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The 1950s were notorious for being conformist and passive. And movies like "Sunset Boulevard," "Ace in the Hole" and "A Face in the Crowd" told bleak, even cynical stories about the increasingly powerful mass media.

One of the most enduringly popular of these movies is "Sweet Smell of Success," a 1957 potboiler about the gossip industry, starring Burt Lancaster as a columnist and Tony Curtis as a scheming press agent. It's been digitally restored on DVD and Blu-ray and released by Criterion.

Our critic-at-large John Powers just watched it and says that the movie left him thinking as much about today as the Eisenhower era.

JOHN POWERS: Back in my high school library, there was a poster that quoted the famous words by Eleanor Roosevelt: Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.

I suspect that Roosevelt would be horrified by how small-minded American culture has become. Where gossip was once an unsavory, if popular, corner of the mass media, it's now so mainstream that Lindsay Lohan's DUI cases make the front page, and to own TMZ would cost you a hundred million times more than the dollar it cost Sidney Harman to purchase Newsweek.

All of which gives a special piquancy to the classic American movie about the gossip trade, "Sweet Smell of Success," first released in 1957 and now out on a ravishing new digital transfer from Criterion. Fast, mean, and absolutely gripping, Alexander Mackendrick's movie - written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets - feels both extraordinarily relevant and, at times, strikingly old fashioned.

Tony Curtis stars as Sidney Falco, a hustling press agent who to get his clients' names in the papers runs around town for J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful and sadistic Broadway columnist who spends his nights sitting like a spider at nightclub tables. Things come to a head when Hunsecker demands that Falco break up the romance between Hunsecker's adored sister, played by Susan Harrison, and a jazz musician played by Martin Milner. Sidney proceeds to do this by any means necessary, even pimping out a girlfriend.

Now, the movie's not perfect. For instance, the straight-arrow Milner is comically wrong as a hip '50s jazzman. He already seems like the cop he'd later play on the show "Adam-12." But the flaws scarcely matter, because what's right is so right, like James Wong Howe's bleakly poetic black-and-white photography that makes even a fancy nightclub seem as soiled as a crime scene. "Sweet Smell's" Manhattan is a seamy, deglamorized world in which small men destroy lives to make themselves big.

At its center is the Apache dance between Burt Lancaster's bullying Hunsecker, who lurks behind spectacles that are equal parts death ray and bulletproof glass, and the ambitious Falco, who's like his pet dog - a rabid one.

Here, the two discuss Falco's scheme against the jazzman, leaving Hunsecker to ask a question about his sister's suitor.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sweet Smell of Success")

Mr. BURT LANCASTER (Actor): (as J.J. Hunsecker) What does this boy got that Susie likes?

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (as Sidney Falco) Integrity. Acute. Like indigestion.

Mr. LANCASTER: (as J.J. Hunsecker) What does this mean, integrity?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Sidney Falco) A pocket full of firecrackers waiting for a match. You know, it's a new wrinkle. To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's integrity.

Mr. LANCASTER: (as J.J. Hunsecker) I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.

POWERS: The figure of Hunsecker was based on gossip king Walter Winchell. And as Neal Gabler points out in one of the disc's extras, Winchell was the first to grasp - and exploit - the democratizing power of mass media gossip, which not only brought the famous into the daily view of the millions but cut them down to size.

If anything about "Sweet Smell of Success" feels dated, it's precisely the notion of a single all-powerful columnist. The world Winchell created has grown ever more democratic; gossipmongers are now as inescapable as people staring at their smartphones. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - which recently brought down designer John Galliano by capturing his anti-Semitic blather -anybody can be J.J. Hunsecker, which means that nobody is.

After all, who needs a Winchell when a teen idol like "Twilight's" Robert Pattinson enters a restaurant and other diners instantly start Tweeting where to find him? These days the press agent's job is often less about getting clients noticed - heck, there are people who spend their lives writing about reality TV stars - than about trying to control how they're noticed. It's a near-impossible task, especially if your client is Charlie Sheen.

In fact, today's gossip machine is even more amoral than in Winchell's day. Although a truly rotten human being, Winchell actually did believe in something: He backed the New Deal, attacked Hitler when most politicians were still weaseling, and he fought for civil rights. Even when he went bonkers for Joe McCarthy, he thought he was fighting for the American Way. Today's gossip mavens seem dinky and soulless by comparison. TMZ and Gawker don't give a hoot about politics or human rights. They have no mandate grander than getting the poop on anyone who might be remotely famous.

Still, even as the gossip biz has grown more ruthlessly ubiquitous, our movies have become tamer. Made during the supposedly square 1950s, "Sweet Smell of Success" is a portrait of American ambition so curdled that it makes "The Social Network" - a movie considered too hip, dark, and ironic to win the Oscar - seem almost sunny. I mean, Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg may burn to succeed, but nobody would ever call him a cookie full of arsenic.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, as unionized public employees fight to keep collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and several other states, we talk about the history of collective bargaining with Philip Dray, author of "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America."

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

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