How Sweet It Is

A more nasty and cynical film was never made, and this from a director (Alexander Mackendrick) known previously for his comedies; though, when read between the lines, this 1957 masterpiece plays darkly hysterical--the laugh that coughs up blood. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a pathetic PR man peddling mediocre clients to newspaper columnists, the most powerful of which is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a thinly veiled Walter Winchell stand-in. J.J. wants Sidney to keep his sister--Susan (Susan Harrison), for whom J.J. has incestuous eyes--from marrying a jazzer (Martin Milner); till he does that, using whatever scurrilous means necessary, Sidney's shut out from the column. "You're dead, son," J.J. tells the impotent Sidney. "Get yourself buried." (It's a film ripe with memorable lines, among them J.J.'s ordering Falco to "Match me, Sidney.") Mackendrick, working with the Odets-Lehman screenplay, crafted a masterful noir in which New York City is at once inviting and dangerous, glamorous and grotesque--a city of dreams, most dashed and dead on the cold streets during what feels like an eternal winter. Lancaster, peering through thick lenses, is the town's biggest, baddest ice-cold monster; Curtis, a pretty boy doing ugly deeds, is no less reprehensible, and they make a perfect pair in a perfect movie about how easily the weak are corrupted by the mere whiff of power.

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