Give Now

Night Lights Classic Jazz

Sweet Smell Of Success: Jazz Meets Showbiz Noir

Jazz and dialogue from Tony Curtis' classic film about the late-night underworld of showbiz life, with film-expert James Naremore and musicologist Phil Ford.

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster were coming off a successful pairing in the film TRAPEZE when they made SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. While SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was initially deemed a failure, it's gone on to gain high-ranked status in the American movie canon.

In 1957 a fading Depression-era playwright, two hot box-office stars and a West Coast jazz group came together to create a dark portrayal of New York City showbiz life. The product of their collaboration is now considered to be a cinematic masterpiece.

Sweet Smell of Success is a gritty, Faustian-noir film about the exploits of Sidney Falco, an ambitious press agent played by Tony Curtis. Falco desperately wants to stay in the favor of J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful Broadway columnist, played by Burt Lancaster and allegedly modeled after the legendary media maven Walter Winchell. Hunsecker, who has an almost incestuous-seeming attachment to his younger sister, orders Falco to destroy her relationship with a jazz guitarist.

Jazz Plays A Role

Jazz figures in Sweet Smell of Success both as a soundtrack and as a cultural signifier. Drummer Chico Hamilton‘s West Coast jazz quintet cameos in several night-club scenes in the film, with actor Martin Milner taking the role of regular guitarist John Pisano. Hamilton’s group, which included cello, flute and guitar as key elements of its sound, was often referred to as ‘chamber jazz.’ The film also features a crime-jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein.

Sweet Smell of Success captures the uneasiness American culture between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. Caustic, bitter and showbiz-hip, it was  a box-office failure when it was first released, but those very qualities, along with its crackling, memorable dialogue, have made it an enduring film classic.

Indiana University film professor James Naremore, author of a forthcoming book about the movie, and musicology professor Phil Ford join the program to talk about the look, music, dialogue, storyline, and ultimate significance of Sweet Smell of Success.

For More About Sweet Smell Of Success…

• Read an interview with Chico Hamilton about his group’s role in the movie.

• Read director Alexander Mackendrick‘s discussion of how playwright Clifford Odets shaped the film’s story and dialogue.

• Watch the Chico Hamilton Quintet and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success:

• Watch the trailer for the movie:

• Night Lights fun fact:

HereChico Hamilton tells Jazzwax blogger Marc Myers how the filmmakers got around actor Martin Milner’s lack of musical ability:

“[Martin] didn’t know how to play guitar. So what happened was Milner put his left hand behind him and John Pisano, my guitar player, put his hand on the strings. It looked like Milner was playing the guitar, the way Jimmy Wong Howe shot it.”

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Night Lights Classic Jazz:

Support For Indiana Public Media From

About Night Lights

Search Night Lights

where to hear night lights

This Week On Afterglow

Doris Day, Jazz Singer

We remember Doris Day, who passed away last month at age 97, and her work singing jazz with Les Brown, Andre Previn and more.

Read more »

Afterglow is WFIU's weekly program of jazz and American popular song hosted by David Brent Johnson.

More from Afterglow »