I missed this film when it first came out (when I was in my late teens) and I kept missing it whenever it appeared on TV, which was a rare occasion. So, I was very pleased to finally get a DVD and relish in one of the definitive stories about...power and how it corrupts.
Arguably, this narrative is a true classic and ranks as one of the best dramas ever put to film. First, the two main actors Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster both give truly outstanding performances. Curtis went on to other projects like The Defiant Ones (1958), Some like it hot (1959) and most notably The Boston Strangler (1968); but, as Sidney Falco, he's the quintessential slime ball, the guy whom you really never want to meet because he's the one you know you can never trust. He makes Paul Newman's Hud (1963) look like Mr Goody Two Shoes, and that's no criticism of Paul Newman. Curtis's acting is so good, he should have won an Oscar.
Lancaster is also excellent in the role of a power-corrupted syndicated columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, who'll use whatever and whomever to protect his interests and in this slice of slimy life, it's his sister who forms the central interest. That by itself makes for a gripping tug of war between him and a very effective and young Martin Milner as Steve Dallas, the guitarist who wants to marry Susan Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison (an actor who faded away very quickly, it seems). What's more interesting, however, is the interaction between J.J. and Susan, with distinctive allusions to a brother-sister relationship that seems to go a bit beyond normality; with a longer narrative that could have been explored more, and to great effect, I think.
What's even more interesting is the unspoken undercurrent between J.J and Sidney, both handsome guys, one dominant, one submissive, both dependent upon each other, both repulsed by each other and probably themselves, deep down. And both always on the make for the next conquest, including sexual.
However, in 1957, to extend both of those aspects into this story probably would have ensured an even faster death at the box office...
In addition to the acting, the other big strength is the dialog that contains some of the best one-liners in movie history. Check out the Quotes section to gain an appreciation of the quality of this script. For sheer use of word power and word play, you have to look at Sleuth (1972) for comparison, a lesser film, sure, but still entertaining.
The production was top-notch as was the cinematography from James Wong Howe, an operator who started out in the silent era, in 1920. And, it shows. Looking over his credits, I spotted a half dozen movies that I rate among my favorites, particularly Pursued (1947), the very best black and white photography I've ever seen. And of course, the mise-en-scene: New York, as few have seen it, and which is gone forever. Like On the Waterfront (1952), The Naked City (1948) and a few others, that gritty city is The Metaphor for the tough grittiness that seems to permeate the citizens of that great place good and bad alike.
It's not surprising that the critics and the public, at that time, shunned this masterpiece: nobody likes to look inside their soul to shrink back from the truth. None of us like to think what we might do or not do in the same situation; it's too much for most to even acknowledge that old saying: there but for the grace of God, go I.
Unquestionably, one of the best movies I've ever seen.
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