Sweet Smell of Success (1957) directed by Alexander Mackendrick
I really got into this movie about ten minutes in when Sidney Falco invites himself to sit with J.J. Hunsecker, who is entertaining a senator at dinner. Here we are introduced to the two main characters of the film, J.J., the top newspaper columnist in New York, and Sidney, the lowly press agent who must act as a human doormat for people like J.J. to make a buck. In this scene we get to watch J.J. just own the conversation and the people he talks to. He is brutally cold and harsh, telling people the hard truth to their face and expecting them to thank him for it. He is a man who is used to getting his way with his dominant personality. Sidney, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have an ounce of self respect, happily taking the abuse J.J. dishes out to get what he needs. I was fascinated by these two characters in how they are similar in their lack of morals and sleazy behavior, yet so different in everything else.
Sidney is struggling because J.J. has frozen Sidney's clients out of his columns as punishment for not delivering on a promise. J.J. wants Sidney to break up the relationship between J.J.'s sister Susan and a lowly musician Steve Dallas that he doesn't deem worthy enough. (There's a strange kind of brother-sister relationship between J.J. and Susan that reminded me of Tony and Gina's in Scarface.) Sidney devises a devious scheme to print a smear article on Steve Dallas by a rival columnist as to not trace it back to J.J..
A good question to ask is who is a worse human being, J.J. or Sidney? Both are pretty unscrupulous individuals but Sidney is pretty much the definition of a lowlife. He is the kind of guy that would steal from own mother and accuse his father for the crime if he thought it would help him get ahead. In order to get the smear article printed, he convinces a cigarette girl, who originally thought she had to sleep with him for a favor, to instead sleep with the rival columnist. J.J. sums it up perfectly when he tells Sidney, "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
This is a really great film with stellar performances and top notch writing. The film is full of great memorable quotes. It seems like all the best written movies were during this time period because no modern film has the kind of sharp and cutting dialogue seen here.