Set amid the nightlife scene of late 1950s New York, this is the story of two men in a symbiotic relationship; J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a newspaper gossip columnist who can make or break careers with a single name-drop, and Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), one of the many publicists scurrying at Hunsecker’s feet like remoras. Falco isn’t doing so great; he sleeps in the back room of his office, his clients have been firing him, and Hunsecker barely gives him the time of day. But Hunsecker realizes this just makes Falco desperate enough to do some dirty work for him, and makes him an offer – Hunsecker’s little sister Susan (Susan Harrison) has been canoodling with a jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and Hunsecker doesn’t like Dallas. If Falco can break the lovebirds up, Hunsecker will give Falco’s clients some ink.
Most of the film covers Falco’s efforts, chronicling just how low he is willing to stoop to get the job done – blackmail, bribery, framing Dallas for drug possession, even prostituting out a friend of his. But Hunsecker doesn’t exactly come off all that clean either – his influence runs so deep that all it takes is a word or two for him to have anyone doing his bidding. Even the police aren’t immune – if the NYPD detective Hunsecker’s friends with isn’t already on Hunsecker’s payroll, he’s trying to be. And Hunsecker’s drive to put the kibosh on Susan’s romance is born out of an overprotectiveness that feels pretty creepily incestuous.
If I have to be honest….I don’t really have much to say about this. But this is not a dismissal. I enjoyed it – Curtis and Lancaster are doing supreme work here, the story unfolds well, the cinematography plays with the night scenes so that there are plenty of murky shadows for Falco to lurk in. The biggest nit I have is that screenwriter Clifford Odets got slightly over-florid in places – everyone speaks in slightly too-clever turns of phrase most of the time. It’s very much in keeping with Odets’ style, and it does make sense that a newspaper columnist and a fast-talking publicist would indeed be that erudite; but I still sometimes felt more like Odets was trying harder to Be Clever than he was trying to be realistic. But that’s definitely a matter of taste.
And I still liked this film, at the end of the day. In fact, I arguably liked it more than the general public during its original release. Lancaster and Curtis were both making big changes of character for this film – Curtis usually played nice guys or romantic heros, and Lancaster was a little more of an action hero (remember, he had very recently been in Gunfight At the OK Corral). Both sets of fans recoiled at Curtis being mean and Lancaster being “talky”. The overall film is pretty dang dark, as well, which probably came across as depressing, and the film suffered at the box office – unfairly so. But in later years, as the world got a bit more cynical, movie buffs happily came around.