of sprinting; and Hamlisch, after three pretty fine Broadway scores, seems to have run out of tunes. But it could be I'm too possessive of the movie, too reluctant to give credit to those who have tampered with it — sorry, elaborated on it. Get back to me in 45 years; maybe we'll see another classic in another "Sweet" flop.



FOREVER SIDNEY

Sidney: "Hunsecker's the golden ladder to the places I wanna get... way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy." — from the movie

By 1957, the world "Sweet Smell" so pungently defines was nearly in the past tense. The Broadway we glimpse under the opening credits reveals a street little like today's. The Trans-Lux Theatre, the Warner and Capital and Rivoli: all are gone. So are the roomy, stately Checker Cabs. The Palace Theatre, where the Herbie Temple sequence was shot, dropped vaudeville shortly after the picture was made. The Brill Building, Tin Pan Alley's Deco palace, still gleams, though it was never a residence; J.J.'s penthouse apartment, with its marble finishings, a Xanadu-size fireplace and a terrace that beckons frail lovelies to jump off, is the film's fiction — why shouldn't a man who is all business live in an office building?

In the seven years since the publication of Lehman's story, Winchell had aged toward a cranky obscurity; if a younger generation remembers him today, it is as the narrator of the Desilu crime series "The Untouchables." Sullivan, Winchell's rival at the Daily News, was a far more potent starmaker on his Sunday night TV show than in his column. All the stars of daily journalism were diminished, because TV had quickly become the primary source of news.

By the time of "Sweet Smell," the boites that gave a home to the columnists were heading for twilight — or, since they were nightclubs, their final dawn. The Stork Club went bankrupt and then kaput in the 60s. A later disco spurt would revive the turbid El Morocco; it's still there, but unrecognizable. The "21" Club somehow survived as a rich man's steak house until Anne Rosenzweig took over in the 80s and began serving edible food. Toots Shor declined when night games kept reporters from having dinner there with the ballplayers they covered. There were fewer ballplayers too: at the end of that sweet-smell year 1957, after a combined 130 seasons in New York, the Dodgers and Giants both left town. (I'm pleased to say that Phyllis Adams and Davie Lerner are still in full flourish; and though Buck Zuckerman has left this earth for parties unknown, his son has made a nice name for himself: Buck Henry.)

So the movie was, on its initial release, as much elegy — even eulogy — as exposé. It may seem more so today, when some of us get a wistful kick seeing how nattily the nasties dressed back then, as if for the funeral of those character they were trying to assassinate. Like all old movies, this one is a documentary: a precious, permanent record, not just of the vanished Broadway landmarks, the mausoleums of cafe society, the media mammoths at the very moment they were becoming dinosaurs, but of a bygone film style and an acting style. Today, that sort of directorial and behavioral efficiency is, alas, as dead as the Stork Club.

But J.J. will always be around, in other media, under other names: Rush Limbaugh on the radio, Bill O'Reilly on TV. The toadies and connivers and suckers and ham-handed cops are still out in force. And Sidney: well, there's a little Sidney in all of us, or there should be — just a little. We need that goading inner voice to put some hustle in us, make us smell success, look for the side street to advancement, scream in recriminating rage. We need to be our own press agents. And if we aren't quite up for or down to the job, then let's hire a publicist to do it for us. There's a good indie outfit in midtown Manhattan, named for the patron saint of New York nightcrawlers. So help me, it's called Falco Ink.