Posted by Moira Finnie on December 15, 2010
If you are worried about sugar shock over the next few weeks and think you could snap if one more person asks you to be merry, New York Confidential (1955) may be just the kind of movie that might save your sanity. There’s little sweetness or sentiment in this movie about an underworld organization called “The Syndicate,” (The Mafia and La Cosa Nostra are never mentioned, though characters drop everything when a call from Italy comes through). There is some humor and a story that influenced some memorable off-shoots, including the noteworthy television series, The Untouchables and the movie, The Godfather (1972), as well as a brief television series of the same name that was on display in the late ’50s. One of the blurbs for this 86 minute film, (a portion of which can be seen below in the trailer), opens with a shot of the New York skyline, followed by some Gershwinesque chords on the piano, and a stentorian narrator declares that “The syndicate still exists. The rules still hold. This is how the cartel works. This is New York Confidential!”
Writer-Director Russell Rouse (D.O.A., The Thief, Wicked Woman, The Fastest Gun Alive), made New York Confidential (1955), an admittedly seedy, but quite entertaining film, inspired by the Kefauver hearings in Congress on organized crime in 1950-51. This was a period when the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, was studiously ignoring the existence of a criminal network while eagerly looking under beds for Commie sympathizers. The movie, written by Rouse and Clarence Greene, was “suggested” by the best-selling book written by those truth-telling twins of tabloid journalism, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. The pair made a cottage industry out of these books in the ’40s and ’50s, cranking out some hard facts, as well as lots of squirrelly, often right wing sensationalism in one hot seller after another, U.S.A.: Confidential, Chicago: Confidential, and Washington: Confidential–all of them promising to rip the veil of respectability from various civic cesspools. Not to make anyone on the planet feel left out, Around the World Confidential and Women: Confidential were penned by Mortimer after Jack Lait transferred to the big city room in the sky in 1954.*
Thanks to Kit Parker Films (a company that specializes in unearthing “orphan films”), this long out-of-circulation Edward Small production was restored and released earlier this year on DVD by VCI Entertainment. Two of the dark angels from the Film Noir Foundation, writer and film historian Alan K. Rode and author Kim Morgan provide an informative and lively commentary on the DVD of the movie, discussing the actors, story, filmmakers and quirks of this often slyly amusing film, which was clearly made on a shoestring–though the top drawer cast and acting never lets the viewer down. Visually it is not impressive, with flat, almost claustrophobic sets and no extended scenes set in the great outdoors, but the top notch cast, led by Broderick Crawford, Richard Conte, J. Carrol Naish, Anne Bancroft and Marilyn Maxwell expands the film’s B movie soul beyond the limits of the sometimes uneven script.
In this late entry in the classic film noir period, crime has a mantle of respectability and the top echelon of criminals wear conservative suits, value ‘class,’ and try to keep their nails clean. Despite this veneer, those who pursue this way of life become cogs in a corporate machine with octopus-like tentacles in business, sports, government, and even international trade, even suggesting the shocking notion that there may be something amiss in the way that oil is distributed, (gosh, ya think?). If you are in this invisible Fortune 500 company, however, making a mistake or flagging sales in your department are likely to earn you something more lasting than a demotion or a pink slip. Academy Award winner Broderick Crawford as Charlie Lupo plays the CEO of the New York branch of this organization, aided by his right hand man and sounding board, Ben Dagajanian (a subdued J. Carrol Naish), whose primary interest seems to be in sharing new pictures of his grandson with his pal, Charlie and munching loudly on his kosher dill. It takes awhile to understand the nearly daily meltdowns of the Crawford character, but gradually it becomes clear that Lupo is circling the drain, with each successive scene diminishing his tough guy facade.
Whenever things go wrong, (such as an unauthorized hit by one of the district’s men on a personal enemy), Lupo has one of four reactions:
1.) He calls in a hitman from another city to clean things up–in part because he has little respect for his own muscle, led by the physically impressive Mike Mazurki. The imported trigger man turns out to be the naturally elegant Richard Conte, who plays Nick Magellan, a lone wolf with considerably more polish. He is also the son of one of Lupo’s long-dead associates, described fondly as “the toughest guy I ever knew.” Magellan is cool and smoothly efficient in his zen-like aloofness and circumscribed fealty to the organization and Lupo. As he observes life among the worms gnawing away at The Big Apple, Magellan reveals unexpected flashes of compassion behind his impassive mask. (I kept thinking what a samurai he might have been as I watched Conte glide through this role).
