In 1993, Sweet Smell of Success was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2002, Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical was created by Marvin Hamlisch, Craig Carnelia and John Guare.
Falco is summoned to Hunsecker's penthouse apartment by a message apparently from Hunsecker, only to find Susan about to attempt suicide. He saves her just as her brother walks in; Hunsecker, encouraged by Susan's silence, accuses him of raping Susan. In a climactic confrontation with Hunsecker, Falco reveals in front of Susan that her brother had told him to destroy Dallas' reputation. Hunsecker tells Kello to arrest Falco for planting the reefer on Dallas. Susan admits she attempted to commit suicide and walks out on her brother in order to join Steve; she tells Hunsecker that she doesn't hate him but just pities him. Falco is arrested by Kello and Hunsecker loses Susan.
Lehman’s story had originally appeared in a 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine renamed: "Tell Me About It Tomorrow!" (because the editor of the magazine didn't want the word "smell" in the publication. It was based on his own experiences working as an assistant to Irving Hoffman, a prominent New York press agent and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Hoffman subsequently did not speak to Lehman for a year and a half. Hoffman then wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter speculating that Lehman would make a good screenwriter, and within a week Paramount called Lehman, inviting him to Los Angeles for talks. Lehman went on to forge a notable screenwriting career in Hollywood, writing Executive Suite, Sabrina and The King and I.
By the time that Hecht-Hill-Lancaster acquired Success, Lehman was in position to not only adapt his own novella but also produce and direct the film. After scouting locations, Lehman was told by Hecht that distributor United Artists was having second thoughts about going with a first-time director and so Hecht offered the film to Mackendrick. Initially, the director had reservations about trying to film such a dialogue-heavy screenplay and so he and Lehman worked on it for weeks to make it more cinematic. As the script neared completion, Lehman fell ill and had to resign from the picture. James Hill took over and offered Paddy Chayefsky as Lehman’s replacement. Mackendrick suggested Clifford Odets, a left-wing playwright who had been blacklisted for his political affiliations.
Mackendrick assumed that Odets would only need two or three weeks to polish the script. He took four months. Mackendrick remembers, "We started shooting with no final script at all, while Clifford reconstructed the thing from stem to stern". The plot was largely intact but, as Mackendrick stated in Notes on Sweet Smell of Success, "What Clifford did, in effect, was dismantle the structure of every single sequence in order to rebuild situations and relationships that were much more complex, had much greater tension and more dramatic energy".
This process took time and the start-date for the production could not be delayed. Odets had to accompany the production to Manhattan and continued rewriting while they shot there. Returning to the city that had shunned him for going to Hollywood made him very neurotic and obsessed with all kinds of rituals as he worked at a furious pace with pages often going right from his typewriter to being shot the same day. Mackendrick said, "So we cut the script there on the floor, with the actors, just cutting down lines, making them more spare – what Clifford would have done himself, really, had there been time".
Tony Curtis had to fight for the role of Sidney Falco because the studio he was contracted to, Universal, was worried that it would ruin his career. Tired of doing pretty-boy roles and wanting to prove that he could act, Curtis got his way. For the role of J.J. Hunsecker, Orson Welles was originally considered. Mackendrick wanted to cast Hume Cronyn because he felt that Cronyn closely resembled Walter Winchell, the basis for the Hunsecker character in the novelette. Lehman makes the distinction in an interview that Winchell was the inspiration for the version of the character in the novelette, and that this differs from the character in the film version. United Artists wanted Burt Lancaster in the role because of his box office appeal and his successful pairing with Curtis on Trapeze.
Hecht-Hill-Lancaster allowed Mackendrick to familiarize himself with New York City before shooting the movie. In Notes on Sweet Smell of Success, Mackendrick said, \"One of the characteristic aspects of New York, particularly of the area between 42nd street and 57th street, is the neurotic energy of the crowded sidewalks. This was, I argued, essential to the story of characters driven by the uglier aspects of ambition and greed\". He took multiple photographs of the city from several fixed points and then taped the pictures into a series of panoramas that he stuck on a wall and studied once he got back to Hollywood.
Mackendrick shot the film in 1957 and was scared the entire time because Hecht-Hill-Lancaster had a reputation for firing their directors for any or even no reason at all. The filmmaker was used to extensive rehearsals before a scene was shot and often found himself shooting a script page one or two hours after Odets had written it. Lancaster’s presence also made Mackendrick nervous. Not only was he one of the film’s stars but also a producer and a frustrated director with a reputation for being tough on others. Shooting on location in New York City also added to Mackendrick’s anxieties. Exteriors were shot in the busiest, noisiest areas with crowds of young Tony Curtis fans occasionally breaking through police barriers. Mackendrick remembers, \"We started shooting in Times Square at rush hour, and we had high-powered actors and a camera-crane and police help and all the rest of it, but we didn’t have any script. We knew where we were going vaguely, but that’s all\".
Critical reaction was much more favorable. Time magazine said that the movie was \"raised to considerable dramatic heights by intense acting, taut direction . . . superb camera work . . . and, above all, by its whiplash dialogue.\" Both it and The New York Herald included the film on their ten-best lists for 1957. The film's reputation only improved over time with David Denby in New York magazine calling it \"the most acrid, and the best\" of all New York movies because it captured, \"better than any film I know the atmosphere of Times Square and big-city journalism\".
Sweet Smell of Success holds an 100 percent \"fresh\" rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 100 metascore at Metacritic. Though Mackendrick's direction of the actors and his staging of the scenes are at times extraordinary, in recent years critics have praised only the film's dialogue, \"courtesy of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, a high-toned street vernacular that no real New Yorker has ever spoken but that every real New Yorker wishes he could\", wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times. Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer wrote, "the main incentive to see this movie is its witty, pungent and idiomatic dialogue, such as you never hear on the screen anymore in this age of special-effects illiteracy".