It’s an incredibly contemporary film about the power of media and the brutally transactional form it can take.
Photo: United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock
Each week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will select a movie to watch as part of our Friday night movie club. This week’s selection comes from New York’City editor, Christopher Bonanos, who will begin his screening of Sweet smell of success Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. ET. Head for the vultures Twitter to see his live commentary and watch next week’s movie here.
Sweet smell of success, released in 1957, only shows its age on its glossy surface. His New York, jazzy downtown nightclubs trawled by gossip-seeking newspaper columnists, is of course a thing of the past. (And man, oh man, those crowded bars and clubs look appetizing right now.) But get a millimeter below that black and white shell, and it’s just an incredibly contemporary film. It’s about the power of the media and the brutally transactional form it can take, and how people are allowed to enter (or not) within its inner circle, and how a reputation can turn into a few sentences.
Burt Lancaster plays JJ Hunsecker, the chronicler at the center of this world, as a man of imperial manners, whose icy facade only shatters when he must deploy some firepower in revenge. Then it boils. You are probably familiar with the film’s most-cited lines, and most of them are Hunsecker’s ones: his stately moment with Sidney Falco, the scheming publicist played by Tony Curtis, comes when Hunsecker holds up a cigarette and, without looking at his sides, said “Match me, Sidney.” (Sidney doesn’t jump on it or give him a light – until later.) And then, later, again to Sidney: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you.” You are a cookie full of arsenic. Even his delivery of the last word – he comes out awsenic – has just the right proportions of aristocratic height and badass smackdown.
What is a little difficult to grasp, at this distance, is the power that a columnist like JJ would have had. As has been noted several times before, Hunsecker is a fictional version of Walter Winchell, a columnist of absolutely immense reach and intense vengeance. It’s frankly astonishing that his name is some sort of dusty antique today. It is as if in 50 years most educated people weren’t quite able to place the name “Rupert Murdoch”.
Winchell’s Column has been the draw of nearly 2,000 newspapers across the country. Even after radio had reached new heights and television began to eat away at print media dominance, the world of 1957 newspapers was immense. New York that year had seven general interest dailies. Four went out every morning (the Times and the Daily News, plus their direct competitors, Herald Tribune and the Daily Mirror); three more were published in the afternoon, containing news that had occurred during the night and that day. You read a newspaper on the way to work and another on the way home or after dinner. (The afternoon papers are practically extinct now, killed by car culture and local 6am news. One of the few survivors is New York To post, which passed to morning in the 1970s.) That doesn’t even count the dozens of other newspapers, from The Wall Street Journal to the communist Everyday worker, who all had a large and reliable readership. The Jewish Daily Forward, published in Yiddish, had a six-figure circulation, hard to imagine today.
Your corner New York newsstand only had a sea of options, each stack held by a cast iron logo paperweight, and everything but the Times and the tribe had pages of gossip. (The tribe sort of, in fact, chronicle of Hy Gardner on Broadway; the Times, of course would be never.The columnists and their columns all had personalities – lovable Leonard Lyons, upright and impartial Earl Wilson, Hedda Hopper the nasty Hollywood correspondent. And then there was Winchell, who was alone. He had basically invented the form, and because he had arrived first and had run full and mercilessly ever since, his was much larger than the others. Then he turned to radio, and got even bigger, then television. It had a weird distinctive slang (a couple having a baby was sometimes “anticipating”) and a custom of running short articles with ellipses together that persists on “Page Six” today. His machine-gun reading speed to the microphone helped define his public personality. (He would unbutton his pants when he sat in front of the microphone, allowing him to breathe freely so he could speak faster. Try that on your podcast, folks.) In 1940, there were about 83 million people. adults living in America, and Walter Winchell claims an audience – print and radio combined – of 50 million. Maybe it was true.
And a two-sentence rebuke from him could really leave people fired, dishonored, or divorced, especially if he accused someone of being a Commie, which he wasn’t afraid to do, either. true or not. Conversely, an exuberant word about a restaurant or a Broadway show would put money in the bank. Early on, Winchell caught President Roosevelt’s ear, then broke with him. After the war, Winchell’s politics moved more and more to the right, eventually turning him into a full-fledged McCarthyite. This is where his power began to ebb: with the end of the McCarthy era and the disgrace of his adherents, Winchell lost much of his influence and media across the country began to abandon his column and television and radio broadcasts have ended. It had become a joke, and when the Daily Mirror – his home diary – closed in 1963, the last support beam was kicked out under him. He died in 1972, having survived four of those seven dailies, damaged his reputation, divorced once and left a series of wives after that, and buried a ruined son who had committed suicide. An oft-told anecdote notes that there was only one mourning person at his funeral: his daughter, Walda, whose very name expresses her titanic ego. Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Winchell refutes this story – Winchell’s inner circle had planned to attend, but Walda kept them out – but it is almost certainly true that if he had died a decade earlier , his funeral would have been a huge event. Instead, he left this world almost alone.
Walda, in fact, had had a strained relationship with his father. In her prime, Winchell had faced a young suitor to her, a Broadway producer named Bill Cahn. He finally made Cahn leave her, but that hadn’t been enough; he then carried on a vendetta for years, going so far as to have Cahn arrested (without merit) for procuring. It didn’t work, but a half-fabricated tax evasion charge worked and Cahn ended up in jail. After serving his time, Cahn left the country completely to escape persecution.
Which brings us to Hunsecker. In the fictionalized version of the story of Winchell-and-Cahn that Ernest Lehman incorporated into his 1950 short story Sweet smell of success, the chronicler exercises his power not over his daughter but over his naive young sister. He is obsessed with his purity, increasing the frightening quotient even more than in real life (Winchell, apparently, was more concerned that Cahn was after the Walda inheritance). When he wrote the book, Lehman was not very successful as a writer and had little to lose – Winchell swept the book away.
But by the time the film was made, seven years later, Lehman had built a career as a screenwriter, primarily as an adapter for other work. (The king and I, north by north-west, and later The sound of music and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were his scripts.) He was nervous about the movie, thinking that Winchell might rain fire on him. But the combination of Winchell’s waning power and the film’s underwhelming commercial performance managed to avoid its ruin. And a funny thing happened: Instead of sticking to Lehman, the film instead hung on Winchell. The most powerful media figure of his day is barely remembered today, and when he is, it’s almost always in essays like this. As Citizen Kane eventually became the way we learn about William Randolph Hearst, Sweet smell of success is, improbably, the only feeling many have of Walter Winchell. The movie, not the scheming press agent, was the thing that was full of arsenic.
Sweet smell of success is available for rental on Prime Video and iTunes.