Sweet Smell of Success is an American drama film starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The film was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and released in 1957. It is shot in black and white and is 96 minutes long.
Sweet Smell of Success is set in the seamy underbelly of 1950s Manhattan show business. Gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is the most powerful man in the business, and maybe the most powerful man in the country. However, even he cannot break up the relationship between his sister Susie (Susan Harrison) and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Fortunately for Hunsecker, his "friend" Sidney Falco (Curtis) is an ambitious and unscrupulous press agent willing to do whatever it takes to make it big--even if it means ruining lives.
The film glides across the screen, carried by the silky cinematography of James Wong Howe. The camera captures Manhattan at night, in glorious film noir black and white. Slangy rapid-fire dialogue crackles with the restless energy of the fabulous ensemble cast. The smooth jazz soundtrack comes care of The Chico Hamilton Quintet, which makes an appearance in the film as Steve Dallas's band (all except for the unfortunate guitarist).
Burt Lancaster's character, J. J. Hunsecker, was based on the real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Winchell was one of the most powerful and feared people in show business during the 1930s and 1940s. A favorable mention in his gossip column or radio show could launch a career, while a negative mention--or worse, no mention at all--could mean disaster.1
Hunsecker presides over the panopticon that is New York City. The clubs that he visits are like "so many cages, so many small theatres,"2 each containing his prisoners, the members of show business society. Hunsecker's gaze penetrates both the public and private spaces of the city. It is this powerful gaze that imprisons everyone around him, especially Falco and Susie.
Jeremy Bentham, the eccentric philosopher who first devised the panopticon, understood
the power of the gaze that Hunsecker so skillfully wields. Bentham's insight was that observation is a deterrent as powerful as threats of punishment. His original panopticon concept was an annular building, where inmates would occupy one-person cells along the outer circumference of the building. Their warden would sit in the center. Each cell would allow the guard to look into each one of the cells unnoticed. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that
[The panopticon] reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather, of its three functions--to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide--it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.3
Sweet Smell of Success demonstrates just how powerful the gaze can be: Hunsecker's younger sister, Susie, seems to shrink whenever he looks at her. His gaze clearly elicits feelings of guilt and uncertainty in her.
Despite the multitude of hidden corners in the chaos of New York City, no one can escape Hunsecker's surveillance. This is due to the nature of the panoptic gaze. Since there is only one warden in the panopticon and many prisoners, each prisoner is not under observation at all times. However, since the prisoners do not know if they are being observed, they must behave at all times, in case the guard is watching. The panopticon "induce[s] in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power."4
This effect is quite pronounced in the opening sequence of the film. Falco, the protagonist, has been slighted by Hunsecker: Falco's clients have not been mentioned in Hunsecker's column recently. Falco proceeds frantically to correct the situation. He leaves his office-cum-apartment and goes to a nightclub, where he intends to finish one of Hunsecker's errands. Hunsecker's influence pervades the first twenty minutes of the film, yet he does not physically appear on screen in that period. His disembodied, bespectacled eyes are shown on the side of a newspaper delivery truck during the opening credit sequence, but their significance is not immediately obvious. Nevertheless, Falco acts like a man possessed, spurred to action by the absent gaze of his jailer.
Clearly, Hunsecker does not actually need to watch his prisoners, since they have internalized his presence. Even when they do displease him, Hunsecker does not descend to the use of physical or even verbal punishment. He rarely displays any overt aggression and never loses control. Hunsecker maintains discipline with a simple remark that reveals the extent of his surveillance. When another press agent, Manny Davis, threatens to overstep his bounds, Hunsecker disarms him by remarking that "everyone knows Manny Davis... except Mrs. Manny Davis." There is an implication that Davis has not been faithful; while not a ruinous charge in the society of show business, it is a potentially embarrassing fact that underscores Hunsecker's vigilance.
Most of the time, such disciplinary remarks are not needed for the maintenance of order. Susie, for example, clearly filters all of her thoughts and feelings through her brother's desires. She is deeply guilt-ridden for most of the movie, since
she knows that her love for Steve Dallas will not please her brother. Her movements, speech and manner betray the fact that she is utterly caged, even though she only interacts with her brother a handful of times in the film.
While Hunsecker commands the power of a panopticon warden, his visibility in the streets and clubs of New York City contrasts with the invisibility of the guard in Bentham's scheme. Foucault notes that the panopticon is designed
...To make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow.... The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheral ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.5
The success of Bentham's panopticon is predicated on the invisibility of the observers, so it seems that Hunsecker's visibility should undermine his power. However, in Sweet Smell of Success, there is no clean disassociation of the "see/being seen dyad" that Foucault describes. Hunsecker's power is derived mostly from the fact that he and his column are visible. Clients pay press agents like Falco to persuade Hunsecker to write about them in his column, which is seen by 60 million readers. For people in show business, that sort of exposure is the greatest asset. Thus, Hunsecker must be visible in order to assert his power. As a warden, he cannot separate seeing from being seen.
However, Hunsecker is able to maintain the division of his public and private life, despite the fact that he is a visible figure. While he frequently is seen on the streets of New York City, he is the only character in the film with private space. Hunsecker's apartment
is the only place in the film where no one but the three main characters (Hunsecker, Falco and Susie) ever occupy. Falco has his own apartment as well, but he uses it as an office, converting it from a private to public space.
