In a monochrome, jazz-fueled New York City, where it is always somehow night, a nervy press agent is racing from bar to nightclub to the dirty streets in between. His mission is both desperate and impossible - to ingratiate himself to the powerful gossip columnist on whom he depends for his living and at the same time make a stand to preserve what is left of his career and his self-esteem.
Such is the set-up for what is arguably Tony Curtis's greatest screen role, as the hustling Sidney Falco, protagonist of the darker-than-dark 1950s noir Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis, who died this week at the age of 85, brought to the part all the savvy he had picked up in real life as a Hungarian-Jewish kid battling for survival on the streets of the Bronx. And he added to it a knowing, beautifully pitched sense of moral unease tinged with the purest dread.
Curtis always dreamed of being taken seriously as a dramatic actor, an ambition that for much of his career was thwarted. He was too adept at comedy to take on the heftier roles, or so the conventional wisdom had it; he was too much the matinee idol, too much surface and not enough depth, too handsome for his own good. In Sweet Smell of Success, in which his performance matches or supersedes even the sickly, sinister turn offered by his co-star Burt Lancaster, he proved how woefully his critics had underestimated him. In an appreciation of the movie in Vanity Fair magazine a few years ago, Bruce Fierstein wrote that you can almost feel the clamminess of Curtis's palms, and it's true. He is at once repulsive and utterly compelling.
Perhaps most intriguingly, he lets all of his natural charm and good looks work in his favour - or, more precisely, add an extra shade of darkness instead of the levity one might expect. Falco's gift of the gab makes him not likeable, but inherently untrustworthy. At one stage, an aspiring starlet he encounters at the fabled New York nightclub 21 calls him "pretty", a description that manages to attack both his manhood and the seriousness of his ambition. With a single look, Curtis makes the audience understand that his character, at that moment, wants to jump clean out of his skin.
Had Sweet Smell of Success been a commercial hit, Curtis might have won the serious acting spurs he craved and we might now be talking about him on a par with his contemporary and friend Marlon Brando. At the time, though, the movie was too dark and depressing for audiences to understand, much less flock to, and he was soon back to his stock-in-trade of screen comedies and light costume dramas, many of them eminently forgettable, some passable and - in the occasional case, such as Billy Wilder's classic Some Like It Hot - pure gold in their own right.
Wilder, like all of Curtis's best directors, understood that the way to bring out the best in the actor was to emphasise his hustler quality. His jazz musician character in Some Like It Hot was pure effervescence compared to Sidney Falco's dark concoction, but he, too, was always running, always thinking up the next scheme, always figuring out the way to get out of a fix and, if he could, get the girl.
Curtis, as well as his equally glorious co-star Jack Lemmon, made it look easy, whether they were dressing up as women escaping from the mob or arguing about their necessarily complicated love lives. Curtis also added a famous touch when his character adopts the disguise of an oil magnate, all the better to seduce Marilyn Monroe. Wilder asked him to put on a different voice from his nasal New York accent; Curtis responded with a pitch-perfect impression of Cary Grant.
Perhaps Curtis's biggest obstacle, during the heyday of his Hollywood fame in the 1950s and early 1960s, was that he was known for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with acting achievement. He was a gadabout, a playboy, a pin-up, pursued by the gossip magazines because of his looks, or his romantic conquests, or his hairstyle, a genuinely innovative look at the time that inspired Elvis Presley.
Curtis certainly had his fill of hedonistic pleasures, which the Hollywood brass actively encouraged as part of the image they were cultivating for him. "Those days were great," he said in a 2001 interview with the Daily Telegraph in London. "At these parties thrown by the studio, there'd always be a brand-new sweetie for me. I was the king of the hill then. " By his admission, the skirt-chasing continued even after he married Janet Leigh, in 1952, a union that lasted 11 years and produced two children, including the actress Jamie Lee Curtis. And it continued unabated all his life - he was married a total of six times - along with recurring problems involving drink and drugs.
Still, his was a remarkable story by any measure. He suffered a childhood of almost Dickensian privations and horrors, including a mother who suffered schizophrenic episodes and beat him senseless and a father who could not make ends meet as a tailor, to the point where Curtis and his brother were consigned to an orphanage for a month so they could at least be fed. His brother was later run over by a truck and died.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz, a name he came to associate with the anti-Semitic venom he encountered among the street gangs of the Bronx. He reinvented himself twice - first by serving in the Navy in the Second World War, and then by studying acting at New York's New School, where his fellow students included Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau. He took the name Curtis from the Hungarian surname Kertesz, which was in his family on his mother's side. For a first name he experimented with James, before finally settling on Tony.
From an early age, he understood that his looks were his passport out of penury - he would instinctively raise his fists to protect his face whenever the Bronx toughs would threaten him with punches or rocks. In Hollywood, his streetwise charm and winning smile offered him a rapid path to prominence, if not necessarily the roles he craved. A handful of parts, though, stand out as truly memorable - the escaped convict chained to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, for which he garnered his one and only Oscar nomination, the rebel slave Antoninus in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, or the eponymous killer in The Boston Strangler.
Curtis's misfortune seemed to be that audiences rarely noticed these career pinnacles. Instead, as the marriages and child-support payments and rehab visits piled up, he turned more and more to easy, forgettable roles to pay the bills, to the point where the latter part of his career came to seem thoroughly squandered. In later years, when the acting no longer interested him, he turned instead to surrealist painting. To the end, he was a live wire - witty, entertaining, generous, always good for a story. Now that he's gone, we still have his queasy brilliance as Sidney Falco to remind us that there was more to Tony Curtis than perhaps met the eye.