Top critical review
New York's seamier side in the 1950s - with two big stars and a mixed bag of performances.
on 1 October 2016
This is really Curtis's film, with far more to do and far more screen time than Lancaster. But the movie is a tour de force of overacting and over melodramaticised scene after scene. After a while you get used to it, but for me the class act was Barbara Nichols whose cigarette-girl cum good time girl was convincing, far moreso than the two leads.
I haven't seen a lot of Tony Curtis's films, in fact I doubt I could name more than half a dozen or so. But this was 93 minutes of overcooked, overplayed and over-egged performance, like he figured he'd be paid more if he "acted more". There wasn't an ounce of subtlety anywhere to be seen in the performances of either of the two leads. Lancaster can deliver mightily given the right stuff, but for me he was miscast as the bitter and twisted manipulator whose paranoias and manoeuvres supplied the meat for the plot. The rest of the cast turned in perfectly adequate performances, showing the worldly and wearied seamy side of 1950s NYork newspapers' far too-influencial columnists.
Lancaster in "Elmer Gantry" has to be his all time tour de force, where he's the ultimate sideshow huckster. There's no shade of what made EG his Oscar-winning performance in this altogether smaller and pettier picture. He underplays Hunsecker so hard it's an overplay, mirroring the OTT portrayal of Curtis's back-door fixer for whom no sleaze is too sleazy, no move too underhand if it'll generate a few bucks.
Susan Harrison is utterly forgettable as the mousy and characterless little sister to Lancaster's Hunsecker. Her delivery is wooden to the point of making her transparent in terms of impact in the scenes she's in.
I'd guess some of the leads' performances may relate to the director being an English import - where he'd be used to working with actors who'd learnt their craft on the stage rather than a movie set. And stage performances need to be that little bit over the top to make an impact on an audience who never get the benefit of close-ups or selected camera angles. So perhaps he encouraged the overacting - only he'll know - and since it's almost certain he'll be dead by now - like the two stars - he'll never tell.
Four stars it didn't deserve, but two would have been downright skimpy. So - three it is. Its the sort of flick that, if seen some Saturday night in the late 1950s - would have been more or less forgotten by halfway through the following week.