Hunsecker also keeps his public and private life separate by exploiting the hierarchy of the panopticon. He does not need to directly observe everyone of interest, because he can employ people like Falco to guard them. Foucault remarks that
...Bentham dreamt of transforming [the panopticon] into a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time. The panoptic arrangement provides the formula for this generalization.6
Hunsecker keeps such a network of surveillance. To use Bentham's architectural panopticon as illustration, instead of individuals in the cells of the panopticon, there are smaller panopticons;
thus a warden can watch the watchman of each of those smaller panopticons, and can determine the condition of far greater numbers of people. Also, by introducing an intermediate
layer of observers, the warden can selectively group and separate different activities. To paraphrase Hunsecker, his left hand hadn't seen his right hand in years. That is, he is able to mastermind plans without the risk of executing them himself.
While it is potentially risky to rely on others, Hunsecker is able to use his penetrating gaze to ensure that his plans are carried out. He is even able to tap into the panoptic networks of rival columnists: Falco is able to plant smear about Dallas via columnist Otis Elwell. Hunsecker indirectly uses a rival who dislikes him in order to further his own goals, which in this case is ruining the relationship between Dallas and his sister.
Falco is an especially good lieutenant for this sort of business, because of his own powers of observation. Critic Tom Gunning explores the role that observation plays in the urban man, expanding upon the flaneur concept introduced by poet Charles Baudelaire and discussed by philosopher Walter Benjamin. Gunning add two more urban types, the gawker and the detective. Gunning's detective,
...Unlike the gawker, is involved in reading and interpreting all he observes. Both the detective and the classical spectator of narrative cinema are trying to make sense of what they see, and both believe that this project is possible.7
In order for Falco to succeed in the city, he must make use of every resource available, no matter how insignificant they may seem initially. The way in which Falco maneuvers Elwell to write the smear piece about Dallas is an excellent example of Falco's observant nature and resourcefulness.
Falco's initial plan is to blackmail another columnist, Leo Bartha, into printing the smear. He planned to do this by threatening to reveal Bartha's affair with the cigarette girl Rita. Falco, and the viewer, learns of this affair early in the film. Falco seems to listen inattentively to Rita's pleas for help, and the viewer has no indication that this fact may be valuable. When Falco's attempt at blackmail fails, Bartha tells him off with some scathing words: "You have the scruples of a guinea pig, and the morals of a gangster!" Falco then gets the attention of Elwell, who refuses to publish the smear, but has a weakness for women. Falco had previously told Rita to meet him at his apartment, and takes advantage of this to persuade Elwell to publish the smear. To persuade Rita to spend the night with Elwell, Falco tells her that Elwell will prevent her from losing her job.This highly complicated affair ends successfully for Falco, and Hunsecker, when Elwell publishes the smear.
Because of his observant nature, Falco has the resources to cleverly and neatly achieve his goals. It is Falco's ambition and hustling that establishes him as a detective in Gunning's scheme: The flaneur, while actively observant, is usually passive. The gawker, on the other hand, is passive in both regards. The detective is driven to use the fruits of his surveillance.
But Falco is not driven to help others, like detectives are. He is spurred by his own greed and ambition, to attain the same sort of power that Hunsecker is able to command. In this way, Falco is more like a gangster than a detective. Tony Curtis turns in a wonderful performance as Falco, who is all motion, fast talk and hustle. For film critic Robert Warshow,
The gangster is the man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring... For the gangster, there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it....8
Falco seems to know everyone in every club and street. As a press agent, he is inherently a man of the city: His livelihood is tied directly to an industry that cannot exist outside of the city limits. Show business is concerned with attracting a crowd and the city offers the biggest. Falco's abilities do not lie with his hands, but with his head. Information is the most valuable asset in the city, knowing who to call and what is popular. If Falco wishes to succeed, he must remain vigilant.
Falco's vigilance is the reason that Hunsecker can keep his hands clean while retaining mastery over his society. Hunsecker watches from the center of his network of panopticons, each led by men like Falco. His lieutenants, while observers in their own right, are thus always under surveillance. Hunsecker is able to inspect his prison and exert his power through this network.
But he is not the final inspector. Hunsecker's own power is derived from his visibility to the public, through his newspaper column and television show. His power is derived from the gaze of the populace, who we never see in detail. In this way, the city as presented by Sweet Smell of Success does, in fact, follow the plan of Bentham's panopticon, where the watchmen were invisible: The wardens in the center are Hunsecker's 60 million readers.
1. IMDB. "Sweet Smell of Success (1957)." http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051036/
2. Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. (New York: Vintage Books), 200.
4. Idem, 201.
5. Idem, 202.
6. Idem, 209.
7. Tom Gunning. "From the Kaleidoscope to the X-Ray: Urban Spectatorship, Poe, Benjamin, and Traffic in Souls (1913)." Wide Angle, vol. 19 no. 4. Eds. Clark Arnwine and Jesse Lerner, 36.
8. Robert Warshow. "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." The Immediate Experience. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2001), 101.