The film centers on powerful New York gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who has an unhealthy (ahem) obsession with his pretty younger sister Susie (Susan Harrison); J.J.'s jealousy leads him to pressure sleazy publicity agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to break up Susie's romance with a handsome young musician, Steve (Martin Milner). That's the plot in a nutshell, as the film focuses on Hunsecker and Falco's creepy machinations and whether or not Susie will break free of her brother's control.
On the surface the plot may not sound particularly appealing, but thanks to the talents of all involved, it's absolutely gripping, with career-high performances by the lead actors, crackling dialogue by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, and the previously mentioned outstanding cinematography and scoring. The group Steve plays with happens to be the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and the jazz heard throughout the movie contributes tremendously to the film's style.
Of all the film's attributes, none is more impressive than the lush black and white cinematography of James Wong Howe. I don't have enough superlatives for how fantastic this film looked. Each and every scene was stunning, starting from the opening shots of Falco at a NYC hot dog stand.
Having grown up watching ADAM-12, and also having seen Martin Milner in many of his early roles as a teen actor -- including his first film, LIFE WITH FATHER (1947) -- it was a particular treat seeing him in this. He's quite fine as seemingly the only man in New York willing to stand up to Hunsecker and Falco. He has some excellent scenes going toe to toe with both Curtis and Lancaster, and he holds his own despite the force of their performances. Late in the movie he also has what may be the single most moving line in the film.
I also liked Susan Harrison as J.J.'s hapless sister. It's a tough part, as she has to be appealing enough to entrance Steve, despite her weakness when dealing with her brother, and she pulls it off. I loved the final shot of her character. Harrison only had a few screen roles; it's an odd bit of trivia that she is the mother of Darva Conger from the early, infamous "reality" show WHO WANTS TO MARRY A MULTI-MILLIONAIRE?
The film was directed by Alexander Mackendrick. It runs 96 minutes.
The supporting cast includes Jeff Donnell, Sam Levene, Emile Meyer, Larry White, Barbara Nichols, Edith Atwater, Lurene Tuttle, and Lawrence Dobkin.
The Criterion Collection has released a 2-disc set with a gorgeous print. Extras include a commentary track and documentaries. As I write, it's on sale for half price at Barnes & Noble. B&N members who buy the film in the store, rather than online, save an additional 10%.
The film was also released on DVD a decade ago, and it had a VHS release in the late '90s.
This film is shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies. It just aired a few days ago, and it will be shown again on November 22 and December 8, 2011. The trailer is here.
Although I enjoy and admire dozens of movies each year, this one was simply a knockout. There will be much to savor on future viewings, looking even more closely at the characters, their dialogue, and all the other things that made this film so memorable. Don't miss it.