Terrence Rafferty previews Film Forum’s N.Y.C. Noir series, which kicks off with Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success:
…the way [J.J.] Hunsecker drags the movie’s protagonist, an overeager press agent named Sidney Falco…, down into the ethical sewer with him is as brutal as what Richard Widmark does to the old lady in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947)….
It’s the nakedness of the newspaperman’s exercise of power, and the inability of the other, less monomaniacal characters to fight it, that make the picture unmistakably noir, even without gunplay. A sense of powerlessness — often disguised by tough-guy bravado — is a common trait in the heroes and heroines of film noir, and this is a feeling that New Yorkers know a thing or two about. We know too that the threat of physical violence is far from the only means the masters of our fates employ when they want us to know there’s no way out. In this dirty town, where people come to Make It, our desire to succeed and our terror of failure are usually all the ammunition the powerful require to keep us right where they want us.