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Lev Raphael Headshot

The Story Behind Tony Curtis' Sweet Smell of Success

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Even before he died last week, any mention of Tony Curtis made most people think of Billy Wilder's classic Some Like it Hot. But for me, it was and will always be Sweet Smell of Success. There's never been New York noir as blistering and beautiful. And there's never been a performance like his as the scheming press agent, Sidney Falco.

Curtis plays the quintessential fast-talking New Yorker: sarcastic, brash, grasping, sharp-elbowed, success-crazed, womanizing, egocentric, quick-thinking. He's as fake as a senatorial comb-over.

The movie is anchored by another native New Yorker, the feral Burt Lancaster playing Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Lancaster broods like a bulldog and snarls like a thug, his vicious, beady-eyed character modeled after Walter Winchell, but it's Curtis who gives the movie its electricity.

Curtis dances frantically around Lancaster, trying to place items in his nationally syndicated gossip column. He grovels, he courts Lancaster, does him favors, anything so that he can stop living a dog-eat-dog life. What does he want? To live.

"Where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!' Or, 'Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.' I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players."

Pursuing this crass American dream, reputations are shredded and lives are destroyed.

The movie attacked McCarthyism and grew out of the blacklist, as lovingly detailed by James Naremore in his terrific study of the film. But even though it's become a classic over time, most of its fans probably haven't read the story it was based on, Ernest Lehman's novella of the same name.

Nominated for six Oscars, Lehman had stellar film credits including North by Northwest, Sabrina, The Sound of Music, and Executive Suite, but before he got to Hollywood, he was writing fiction for some of the biggest magazines of the 1950s like Cosmopolitan. That's where the novella originally appeared with the title "Tell Me About it Tomorrow!" The editor apparently chose that phrase from the novella because the word "smell" in a title was objectionable -- Hemingway and John Hersey had fiction in the same issue of Cosmopolitan and you have to wonder if their titles were messed with, too.

At just under sixty pages, the novella is told in Sidney's voice and focuses from the very opening on J.J. Hunsecker's desire to break up his sister Susan's romance with a young crooner. Hunsecker's smothering care for her isn't just incestuous, it's pathologically violent.

Sidney ricochets from one tight corner to another, deeply ashamed of his own machinations, and stunned by Hunsecker's obsession with his fame and with his sister, who is a much stronger, more defiant figure in the novella than on film.

Taking place over a few sweaty August days, the novella is profoundly claustrophobic because we're trapped in Sidney's vision and his desperation. It's a story of interiors -- offices, bedrooms, night clubs -- that was brilliantly opened up by the Clifford Odets rewrite of Lehman's screenplay to show us one New York street after another, the city both gleaming and dangerous. Odets scraped away any trace of Sidney's family, which looks down on his job and considers the money he earns filthy. That makes the press agent seem more isolated, giving his manipulative "boss" Hunsecker even more power over him that he has in the novella.

You can feel some pity for Sidney in the Lehman novella, which was carved out of an unfinished novel along with two much shorter stories. Sidney understands the tawdriness of his dreams, though he can't free himself of their power over him. And he has a real conscience, though its activity is fitful. His role in the "young and growing empire" of PR disgusts him -- what's the point of it all?

"Broadway is one of those streets where it's light enough to read the morning papers in the miracle of the night before, and there's a trash can on every corner to remind you to do so. As I walked uptown I kept seeing the trash can on the corners. I kept seeing the newspapers in this trash cans and the Broadway columns in those newspapers and the lives that revolved around those columns. As I walked uptown, I kept seeing trash cans filled with people. And it didn't make me feel any better to know that I had filled more trash cans than any other press agent in town."

Now we have 24/7 PR and gossip in the never-fading glare of the Internet that's even brighter than the new, improved Times Square. The trash cans have become a Delete key.