Jim Burns

Tony Curtis & Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success


Clifford Odets did not have a distinguished career in Hollywood and most of the films he worked on have been forgotten, though there are moments in Deadline at Dawn and None But the Lonely Heart when the writing is reminiscent of the Odets of the plays that made his name in New York in the 1930s. The usual assumption is, of course, that he sold out to Hollywood and that it corrupted him and destroyed his talent. The critics point to the poor quality of most of the films he was involved with and make reference to his final years when he wrote a script for a weak Elvis Presley western and did some routine work for television. Add to that his less-than-heroic stance when called to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the earty-l950s and it's not hard to understand why his reputation suffered.

I've never been convinced that such an easy dismissal of Odets is justified. His later plays, like The Big Knife and The Country Girl, have much to recommend them. And as for working in Hollywood, Odets went there to earn money writing and I doubt that he had many illusions about what he would be able to do. Screenwriting at any time, and especially in the days of the Hollywood studio system has never been a job for the over-sensitive, and writers have to accept that their scripts will be tampered with, not only by other writers but also by directors, producers, and actors, just as they have to be prepared to meddle with other writers' work or produce scripts based on ideas they think are ridiculous. In the old days, Hollywood was like a factory turning out mass-production goods, and the fact that some writers managed to do decent work in that atmosphere says a lot about their resilience and urge to create. It's unlikely that many off the writers who worked in films would want to claim that most of what they wrote was great art(or even minor art) and I suspect it satisfied the majority to think of themselves as craftsmen who did the best they could in the circumstances. As Woody Haut says in a recent study of the effects on writers of working in Hollywood, they "have often had to reject the world of literature and embrace the role of literary worker."

I don't intend to make this piece an apology for writers who went to Hollywood. There is now sufficient material available for anyone interested in the subject to look in detail at why writers worked in films, the problems they encountered, and what they thought they'd achieved, besides making money. What I want to do is examine a film with which Clifford Odets was involved and which, despite an indifferent and even sometime hostile reception when it first appeared in 1957, is now regarded as something of a classic. Sweet Smell of Success has been described as "the smartest, most cynical American film of the 1950s," and the story of how it came to be made is a fascinating exercise in creativity triumphing over the odds.

Sweet Smell of Success first started life as a novella published in the magazine Cosmopolitan. It was written by Ernest Lehman, who had worked in New York as a press agent, a job which required him to hang around the notorious columnists of the day hoping to get his clients favourably mentioned in the newspapers they wrote for or the radio programmes they presented. Lehman had ambitions to be a novelist and tried to construct a book about the seedy world of columnists, press agents, public relations people, hack journalists, hustlers, and others who frequented the dubs and bars of the city. Lehman never did finish the novel but he salvaged enough from it to produce two short stories and a novella revolving around Sidney Falco, an ambitious agent ready to do almost anything to succeed, and J.J.Hunsecker, a famous gossip columnist who ruthlessly uses everyone to keep his own name in lights. It was no secret that Hunsecker was based on a real columnist, Walter Winchell, who could make or break reputations and had the ear of famous politicians, businessmen, film stars, FBI officers, and others in a position to feed him information and receive it from him. That similarities could be seen between Hunsecker and Winchell caused problems for Lehman when he tried to get his novella published, and even after it appeared it was shunned by Hollywood for fear of offending Winchell if it was turned into a film. But Hollywood did ask Lehman to work as a screenwriter and he moved there in the early-l950s.

By the mid-1950s the old Hollywood studio system was breaking down and independent producers were becoming more active. One of these organisations, Hecht, Hill and Lancaster (the latter was Burt, the film star) asked Lehman to let them film his story, with him writing the script and directing, but he refused, partly because he didn't want to revive the controversy about the way he'd portrayed the seamier side of the relationship between press agents and gossip columnists. He'd been almost ostracised in New York after his novella was published and he didn't want the same to happen in Hollywood. But Hecht, Hill and Lancaster continued to press him, and after they'd made an impressive film version of Paddy Chayefsky's TV play, Marty, Lehman relented. It was a decision he came to regret, at least in the short term.