The Jersey City-born actor, was discovered, legend has it, by John Garfield when the young Conte was working as a waiter. Cast many times as a criminal, but capable of playing those and other roles with zest and nuanced grace, the actor may be best remembered for a classic 1959 Twilight Zone role, Perchance to Dream,about a man afraid to fall asleep and enter his troubled dreams. He first appeared on film as a gentle, Depression-era drifter in a B movie, Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), that starred Glenn Ford. Conte was an appealing actor who could play a hero or a heel with potent skill, and he made no bones about his ethnicity. He was one of the first actors I can remember noticing in American movies who avoided caricatures by playing educated, or at least savvy Italian-Americans, as he did in Lewis Milestone’s war movie A Walk in the Sun (1945), Joseph Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers (1949), and Richard Quine’s Full of Life (1956), which was based on a John Fante novel. Conte‘s string of laconic, intelligent characterizations helped to define film noirs in the ’40s and ’50s, particularly those made at 20th Century Fox, with outstanding work in films such as Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948), and Jules Dassin’s Thieves Highway (1949)–my favorite of his films.
As the quality of the scripts coming his way in the next decade diminished, Conte may, as Alan K. Rode points out in his commentary, have harbored some ambivalence about the roles that he was compelled to take, especially those that required him to push the envelope on violence, (in 1955′s I’ll Cry Tomorrow as Lillian Roth’s sadistic husband, and that same year he brilliantly played the reptilian Mr. Brown in The Big Combo). In New York Confidential the primary violence, which was quite intense for the period, consists of a balletically staged hit in a bar, numerous slaps exchanged between characters, fisticuffs and three relatively blood-free executions. None of it is likely to phase modern observers since it didn’t bother me, and I tend to be an über-wimp. In some of the more perfunctory noirs of that decade, such as The Raging Tide (1951), Conte‘s presence almost always elevated the thinning, shopworn material. In the latter film he reportedly told his overly earnest co-star Shelley Winters to quit tying herself in Method knots for every scene in the atmospheric but threadbare story, since it was geared toward the mentality of the average schoolchild, not the New York intelligensia.
2.) Lupo calls someone a “pig” in almost every scene when things go awry (which is most scenes). Actually, Crawford spits out his lines as rapidly as possible, which was probably an absolute necessity, since the actor needs to plow through scads of dialogue in this movie, especially since so much action occurs off screen, one of the weaknesses of the low budget scenario. The pace of the film is carried on his broad back and skills as a motor mouth, acquired, I suppose, in part at Warner Brothers, where the machine gun speech patterns were part of the house style. (See most movies with Lee Tracy and James Cagney for classic examples). Lupo’s tendency to point out the porcine characteristics of his cohorts in almost every scene opens up a possible vein for a festive party game of sorts. If you have company while viewing this movie, try counting how many times and variations on “pig” you can spot. I lost count around the ninth reference, though some favorites include “trigger happy pig,” “crazy, hopped-up pig,” “I can buy and sell any of these pigs,” and “none of these pigs know how to spell,” though occasionally Brod lapses and calls someone simply “dummy” and “mallet head.” Despite this tendency toward verbal repetition, Crawford‘s Lupo has a certain noble poignancy, like a bull in the ring just before the kill. He seems to long for respite from the constant pressure of maintaining his facade of success, mob-style. He longs for a vacation in Florida (conveniently, since he needs to get out of town when a hit is made), appears bored with his bodacious mistress, and finds himself acquiescing to make an ill-advised hit on a government bigwig who reneges on a deal–all against his instincts. Both fatalistic and furious, Lupo spends much of the movie looking back to his youthful ties, his life on the docks (Crawford really did work as a stevedore as a young man), wondering where he went wrong in spoiling his daughter, turning to his youthful enforcer, Magellan as a bond grows between the two relatively solitary men.
3.) Lupo touches base with his Mama when things start to unravel. Played by the lovely Celia Lovsky, who isn’t given much to do, as usual, she suggests a woman with a down-covered spine of steel and innate gentle dignity that instantly marks her as one of the more admirable characters on screen in every scene. She does wring her hands, chides her boy (even if he is pushing 55, he’s still her baby), and tells him the rueful truth on occasion, which is more than most of his cowed minions do.
4.) Lupo eats something that his delicate stomach cannot tolerate whenever things get hairy; spurning the cream of wheat and ordering a salami on rye with a kosher pickle when things get really tense. Like any good executive in the ’50s, Brod seems to have an ulcer the size of his massive head. Eating seems to crop up in many scenes, including an amusing post-hit scene. When murderers Arnie and Whitey (the hulking Mike Mazurki and diminutive Bill Phillips, the Mutt and Jeff of the mob, as the DVD commentary points out) are leaving a hotel via the slowest elevator in NYC, Mazurki asks his queasy fcompanion in an elevator full of people if some steamed clams and devilled crab up in Sheepshead Bay might hit the spot. At other points, Crawford‘s Lupo rhapsodizes about some lobster newburg he had once. Later, when Lupo holes up in a hideout with his mistress Iris, played by the statuesque Marilyn Maxwell, (Champion, Key to the City, The Lemon Drop Kid), whose obvious charms are tinged with some understandable wistfulness, he suggests that a visitor stay for a bite, mentioning that the lacquered blonde is a pretty fair cook. The consumption of food, power, material goods and people seems to be part of the daily grind for most of these characters.
