Filmsite Movie Review
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Late Night - Day One / Early Morning - Day Two

So Elwell is lured to Sidney's apartment/office where barefooted Rita is lying on Sidney's bed and reading his Esquire magazine - ready for her date with the press agent (it's about 2 am!). She expectantly runs to the front door (with Sidney's profile visible in the glass door window) when she hears Sidney buzzing. After slowly opening the door in the dark and purring "Hi," she approaches to kiss him. But Rita is stopped short in her tracks when Elwell steps into view next to him. She backs off, uneasy, hurt, wounded, and unsure about the interruption.

Elwell ("Tricky Otis") immediately senses that he may have met Rita before (in Saratoga? or Miami Beach?). To convince Rita to acquiesce to the leering visitor, Sidney's explanation is that Elwell has joined him to help the job-threatened Rita ("Otis carries a lot of weight with your boss, honey") while he leaves for a late-night business meeting. But she rejects the idea of prostituting herself, slams the bedroom door after her, and begins packing to leave.

Resilient once again, Sidney begs Otis to give him a chance to change the mind of his indignant blonde friend. But Rita is resistant to perform ("I don't do this sort of thing") and defends her self-respect, especially in light of the fact that she is being sacrifically offered up to meet Falco's obligations:

Sidney: Take five minutes, get acquainted. He's an important man. He's lonely, don't be dumb.
Rita: What do you want all of a sudden, Lady Godiva?...Don't you think I have any feelings? What am I? A bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?

Appearing outraged, and accusing Rita of being ungrateful, Sidney manipulates the vulnerable cigarette girl further. Without any scruples, Sidney is despicable in his rude betrayal of Rita - he pimps her to do himself a favor:

Sidney: How d'ya like this? I turn myself inside out to do you a favor, and now I'm the heavy...You need him for a favor, don't ya? Well, so do I! I need his column - tonight. Didn't you ask me to do something about your job? Don't you have a kid in Military School?
Rita: You're a snake, Falco. You're a louse, a real louse.
Sidney: Honey, he's gonna help ya. (Pause) How many drinks does it take to put you in that Tropical Island Mood?

As Sidney rushes off and leaves them alone, he happily exclaims: "Don't do anything I wouldn't do. That gives you lots of leeway." Rita reminds a delighted Elwell of their last encounter - Palm Springs, two years earlier. Sidney briskly walks to a nearby counter-stand and uses a pay phone to call Hunsecker, who is in his penthouse suite-office, still in business suit, and tapping the keys of his typewriter ("Picasso...he goes out with three-eyed girls"). Sidney delivers the news of the fictitious smear: "...the Dallas skull is badly dented" while demanding a mention for Robard (a client of his that owns Robard's - a jazz joint).

After hanging up, Hunsecker walks to his terrace and to an adjoining window where he looks into Susan's bedroom - she is innocently and defenselessly sleeping. He then strides over to gaze out and tower over the skyline from his high-rise parapet, to survey the prone city below that he also loves, possesses, and dominates like an imperious gargoyle. As he turns away from the sparkling lights of Broadway's skyscrapers, the night dissolves to a daytime scene.

Morning - Day Two

That morning, Sidney purchases a copy of The Record and quickly scans the paper for Elwell's smear item. Satisfied that the information has been published, Sidney discards the paper and enters the offices of The New York Globe. On the phone in one of the partitioned offices is a middle-aged, harding working employee named Mary (Edith Atwater), Hunsecker's secretary. She is fending off a 'Mr. Cummings' who demands retraction of a recent item. When Sidney enters the office, she relays a message about Frank D'Angelo trying to reach him. There is already a reaction from Steve Dallas' boss to the Elwell column planted by Sidney:

The dreamy marijuana smoke of a lad who heads a high-brow jazz quintet is giving an inelegant odor to that elegant East Side club where he works. That's no way for a card-holding Party member to act. Moscow won't like it, you naughty boy!

So the stereotypical, libelous accusations are that the bohemian musician, Steve Dallas, is both a marijuana smoker and a card-carrying Communist - items certain to discredit his reputation as a guitarist. After Sidney brags: "There's Falco blood, sweat, and tears in that column," she admits her bemusement with him, although she has little respect for his professional goals ("immersed in the theology of making a fast buck"):

Mary: You're a real rascal, Sidney. You're an amusing boy, but you haven't got a drop of respect in you for anything alive - you're so immersed in the theology of making a fast buck. Not that I don't sometimes feel that you yearn for something better.
Sidney: Mary, don't try and sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. I happen to know it belongs to the Dodgers.

She allows him an advance look at the proofs for J.J.'s column for the afternoon paper. There's a plug for a "funny man" comic, Herbie Temple (Joe Frisco), performing at the Palace Theatre. Pumped up and seeing an opportunity for "making a fast buck," Sidney proceeds quickly to the Palace Theatre and enters its stage-hand area without permission. He hears Al Evans (Lewis Charles), Temple's manager, speaking to Herbie during a break, and introduces himself.