The film business has never been noted for high ethical standards and Lehman soon discovered that, despite the promises made, he was not going to be allowed to direct the film. Hecht, Hill and Lancaster may have looked impressive on paper, but the three names represented three competing egos who were not against using underhand methods to get their own way. A story about Harold Hecht perhaps gives an idea of the prevailing ethos. He'd been summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and he asked Roland Kibbee, a writer who worked for him, to help him prepare a statement he could read out at the hearing. Kibbee wrote the statement and listened to Hecht read it to the Committee and then immediately name Kibbee as a communist. Lehman had seen the sleazy side of New York at dose hand but he thought of what he was experiencing in Hollywood as "a whole new level of corruption." Hecht, Hill and Lancaster did not impress him as people but, as he later said, they were the only ones prepared to buck the system and film his story.

The producers brought in Alexander Mackendrick to direct Sweet Smell of Success in what was seen as an unlikely choice for a film dealing with-American big-city themes. Mackendrick had made his reputation in Britain, directing Baling comedies like The Ladykillers and The Man in The White Suit, but he proved adaptable. Unfortunately, Lehman, under pressure to produce a script and having to cope with Mackendrick's way of working (Lehman said: "You had the feeling he wasn't even listening to you because his mind was going so fast."), not to mention interference by Burt Lancaster, fell ill with stress and was advised by his doctor to withdraw from any involvement with the film.

It was Mackendrick's idea to bring in Clifford Odets to rewrite the script that Lehman had prepared. He'd always admired Odets for his work in the theatre and he knew him to be conscientious about completing writing tasks he was given. And Odets badly needed the work. He was living in reduced circumstances, divorced, looking after his two children, and selling off some of the paintings he'd bought in better days so he could pay his bills. The great days of the 1930s were long past and he'd hardly carved out a successful career as a screenwriter. He had written plays in the early 1950s whicn were praised but they didn't revive his fortunes. Harold Clurman tried to persuade him to return to New York, but Odets wasn't foolish enough to believe that the world of the 1930s, with the Group Theatre and the whole left-wing artistic and social scene, still existed, or would ever re-appear. No-one would want to watch Waiting for Lefty in the relatively affluent 1950s, especially when Senator McCarthy and his associates were on the rampage. But Odets did think that Sweet Smell of Success might at least bring in some money and perhaps help him re-establish a reputation in Hollywood. He was worried about one thing, and that was the fact that some of the filming would take place in New York and he had to be in attendance. He worried about running into old friends from his left-wing past and how they would treat him.

The biggest problem that Odets faced was that filming was due to start the week after he was hired and he literally had to write as the film was being made. There was also a battle going on between Lancaster and Mackendrick about how the film should develop, so the writer's situation wasn't at all perfect: Tony Curtis, playing the part of Sidney Falco to Lancaster's J.J.Hunsecker, struck up a friendship with Odets, and recalled him sitting in his overcoat in one of the prop trucks in Times Square in New York, in the early hours of a bitterly cold morning, hammering away at his typewriter because the scenes were needed for that day's filming. Alexander Mackendrick remembered: "One of the most frightening experiences in my life was to start shooting in the middle of Times Square with an incomplete script." And he added: There never was a final shooting script for the movie....it was all still being revised, even on the last day of principal photography. It was a shambles of a document."