It’s tempting to see the Lupo character in Shakespearean terms, though the truncated action toward the last part of the film robs him as well as Magellan of that tragic dimension. Crawford imbues his character with the requisite toughness, but his hair trigger temper flares when dealing with his daughter, even as his heart breaks a bit each time she rejects him. He tries to be objective when dealing with his corrupt and often violent business, but he is also a family man. He “just doesn’t understand his kid anymore.” When his mother tells him that his daughter has left home for good after freeing her straight arrow boyfriend from the dubious honor of marrying into her family (despite his own family’s objections), Lupo is crushed, despondently murmuring “this is her home, she belongs here,” while also promising to knock some sense into her stubborn skull–once he finds her.
The “kid” is played by a sizzling Anne Bancroft, a young woman who seethes with rage and resentment toward her father, whose blood money has given her a lush life she is determined to escape. In a genre that sometimes defines the power of female characters rather narrowly as femme fatales or victims, Bancroft as Katherine Lupo creates a more complex, self-destructive figure who is filled with self-loathing, love for her father despite everything, and a powerful attraction to his seemingly cold, controlled henchman, Magellan (Conte). Magellan’s loyalty prevents him from acting on his impulses. His restraint is rooted more in loyalty than fear of his boss, though he does bristle at one point when Kathy, after needling and flirting with him, says “Jump, Fido, papa give you liver,” as he answers her father’s call from an adjoining room. Even though the two have an immediate, visceral connection from the first moment they meet–Kathy slaps the impudent hireling for accosting her and her date when they arrive at her door–the tantalizing possibility of the pair’s fusion sparks each of their scenes.
Later, after Magellan tracks down the runaway Mafia princess (Bancroft), he promises not to tell her father where she lives or works, but he does give her some hard-nosed advice about life while they share a dinner in a restaurant. “Take a look around you,” Conte says. “See that bus boy over there? He steals from the waiter. The waiter steals from the owner. The owner gyps the government…” Everyone’s dirty, according to Magellan, and no one has a choice in life about what they will be. “You’re in a bind, Kathy. You were in a bind before you were born. So was I…What should I have been instead? A banker? A big brain surgeon? My father was Frank Magellan. Could I have gone to Harvard or West Point?…So make the best of it…Hang on to what’s real,” he says, fingering his well tailored suit and handmade shirt. Though the film never addressed the issue directly in this movie (few films ever have), the reality of persistent discrimination against Italian-Americans was still flourishing when this movie was made. The assumption that hardworking people of Italian heritage are somehow “connected” persists to this day, in part because of the perpetuation of this crime-tinged image in movies. Even Richard Conte would find himself working in this same genre–achieving a much higher profile in the last years of his career–after playing the dapper Don Emilio Barzini in The Godfather (1972). (There are some accounts that Conte was slotted for the godfather role himself prior to the arrival of Brando on the scene). Despite all the decades of work and his skill, Richard Conte never quite escaped the world’s categorization, though at least he found a way to humanize his characters.
After listening to Magellan’s cynical view of life, a disconsolate Kathy whispers, “If I believed that I wouldn’t want to live anymore,” a remark that goes unnoticed until a later scene highlights its significance. Magellan’s orthodox determinism and efforts to play by his own sense of honor is shaken a few times, especially when Kathy turns up at his apartment to tempt him into hanging onto her for a change instead of his peculiar ideals. The sexual tension between the two is palpable, and Bancroft‘s fervor and despair becomes more touching as the film builds to an inevitable climax.
After the costume pictures, 3-D ape movies, and biopic musicals that a clueless Hollywood cast her in initially, this part reveals some of the real depth of Bancroft‘s talent for the first time on the screen. Seen from the perspective of her later performances in The Pumpkin Eater and The Miracle Worker, this film, Nightfall and The Girl in Black Stockings were better roles for her in the ’50s, but there is something particularly raw and intense about the way that Bancroft portrays her tortured character in this movie.
New York Confidential‘s inevitable denouement arrived too quickly for me. The last ten minutes of New York Confidential were not as satisfying as the first hour and ten minutes. My primary joy was derived from learning more about the way each character saw themselves and their place in the world. If you find yourself becoming attached to certain characters, hoping that somehow they will elude their often deserved fate, at least you can always watch it again to relish the pit stops on the royal road to ruin once again.
