Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on April 15, 1952
Directed by Joseph Kane
Written by Bruce Manning, from a story by Bob Considine
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Claire Trevor, Forrest Tucker, Vera Ralston, Luther Adler, John Russell, Gene Lockhart, Grant Withers, Taylor Holmes, William Murphy, Richard Jaeckel, Don Beddoe, Roy Roberts, Pat Flaherty, Whit Bissell, William Schallert
Not the noir-styled film I was expecting, but more a courtroom drama, World War II movie, and gangster flick all rolled into one. And judging by the poster text and artwork, I assumed the story would focus on noir vets Brian Donlevy and Claire Trevor, but surprisingly the majority of it centered on sixth-billed John Russell, better known to me as a solid supporting actor in a long line of Westerns, including Rio Bravo, Yellow Sky, and Pale Rider, and for starring in his own 1950s television series, Lawman.
Russell plays Joe Gray, a high-ranking employee of a New York City gangster organization, who goes to war and returns a changed man, wanting nothing more than to lead a simple, legitimate life. He decides to cut his ties with the mob, but even though the split is amicable, his bosses are still running scared, worried he’ll talk…even after he’s assured them he has no intention of doing so. Meanwhile, a senate investigative committee is intent on stopping interstate crime, and is calling on syndicate members to testify, including Gray, in hopes of bringing an end to the rackets and the widespread grip of the ‘hoodlum empire’.
One-time film editor—and yes, professional cellist—Joseph Kane directs the first of five films he’d make with Russell, using fairly straightforward camera angles and shots, but doing so with just enough skill and artistry to hold your attention throughout. Worthy of mention are his day and night exteriors and establishing shots of the New York City skyline and downtown areas, which to me were quite spectacular for such a low-budget production. Also impressive was a shocking moment of implied point-blank brutality that really gave me a jolt, and had me wondering if Kane had caught any flak from Production Code watchdogs for shooting it.
The screenplay wasn’t bad, either, and I thought it was interesting how extensively the writers relied on extended flashbacks to tell the backstory of Gray: his time spent in the army, his return home, his new job running a small-town gas station with his platoon buddies, and most importantly, his interactions—both good and bad—with his former gangland peers. These flashbacks, as seen through the eyes of various gang associates present during the hearings, made up the bulk of the story, with the courtroom moments acting as a connecting thread; they were the most prominent of the few noir conventions I could spot in the film.
With this role, Russell returned to his crime roots, where several years earlier he helped kick-start his long career with brief appearances in a pair of noir offerings, The Dark Corner and Somewhere in the Night, and where he’d venture again with the solid B-noir effort Hell Bound. As mentioned, Donlevy and Trevor were top-billed, with Donlevy on the side of good as a senator heading the committee, and Trevor the jilted former flame of Gray, whose haughty demeanor added some spark to her role. Rounding out the cast were Forrest Tucker as a hotheaded thug, Luther Adler as the mob boss, and a bunch of recognizable faces of the era, including a blink-and-he’s-gone Whit Bissell as a taxi driver.
I liked the central conflict, I liked the actors, and I especially liked how Russell’s character just wanted to go straight and be left alone…even if it meant resorting to violence to achieve that goal. Granted, this wasn’t the greatest gangster drama I’ve ever seen, and contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere, I still can’t agree with its noir label (the lack of familiar noir cinematography and its happy high-note of an ending was enough to put the kibosh on that). Even so, Hoodlum Empire had quite a few good things going for it, and if you’re a fan of 1950s crime films, it’s not a bad way to spend an evening. (7/10)