Despite all these drawbacks the film was an artistic, if not a commercial, success and much of the credit for that lies with the script. In terms of the basic story it doesn't stray far from Lehman's novella. Hunsecker has a sister, Susan, who he has an unhealthy interest in, to the extent of resenting any men who pay attention to her. She is having an affair with a young jazz musician. In the novella he's a singer but jazz was going through a brief popular phase in the 1950s so the music could be neatly incorporated into the film. Hunsecker wants the relationship broken and Falco, ever anxious to curry favour with the columnist, connives to do just that. He arranges for some other columnists to smear the musician as a drug user and a possible member of the Communist Party, thus playing on two fears of 1950s America which would place someone outside polite society. Odets had his own reasons for wanting to show how smears spread by columnists easily damaged reputations, but the idea originated in Lehman's story so he was clearly aware of what went on. It's a fairly simple storyline but intertwined with it are a series of other sketches as Falco hustles for business with possible clients, pimps for another columnist he wants a favour from, and explains his philosophy of life in a number of asides and responses to people he encounters. Talking to his long-suffering secretary who raises a mild objection to his behaviour and asks, "where do you want to get?" Falco replies: "Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy! Where no-one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, Shrimp, rack up those balls! Or, 'Hey, mouse, run out and get me a pack of butts: I don't want tips from the kitty -I sit in the big game and play with the big players. My experience I can tell you in a nutshell, and I didn't dream it in a dream: dog eat dog."

This is pure Odets and it isn't in Lehman's novella in that form. Lehman was a decent enough writer and kept his dialogue moving, but he didn't have Odetsí talent for creating a streetwise language that sounded authentic even if, coolly analysed, it can seem somewhat overdone. Mackendrick, in fact, did raise objections along those lines, worrying that the dialogue sounded "stagy," but Odets countered his comments by saying, "You're probably worried that the dialogue is exaggerated and may sound implausible. Don't be. Play it real fast - and play the scenes not for the words but for the situations. Play them on the run and they'll work just fine." Odets also explained to Tony Curtis how to play the role of Falco:

"Don't be still with Sidney. Donít ever let Sidney sit down comfortably. I want Sidney constantly moving, like an animal, never quite sure who's behind him or where he is." The fast-talking lines Odets created for Sidney match the moving man on the screen. A telephone rings in Falco's office and he snarls at his secretary, "If that's for me, tear it up," a line Odets had previously used in his play, Golden Boy. And faced with a situation where things have gone wrong and he has to talk his way out of it, Falco says, "Watch me run a fifty yard dash with my legs cut off."

With Hunsecker, Odets created a different character, someone who is in a position of power and knows it. Unlike Falco, he doesn't need to be on the move all the time. People come to him, as the film makes dear with Hunsecker sitting at his usual table in a nightclub while agents and politicians and others try to ingratiate themselves. In one scene Falco joins him and Hunsecker savagely turns on the press agent as he explains to some other people just who and what Falco is: "Mr Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of forty faces, not one, none too pretty and all deceptive. See that grin? It's the charming street urchin's face. It's part of his 'helpless' act he throws himself on your mercy. I skip the pleading nervous bit that sometimes blends over into bluster. The moist grateful eye is a favourite face with him - it frequently ties in with the act of boyish candour: he's talking straight from the heart, get it? He's got about half a dozen faces for the ladies, but the real cute one to me is the quick dependable chap - nothing he wonít do for you in a pinch. At least, so he says! Tonight Mr Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table, is about to show in his last and most pitiful role: pale face with tongue hanging out. In brief, gentlemen and Jersey Lily, the boy sitting with us is a hungry press agent and fully up on all the tricks of his very slimy trade:"

It is, admittedly, virtually impossible to know exactly how much of Lehman's script remained in the end. He was given co-writer credit with Odets for the screenplay, so must have contributed a reasonable amount of the material to merit that status. Even so, I think it's possible to see Odet's hand at work just about everywhere and, if the stories about the script being written (or re-written) as filming was in progress are accurate, then he may well have done the major part of the work. Ernest Lehman himself said that "Clifford Odets had done some brilliant rewrites." There is too, a significant departure from Lehman's portrayal of Hunsecker in the novella and it is almost certainly something that Odets introduced into the script.