To prove how adept a press agent he is, Sidney assures the unimpressed Evans that he will provide Temple with proper publicity build for his performance: "...when I tell a client I can get him space in Hunsecker's column, it's not talk." Within their hearing, he promptly fakes a phone call to Hunsecker, and dictates the words for the column (that he has already read): "If there's a more hilariously-funny man around than Herbie Temple at the Palace, you're pardon us for not catching his name. We were too busy laughing - no, make that 'we were too busy screaming.'" Cool and confident that he has clinched another deal, Sidney negotiates to represent Temple - at a cost of a "pretty penny."

Back at his office/apartment, Sidney walks in on Sally with Steve Dallas and Frank D'Angelo - they are furious at The Record's slanderous column, and are suspicious that Sidney might have "a faint idea of how that item originated." Steve is accusatory and certain that only Hunsecker or Falco could be responsible for the smear, until Sidney points out the illogicality:

Hunsecker and Elwell are enemies to the knife. So how do you get him doing J.J. a favor?...J.J. believes in fair play. And secondly, this could splatter his sister with rotten egg by implication - you're the boyfriend.

Frank is worried that the "future of the whole quintet" is endangered - in fact, Van Cleve has already fired the musical group. Steve calls Susie from Sidney's office and informs his frightened, frail and timid girlfriend of the "smear." After they have left, even Sally has become disillusioned and ashamed of her employer for his slimy callousness. He vents his aggressiveness towards her starry-eyed idealism:

I sometimes get the impression you think you live in Star-Bright Park. This is life, get used to it.

Sidney phones Hunsecker, who is having breakfast in his penthouse, with the news of the "Elwell smear" and the firing of the quintet. Perceptive of the corruptive ties to his henchman, Hunsecker is convinced the dirty-work will be traced back to himself:

Do you mean to say they've already traced the smear to you? Then what are you so smug about? Susie isn't dumb. All she has to do is put two and two together and I'm a chicken in a pot.

And then Hunsecker becomes interested in a new tact to clear any suspicion - he repeats Falco's suggestion that he play the sympathetic good-guy by getting Steve Dallas' job back: "You said get him back his job?" They decide to meet again at the TV studio at 3 pm, where Hunsecker will be broadcasting a show. Pensive and uncertain about how to react, Hunsecker sits in his office, where he lives a forbidding, secretive life as a repressed, asexual bachelor (or gay man? - does he have semi-homosexual tendencies towards Sidney - a definite heterosexual?) who is solely attached to his sister. [An inappropriately-oversized portrait of his daughter rests to his left on his desk.]

He stops Susie from rushing out of the apartment, and she obediently cowers next to him. [Covetous of her beauty and possessively jealous of her romantic attentions to any other man, he keeps her cooped up with himself, to protectively avoid the tainting of her innocence and purity. Ultimately, by film's end, when she decisively asserts her independence, he fails to corral her and she breaks away from him for good.] With a reassuring and indulgent voice, he asks her about the newspapers' accusations ("Anything in these charges?"), and soothes her by promising to take care of her worries. He extends his arms to her, inviting her to come into his embrace:

Come into camp, poor kid, you look so nervous.

She is hesitant about his shady and scheming connections with Sidney. He acts pained and hurt because of their strained relationship, and promises to do anything to keep her with him:

You know, dear, we're drifting apart, you and I, and I don't like it. A year ago, in your wildest dreams, would you have walked past that door without coming in here to take up this situation with me? Today, I had to call you in...Susie, I want to help you - You're all I've got in this whole wide world. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you. What do you want me to do? Name it. Because I don't like that troubled look on your face.

To bring them together, to prevent conflict, and to become her ally, Hunsecker agrees to her request to "get Steve back his job." She uses his "lingo" to show her sincerity, her affinity to him, and her like-mindedness (although contaminated!). His twisted love for her is a combination of sibling affection, repressed incestual domination, possessive jealousy, and selfish need. His seemingly-honest suggestion to meet Steve after cleaning his glasses "for a better look" may imply that he will more clearly target his derisive and lethal contempt toward her boyfriend:

Susie: With your prestige, it'll only take a minute - ten cents' worth of American Tel and Tel.
Hunsecker: You're picking up my lingo, hon.
Susie: I read your column every day.
Hunsecker: Susie, I like this crisp new attitude of yours. You're growing up and I like it. I don't like it when you're limp and dependent, when you're odd and wayward. This Dallas boy must be good for you. Why don't you bring him around today before the show? This time I'll clean my glasses for a better look...Don't ever tell anyone, Susie, how I'm tied to your apron strings.

