The tone of the Fifties was summarized by the titles of the popular fiction which earned its place on the best-seller lists. People were led to believe that America consisted of a lonely crowd of a status seekers, businessmen in gray flannel suits daily travelling to their executive suites to serve a power elite and seek 'success'. In the odd idle moment they contemplate - from the terrace - the developing cracks in the picture windows of their suburban homes.
There was a certain amount of truth in this portrait of middle-class angst in Fifties America, but only a certain amount. When this material was adapted for the screen the sight of dozens of middle-class males fussing over the price they were paying for their success was a lugubrious one.
That was why Sweet Smell of Success seemed, and still seems in retrospect, so refreshing. It took up the theme of anatomizing success and its costs - in a context infinitely more raffish, and therefore infinitely more entertaining, than that of the office and the suburban bedroom. The world of Broadway is more fun to prowl around and the vulgar denizens of that vulgar world are expected to state their business more vigorously and resolve their conflicts more melodramatically than are the corporate types.
In this respect the film is not disappointing. The vicious and power-drunk gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is as potent in the showbiz world as a chairman of the board is in his; in those days a columnist did have the power to make and break careers - or at least was thought to have that power, thereby granting him the ability to make people jump in order to curry his favour. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), the sweatily obliging press agent who needs the columnist's patronage, is analogous to all those middle management executives trying to get ahead - but his weakness and desperation are more visible and emotionally gripping. The brutality of JJ's hold on this toad and Sidney's slimy panic when he starts to feel the squeeze are vividly apparent.
However, there is more to the film than this fascinating central relationship. There are the marvellous subsidiary characters, notably Sam Levine as a decent, small-time agent, Barbara Nichols as a not-so-dumb hat-check girl and best of all, Emile Meyer as a corrupt cop whose humour is of the menacing variety.
Surprisingly Sweet Smell of Success was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, best known for his softer work for Ealing Studios. Very few outsiders have seemed so familiar with such a singularly American milieu as the sleazy side of Broadway. Mackendrick captured it better than did John Schlesinger in Midnight Cowboy (1969) or Alan Parker in Fame (1980), precisely because he understated Broadway's more sordid physical aspects instead of crudely forcing them forawrd as a metaphor for his characters' inner lives.
However, it is Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's dialogue that is responsible for the film's lingering power. The critic Stanley Kaufman once remarked that fast crosstalk and smart remarks were to the American movie what blank verse was to Elizabethan theatre. It was a verbal convention that served to compress and metaphorically change what sounded like realistic speech into something else, granting the writer the ability to touch on matters that normal speech patterns cannot generally encompass without sounding awkward and pretentious. Kaufman was right and Sweet Smell of Success represents a culmination of a tradition that traces its history back to the beginning of sound film, when Broadway wise-guys of the Hecht-MacArthur tradition were first imported to Hollywood to teach movies how to talk. Odets was in on the creaton of this tradition, both as playwright and screenwriter, and Lehman, on whose magazine story the film was based, was a worthy disciple.
For all its virtues Sweet Smell of Success was neither a commercial nor a critical success at the time of release. Doubtless it seemed too parochial in its concerns and even in its setting to appeal to the vast reaches of middle America. But it was an almost instant cult success and remains alive in the memory, for JJ and Sidney were alive - kicking, scratching and biting - when their contemporaries could scarcely summon the energy to mutter their complaints to themselves.