Sad news today that actor Tony Curtis passed away at the age of 85. Most obits today are focusing on his classic comedic performance in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and his Oscar-nominated turn in the barrier-breaking film The Defiant Ones. However, I want to focus on his performance as Sidney Falco in my favorite movie, Sweet Smell of Success.
Sweet Smell of Success has everything going for it: a whip-smart screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, sharp direction by Alexander Mackendrick, beautiful black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe, and top-to-bottom great performances by all the actors involved.
Sidney Falco is a bottom-feeding press agent who barely ekes out a living feeding items on his clients to powerful New York newspaper columnists. In this scene from early in the movie, we see Curtis's frenetic energy that defines the character: he's juggling several problems at once here and trying to look for a way out of all of them.
That energy can also be seen at the beginning of this scene--one of my favorites in movie history--where he's constantly in motion and the camera has to remain mobile to keep up with him. But later, we see press agent Sidney get taken apart by powerful columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), yet he manages to maintain his dignity in the face of Hunsecker's abuse.
That dignity wouldn't last, however, as the erosion of Sidney's already low moral standards becomes the crux of the movie. Falco is a sleazeball, but he's never unlikeable, and it's Curtis's performance that maintains such an unlikely balance of revulsion and sympathy. Curtis was at the height of his popularity when he made this movie, and it was a big risk for both him and Lancaster. Curtis was comfortably situated as a Hollywood screen idol at the time, so playing such a morally dubious role in such a dark film could have damaged that position. And the movie failed largely because of its bleak subject matter, but it remains a bold and brutal movie to this day, and a large part of its quality goes to Curtis's fearless, energetic performance.
Curtis would have a rather spotty career, but at his best, he was in some of the greatest movies of all time, all of which were made better for his performances, though he rarely seemed to get the credit he deserved. I also have fond memories, though, of the cool Tony Curtis who appeared on television when I was a kid, especially the underrated adventure series The Persuaders, where he played American oil millionaire Danny Wilde, who teamed up with British aristocrat Brett Sinclair (Roger Moore) on international adventures.
I'm going to spend part of this weekend revisiting Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success (two movies that I already watch on a fairly regular basis, anyway) to celebrate the career of one of the last classic Hollywood stars.