Broadway. All powerful journalist J.J. Hunsecker has cut press agent Sidney Falco out of his column after Sidney has failed to break up a relationship between J.J.'s beloved sister and a musician. Luckily, Sidney has a plan; a plan involving blackmail.
Drag a lung-full of Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 hymn to Manhattan sleaze and you can almost taste the city. As J.J. Hunsecker, gossip columnist and proto-shock jock remarks: "I love this dirty town". The irony is that Mackendrick, the Scottish director of Ealing comedies Whisky Galore and The Man In The White Suit, was actually a fish out of water, this career high marking his first American gig. And if Mackendrick's 1955 classic, The Ladykillers, had served notice that the director was capable of twisted satire, nothing could quite prepare the audience for this shock to the senses. One of the darkest films ever to emerge from Hollywood, no modern mainstream movie could dare boast an ending as bleak or a subtext as sexually, socially and politically provocative as the one on display here.
And this is a movie starring two reliable studio players: all-American Burt Lancaster and pretty boy Tony Curtis. Certainly the hucking and jiving publicist, Sidney Falco, would inspire Curtis to consistently break his straight studio image, and Lancaster's formidable J.J. Hunsecker would send him towards an Oscar for Elmer Gantry, but neither would ever be better than they are here.
The natural meeting point of Howard Hawks and Orson Welles, 'Success takes the scattershot patter of screwball comedy (the arsenic-laced screenplay comes courtesy of blacklisted playwright Clifford Odets and prolific screenwriter Ernest Lehman) and grafts it onto a stylised melodrama of moral turpitude. Stand back for some of the most pointed barbs in movie history. Sit up close for the delicious depth of James Wong Howe's photography and the fat, juicy jazz score by Elmer Bernstein.
With some of the sharpest dialogue ever cut in Hollywood, only on the most superficial level is this a movie about gossip and publicity. We're talking show business. We're talking America. We're talking cast-iron classic.
Reviewed by Colin Kennedy