I don’t believe that nice guys finish last, but if you wanted ammunition for that premise, you’d find it in these two potent movies.
“Sweet Smell of Success” is a searing portrait of New York newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, who in those pre-Internet days, wields incredible power, not only over his readers but over the many people who depend on him. One of them is small-time press agent Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis, a sycophant who will pretty much sell his soul to get J.J. to run items about his clients. Hunsecker knows Sidney all too well, and takes advantage of him to do some of his dirtiest dirty work, in this sharply etched portrait that still has the unmistakable ring of truth to it. That’s because it was written by Clifford Odets and press-agent-turned-screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and directed with great skill by Alexander Mackendrick. The film also offers a vivid snapshot of New York nightlife in the 1950s.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” was made in 1992 but not much has changed, at least so far as human nature is concerned. The setting is a real-estate office in David Mamet’s highly-charged and notably foul-mouthed play, beautifully brought to the screen by director James Foley. Here, a group of men compete for leads to customers—in some cases, competing against their former track record, in an atmosphere where nothing matters except results: not loyalty, and certainly not humanity. Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey star, with an unforgettable scene featuring young Alec Baldwin in one of the highpoints of his career.
Just thinking about these films can give you chills: that’s how close they cut to the bone. And that’s why they’re such incredible movies.
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