Mid-Afternoon - Day Two

All of the main characters are brought together at the TV theatre, where Hunsecker is rehearsing his script for a broadcast, although Sidney avoids a confrontation with Susan at the front entrance. Inside, he loiters in the background waiting for an opportunity to speak to J.J. The columnist's radio guest, an old movie star named Mildred Tam (Queenie Smith), exalts Hunsecker for his eloquence during the practice timing of his reading. At a water cooler in the backstage area, Hunsecker speaks in hushed tones to Sidney about how Steve and Susie may both believe that Falco, Hunsecker's ally, has done all the underlying "dirty work" to create the smear for J.J. As a result, Hunsecker explains how he felt compelled to pull some strings to get Steve's job back - in order to regain the couple's confidence. Hunsecker ignores Falco's pleas to discredit Steve his way, but admires the press agent's sordid persistence and lethal substance:

Sidney: You got the boy's job back, OK, but he's not gonna accept your favor. The manager yeah, but not that boy.
Hunsecker: (removing his glasses) What has this boy got that Susie likes?
Sidney: Integrity - acute, like indigestion.
Hunsecker: What does this mean - integrity?
Sidney: A pocket full of firecrackers, waitin' for a match! You know, it's a new wrinkle. To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's integrity.
Hunsecker: I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.

In fact, an angered Steve, as he arrives at the theatre, does blame Hunsecker for the smear. Nonetheless, his manager D'Angelo, is eager for his musician to accept Hunsecker's gesture of peace - "an olive branch." Susan greets Steve in the foyer and with Sidney (lurking in the background), the four enter the auditorium and approach the stage. When Hunsecker meets the guitarist, he demands (and accepts) Steve's "personal assurance" about his own integrity and his pure intentions with his sister. He draws a comparison between the "serious," strait-laced ("average Joe"), Ivy-League type Dallas and Falco:

Now, you do me a favor. Be good to my kid sister...I imagine, Dallas, she fancies you in an uncommon way. Now, how about you? Not just, uh, well, not just tom-catting around, I hope?...Now you take Sidney here. If Sidney ever got anywhere near Susie, I'd take a baseball bat and break it over his head. (Falco lights Hunsecker's cigarette.) Sidney lives so much in moral twilight, that when I told him you were coming here today, he predicted disaster. He said you wouldn't take my favor. He said you'd chew up the job and spit it right back in my face. Any truth in that?...

A "hot" confrontation soon develops between the self-righteous, ungrateful Steve and the object of his real hatred - Sidney. Dallas questions Sidney about his presence there, and suggests a corrupt 'coupling' with Hunsecker: "Why is he here? Tell me, sir, when he dies, do you think he'll go to the dog and cat heaven?" Steve is forced to admit that his first inclination was to blame J.J. for "the Elwell smear." He then argues with J.J. for denigrating him in front of Susan:

Steve: I don't take kindly to you and Falco teaching me ethics. Who's the injured party here, you?
Hunsecker: Right now, you have no right to ask questions. And your snide remarks -
Steve: (interrupting) Wait a minute, I haven't handed over punishing privileges to you yet. Just lay the whip down. Maybe I'll respect what you're saying.

Hunsecker feels defensive for his younger sister, calling her "the injured party" in the crisis. The musician admits that the columnist is too shrewd and clever (with "more twists than a barrel of pretzels") for him to compete fairly against him. Nevertheless, he coaxes his girlfriend to stand up for herself, "air her views in public," and choose between the two men in her life:

Steve: You're too shrewd for me, so I'll just be honest. Susie and I are in love. We want to get married...Why don't we hear what Susie has to say...Susie? (No response)
Hunsecker: Susie, as always, is free to say anything she wants. Go on, dear, say exactly what's on your mind, dear.
Steve: Those 'dears' sound like daggers. Why don't you stop daring her to speak?
Hunsecker: What is this? What are you trying to do?
Steve: I'm trying to get Susie to stand up to you. But your manner is so threatening she's afraid to speak.
Hunsecker: (threatening) Son, you raise your voice once more...

Overwhelmed and timid, Susie runs away toward the backstage area during the argument - weak-kneed. Although bitter at Hunsecker, Steve is more interested in saving his girlfriend from her domineering brother's manipulative clutches than in finding revenge:

Steve: My whole interest, if it's not too late, is in Susie. And how to undo what you've done to her...I don't like the way you toy with people. Your contempt and malice?...You think about yourself and about your column. To you, you're some kind of a national glory. But to me and a lot of people like me, your slimy scandal and your phony patriotics. To me, Mr. Hunsecker, you're a national disgrace.
Hunsecker: Son, I don't relish shooting mosquitoes with elephant guns. Suppose you just shuffle along and call it a day...
Steve: But my day with Susie isn't over yet.

Steve's tactic is a fatal mistake, and Sidney is pleased by the results of the altercation - he whispers to J.J.: "You did it, J.J., you did it good." Backstage, Hunsecker demands that Susie's romance be broken forever. She must never see Dallas again - and she compliantly agrees: "I'll never see him again." He tenderly touches her shoulder to pacify her, and she passively lets him kiss her on the cheek. And then Hunsecker instructs his secretary, Mary, to call Van Cleve and definitely fire the quintet's musicians from the club ("those Dallas boys are not worthy of his club"). Outside, Susie slams her taxi-cab door on Sidney's hand as he runs after her to talk.

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