Despite some of the very good acting and the amusing aspects the film, there are several holes in the script, vivid characters disappear quite suddenly, and legions of character actors appear unexpectedly. One more party game that might be appealing to holiday revelers while watching this movie is “name that actor.” Everyone in the character actors valhalla shows up in this movie. There’s the ubiquitous, gravelly-voiced John Doucette, who appears as an unfriendly bar patron. Henry Kulky, looking like a hungover bear trying to remember where he hid his honey, pops up as an ominous angel of death turned mob flunky. George E. Stone stops by as an overeager guest at a mob party introducing his curvaceous client to the movers and shakers by repeating “She dances like Nijinsky!” Many more faces will probably look familiar to you as well, though they might be harder to identify as they flicker by rapidly. For instance, Ian Keith, an actor whose credits go back to his turn as John Wilkes Booth in D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) and whose searing portrayal of the hauntingly pathetic Pete Krumbein was unforgettable in Nightmare Alley (1947), appears in one scene of a mob board meeting. Keith had maybe two lines, one of which was simply the one word: “Hit!” Btw, I don’t recommend that you do anything foolhardy like take a drink every time a familiar face such as Frank Ferguson or Nestor Paiva shows up. If you do, you will have consumed so much cheer that you may wind up flat under the Christmas tree.
Below is the trailer for New York Confidential (1955), a lost gem that has been polished and reset in DVD for us to enjoy.
Many thanks to Alan K. Rode for his generous assistance.
For an earlier blog featuring Broderick Crawford please click here.
For an earlier blog in tribute to J. Carrol Naish, please click here.
*I made the mistake of reading several passages from the neglected tomes by Messrs. Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer while preparing to write this blog. As a result, I laughed out loud occasionally in my public library (prompting some sharp looks) and I started to get punchy due to their machine gun prose style and some of the more incredible remarks made in these long out of print books, (though they are readily available on the used market). “[R]acketeering has been the contribution of our immigrant hordes,”the authors warn us, and race mixing inevitably seems to lead to jazz clubs (!), drug addiction, moral laxity, communistic and socialistic ideas intertwining–removing our solid middle class values and sense of propriety. Considering that these guys practically give the reader a map to places to look for these near occasions of sin, it may be just as well that these sometimes revelatory and rancid books are out of print–though I hate to admit it, but their sense of sin almost seems quaint at times.
I came to the conclusion that their facts may have been off at times, since their works prompted many lawsuits. One of the more notorious was when they accused Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine of being a commie symp/fellow traveller in USA Confidential, leading to a lawsuit that eventually precipitated a public apology from them. In another instance of their broad brush techniques, Lait and Mortimer claimed that sales people at Neiman-Marcus were homosexuals and that the head of the company in Dallas was visited by call girls. This also–not surprisingly–led to another mea culpa, some unspecified damages being awarded (contemporary accounts differ over the amount)–though neither party’s sales seemed to have been negatively affected, unless you count the incalculable cost of having one’s veracity questioned, privacy invaded and reputation smeared.
Their own lives as newspaper men would make a corker of a movie. Lee Mortimer (1904-1963) was basically a nightclub reporter, who filled in for Walter Winchell when he was on vacation. In addition to being a reporter, he had his own column, was a radio commentator, hit the crime lecture circuit, was a night club show producer and had the “distinction” of having been struck by Frank Sinatra, who responded to a mumbled racial slur as they passed one another in a nightclub. Jack Lait (1883-1954) had a fifty year career in journalism writing a syndicated column called All in the Family for two decades, and working as the editor of the New York Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror for several years.
Learning their trade while working with talents such as Ring Lardner, O. Henry, and Ben Hecht, when asked if readers were supposed to take their books seriously, they told a New York Times interviewer in 1951, “No. The result is serious, but the intent is to be entertaining as far as the truth permits. Otherwise we’d be murdered and sued from the grave. We disclaim any purpose to reform or improve.” In 1952 alone, they faced book banning in the Bay State, and the Teamsters in Washington State threatened to sue bookstores for distributing their book.
Bernstein, Lee, The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America, Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2009.
Breit, Harvey, “Talk with Lait and Mortimer,” The New York Times, April 15, 1951.
Clarke, David B., The Cinematic City, Psychology Press, 1997.
Lait, Jack, Mortimer, Lee, New York: Confidential!, Ziff-Davis Pub. Co., 1948.
Lait, Jack, Mortimer, Lee, Washington: Confidential, Crown Publishers, 1951.
Lait, Jack, Mortimer, Lee, U.S.A. Confidential, Crown Publishers, 1952.
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