Lehman did not show Hunsecker to be overtly political, but in a key scene in the film which climaxes in a confrontation between Hunsecker and the musician, the columnist is seen preparing for his TV show and making comments about the American way of We: "From Washington through to Jefferson, from Lincoln and F.D.R., right up to today the Democratic way of life ! That's what the man said. Nowadays it doesnt export too well....But you know....and I know....that our best secret weapon is D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y".

Odets knew from personal experience how patriotic sentiments expressed in this way were often a cover for scoundrels to boost their own reputations, as with Joseph McCarthy and other members of the committees investigating supposed un-American activities, and introducing this scene must have been his idea. It also points to the growing power of television to influence opinions, with the more astute columnists realising that they needed to switch to that medium as newspapers lost some of their capacity to shape the public's perceptions.

Comparing the script of Sweet Smell of Success to the novella it's obvious that the film offers much harsher portraits of Falco and Hunsecker. In the novella Falco does seem to falter at times and almost question his lust for success. He has some contact with his family and appears to be upset because they view him as someone who has sold his soul to the Devil. And there is a woman he turns to for comfort. But the film shows him as compulsively pushing himself deeper and deeper into a frantic series of machinations. He has no redeeming characteristics, and as one of the other characters says to him: "You're an amusing boy, but there isn't a drop of respect in you for anything alive - you're too immersed in the theology of making a fast buck" This is almost certainly something written by Odets and nothing like it is in the published story.

On the whole, the film version of Sweet Smell of Success is a darker, more cynical story than the novella. There is, however, a hint of hope for at least some of the characters in the ending of the film. In the novella Falco is responsible for the arrest and brutal beating of the singer and is then lured to Hunsecker's apartment by the sister, who makes it appear that Falco has tried to molest her. Hunsecker arrives and the story ends as he savagely attacks Falco. Susan, in this version, is a tougher person than in the film, where she is portrayed as extremely vulnerable. The musician in the film is arrested and beaten, Falco does go to Hunsecker's apartment and is found there by the columnist, who assumes the worst and, as an act of revenge, informs the police that Falco has framed the musician by planting drugs in his coat pocket. Falco is then arrested and beaten, and the film ends as Susan leaves, presumably to go to the musician. As the script says, she "moves into a patch of early morning sunlight, then walks away towards a new day."

Alexander Mackendrick said that there never was a proper shooting script for the film, but a published script does exist and is essentially the same as what is seen on the screen. And it has been rightly acclaimed as one of the finest screenplays to come out of Hollywood. Films are a group activity and in Sweet Smell of Success it is obvious that James Wong Howe's brilliant black-and-white photography, Elmer Bernstein's edgy, jazz-tinged score and the work of Chico Hamilton's group, the direction and the editing, not to mention the acting, including contributions from a first-rate supporting cast, combined with the script to make the film work successfully. But I don't think it's exaggerating to say that without the script, and what seems to be Odets' major contribution to it, Sweet Smell of Success might have turned out to be just another competent Hollywood production. Odets took it far beyond that.




The screenplay of Sweet Smell of Success was published by Faber, London, 1998. Ernest Lehman's novella and his other Falco/ Hunsecker stories, are available in Sweet Smell of Success, The Overlook Press, New York, 2000.

There is a chapter about the making of the film in The Bad and the Beautiful: A Chronicle of Hollywood in the Fifties by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair, published by Little Brown, London, 2002.

A video of the film was released in the MGM Vintage Classics series in 1998.

Most surveys of Odets' work concentrate on his stage plays. There are brief discussions of his film work in Gabriel Miller's Clifford Odets, Continuum, New York, 1989, and Gerald Weales' Odets:The Playwright, Methuen, London, 1985.

For a recent and revealing look at the role of writers in Hollywood it's worth referring to Woody Haut's Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, Serpent's Tail, London, 2002. Although this deals with writers from a specific genre (crime fiction) it offers many insights into the general problems faced by writers in Hollywood.  

This article also appears in Jim Burnís collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications