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Success still potent poison

Lancaster and Curtis turn in top performances in 1957 uptown noir

Match me, Sidney.'

Like virtually everything that issues from the lips of J.J. Hunsecker, the remark sounds more like a threat than a request Ñ or, even worse, like a sentence from an unforgiving judge.

Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is simply asking unctuous press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) for a light. But New York's most powerful gossip columnist never really does anything simply, and Falco knows it. Their viciously symbiotic relationship is the poisonous stuff of which director Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 classic 'Sweet Smell of Success' is made.

As Elmer Bernstein's brassy opening theme reaches a screaming peak, a bundle of newspapers slams to the Times Square pavement with a reverberating force that shivers through the rest of the film. Finding himself frozen out of Hunsecker's column for the umpteenth day in a row, Falco has to shift his hustle into an even higher gear than usual and 'run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off.'

The agent and his increasingly impatient clients are unwelcome around Hunsecker until Falco delivers on a favor. He is expected to help Hunsecker ruin the romantic life of the younger sister in whom the gossip monger seems to take a more than brotherly interest. No back will go unstabbed in the process.

At the time of its release under Lancaster's production banner, 'Success' constituted not just a dazzling take on corruption but a nervy personal assault on legendary columnist Walter Winchell. It now seems like a preview of coming attractions for our own media-saturated, morally challenged age.

Mackendrick, best known for such comic gems as 'The Ladykillers,' might have seemed an unlikely candidate for what is essentially an uptown film noir. But the scorching script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman allows the director to pour out the wry cynicism and social wit of his comedies in a corrosive torrent here.

The two leads make the most of dialogue that pops like blisters. Enhancing his already imposing physicality with the severity of horn-rims and an ugly haircut, Lancaster creates a figure of towering malevolence. A climactic mid-film moment, with Hunsecker on his penthouse balcony looking down on his neon-blazing domain, is downright Dante-esque in its intensity.

As Falco, whose snake-oil charm takes on the sheen of desperation, Curtis does the best work of his career. But even the weaker performers work to the film's advantage. The inexperience of Susan Harrison, a newcomer who never became an old-timer, plays neatly into the cowed innocence of Hunsecker's brutally manipulated sister.

As displayed in a spanking new print, master cinematographer James Wong Howe's black-and-white imagery gleams. And Bernstein's score is pure Big City, all high-rise wail and street-level rumble. When Hunsecker says 'I love this dirty town,' you know just what he's talking about.

'Sweet Smell of Success' is a reminder that Hollywood can produce something worth talking about Ñ and full of talk that's worth repeating. Like a cookie full of arsenic (as Hunsecker calls Falco), this is entertainment with a bite. Almost 50 years later we're still waiting for someone to match it.