American film noir doesn't get any better -- or darker -- than "The Sweet Smell of Success." Neither do Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in the most wonderfully despicable roles of their careers.
Thanks to Pittsburgh Filmmakers, you have the chance to see it on a big screen here for the first time since its 1957 release, Sunday night at the Regent Square.
4 stars = Outstanding
Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner.
R in nature for adult themes, some violence and sexuality.
The shocking story of journalistic corruption, written by the A-list team of Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, stars Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker of The Globe, New York's most powerful and unscrupulous columnist. Blackmail is his finest art. When one intended victim thwarts him, he says with chilling calm, "You're dead, son -- get yourself buried."
That's just his professional side. Just as perverse privately, J.J. has incestuous designs on his own sister (Susan Harrison) and a furious need to destroy her musician boyfriend Steve (Martin Milner). "What's this boy got that Susie likes?" J.J. demands to know. "Integrity -- acute, like indigestion," answers Sidney Falco, his fawning minion.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney, the conniving press agent willing to do anything to curry J.J.'s favor, including pimp his own girlfriend Rita (Barbara Nichols) and plant a pack of marijuana cigs in Steve's pocket. "I'd hate to take a bite of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic," says J.J.
Sidney takes it as the compliment it was meant to be.
"Sidney lives in moral twilight," muses J.J., whose cruel irony alternates with rhapsodies on his own power: "I love this dirty town."
So does the camera of James Wong Howe, who captures the gritty nighttime feel of '50s Manhattan in every black-and-white frame. Elmer Bernstein's mood music and a jazz score by the Chico Hamilton Quintet further heighten the film's fast pace and seductively seedy atmosphere.
After their success together the previous year in "Trapeze," Curtis had hounded Lancaster for the Sidney role, and Lancaster -- as producer -- took the risk of casting him sharply against type for "Sweet Smell." Branching out is hard in any profession, but especially hard in the movies. Curtis needed this part to break out of his pretty-boy romantic stereotype and employ his real-life Bronx accent for good effect instead of ridicule.
Both stars are brilliant, thanks in no small part to underrated director Alexander Mackendrick, a Scotsman whose fine films included "The Ladykillers" (1955). He was an astute observer of actors:
"The stars have this neurosis, which goes right to the edge. You have somehow to use this to get performances from these deep-sea monsters. There was this enormous difference between Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Tony had a fantastic vanity, but no ego. He could act Burt off the screen, but he lacks Lancaster's granite quality of ego."
With a cynical, downbeat ending, "Sweet Smell" was made the year before the definitive Angry Young Man school's "Look Back in Anger" in England, and was a solid hit there. "Curtis has never done anything better," said the London Daily Herald. "Curtis is astonishingly persuasive,'" wrote the Sunday Express.
It was a different story in America, where it got a poor box office reception and mediocre reviews, largely because it hit too close to home among those with the power to boost or kill movies. Walter Winchell was said to have been enraged by it -- for good reason. As "Citizen Kane" was a thinly disguised tale of William Randolph Hearst, J.J. Hunsecker bore a dangerously telltale resemblance to the all-powerful Winchell.
And, oh, that nasty script with its vicious characterizations. "Match me, Sidney!" orders J.J. -- and Sidney's there in a flash to his cigarette. "Sidney, are you listening to me?" his hapless girlfriend whines. "Avidly, avidly..." he mumbles, looking around the nightclub for action.
At Oscar time in 1958, Lancaster, Curtis and "Sweet Smell" were resoundingly ignored. In the best supporting actor category, no one approached TC's riveting, unsympathetic performance -- certainly not Russ Tamblyn or Arthur Kennedy (nominated for the potboiler nonsense "Peyton Place") or even Red Buttons (the winner for "Sayonara").
Funny, but nobody much remembers those two pictures today. The consolation for Curtis and Lancaster would be film history: A half century after it was made, the "failure" known as "Sweet Smell of Success" is unanimously hailed as a classic.
Screens Sunday only at 8 p.m. at the Regent Square Theater.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM