Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis, dazzling in the ease of his brutality) is a press agent feeding scraps of his clients’ gossip to killer columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, steely and remote). In this exuberant jeremiad, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, J.J. and Sidney are at once the rock that crushes decent people and the vermin under it. Ernest Lehman, who had worked for a Broadway press agent, wrote the novelette and first script; but it’s the rewrite by playwright Clifford Odets, who knew plenty about fame and failure, that makes the tale sing and sting.
Odets stewed the characters in venom and peppered the dialogue with wit so acute and sarcastic that, a half-century later, viewers’ heads swim in wonder and revulsion. No one’s nice here; there are only the wicked and the weak. Bile served with brio: would that someone dared to make a movie this dark today. Please, someone — anyone?