Sunday, September 14, 2014

New York Confidential (1955)

Between 1948 and 1952, a series of books with titles like 'New York: Confidential!' and 'Washington: Confidential!' were published; all written by journalist Jack Lait and newspaper columnist Lee Mortimer. These books described the seedy and criminal underbellies of various US cities in a pulpy and sensationalist manner, even if they were based on factual data and accounts. The series was quite popular, no doubt helped by the early 50s Kefauver Committee's investigation into organized crime and subsequent hearings of infamous mobsters. The hearings, and in turn the books, inspired numerous movies and TV and radio serials, including 1955's film noir 'New York Confidential'. The latter serving as inspiration for a TV series of the same name which aired 1 season in 1959.

Despite sharing a title with one of the Lait & Mortimer books, 'New York Confidential' the film was only 'suggested by' the books. The screenplay was written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, who worked together on a number of movies, including several other noirs such as 'D.O.A.', 'The Thief' and 'Wicked Woman'. They often wrote the screenplay together with Rouse then directing and Greene producing the film, as is the case here. Eddie Fitzgerald did the cinematography, having already worked with Rouse & Greene on 'Wicked Woman'. Joseph Mullendore wrote his first score for this movie. He then quickly moved on to scoring TV series like 'The Dick Powell Show' and 'Burke's Law'.

'New York Confidential' starts out in the semi-documentary style that was popular in the late 40s to mid 50s, where government agents would typically infiltrate some sort of criminal outfit to bust it from the inside. In these movies a voice-over usually starts the movie, explaining the racket that would be all but obliterated by the end of the movie. But after such an intro, 'New York Confidential' quickly shifts, focusing solely on the criminals. There is no infiltrator, no government agency, secretly fighting this organization. The main concern of the film is captured in one quote which would have served far better as the tagline instead of the essay sprawled on the poster seen above:
The organization comes first
The organization is split up into territories, with a boss in every major city, each running their own territory. The New York boss is Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford), who is about to make a multi-million dollar deal. To carry it out he needs the support of corrupt politicians and lobbyists. What he does not need is publicity, which is exactly what he's getting when a local mobster shoots one of his men as well as some innocent bystanders. The law of the street demands he retaliate, so Lupo 'borrows' up and coming hitman Nick Magellan (Richard Conte) from the Chicago territory to try and keep his involvement out of the public and police eye. Magellan deals with the manner swiftly and deadly. Lupo is impressed, and arranges for Magellan to come work for him permanently.
In the end, the deal still goes sour due to a corrupt lobbyist talking a bit too freely in an interview. All the territory bosses gather and vote unanimously to bump off the guy. Lupo is chosen to take care of it. He orders his heavy, Wendler (Mike Mazurki), and his crew to make the hit. However, a cleaning lady messes things up and the men have to flee the scene, shooting a cop in the process. Lupo now has to do some major damage control before things really blow up in his face and he orders Magellan to get rid of Wendler and his men. Magellan kills two of them, but Wendler is on to Lupo and tries to cut a deal with the authorities to save his own skin. This could bring down the entire syndicate and Lupo is held responsible... The other bosses want blood and once again Magellan is asked to draw it for them.

In a way, 'New York Confidential' shows a more realistic version of the large crime syndicates than was common for the time. It would be impossible for a single man, or even a small team of people, to bring down this kind of organization, so this does not happen here, with the organization still firmly in its place at the end of the movie. What it shows, is how these outfits take care of their internal problems. Somebody wants to sell out, he dies, no matter how high up in the organisation he is. Loyalty to the organization outweighs everything. But that also means there's danger around every corner, and it comes in many disguises. The movie has elements of the 30s gangster movies as well as more modern movies like 'The Godfather' and 'Scarface' (both the 30s version and the more famous 80s version), by focusing only on the gritty, kill-or-be-killed lifestyle of the gangsters.
A meeting... From every territory in the country they answer the summons. Names you seldom hear, faces you rarely see. The high court of organized crime, sitting in judgement. A judgement which is final, from which there is no appeal.
Richard Conte and Broderick Crawford play the two main characters in this movie, and they're both excellent. Crawford's Lupo is struggling with his health, clearly brought on by his immense responsibilities towards the organization, and certainly not helped by his temper, calling people pigs left and right, even slapping his daughter Kathy (Anne Bancroft) violently in a burst of outrage. He takes a shine to Conte's Magellan however, who is the son of someone he used to work with. He also sees in Magellan someone unlike his usual henchmen, smart, cunning, calculated and above all, extremely loyal.

Crawford is great here, throwing around his weight, both literally and figuratively, with ease and command. At times he speaks so fast you're left wondering if the movie is playing at the right speed. Conte is his usual intense self, restrained and graceful but with a malevolent menace brooding in his pitch-black eyes. Magellan experiences some inner conflict when he starts to have feelings for Kathy, but his loyalty to the organization and to Charlie prevent him from doing anything about it, and Conte manages to make this inner conflict seem real. Conte also played a criminal in the classic 1955 film 'The Big Combo', but with a much more violent and volatile personality. And he pulls off both characters so well. Seeing Conte in a noir is always a treat.

Bancroft's part is small, too small. Her Kathy loathes what her father does and what he stands for, and she despises Magellan for it as well; despite the obvious attraction between them. I wish more time had been given to her character, because Anne Bancroft is pretty good here, the way she both despises and is attracted to Magellan simultaneously is done really well. She makes only a few appearances throughout the movie, but her character adds depth to it, including a rather shocking and surprising appearance near the end, which had been alluded to earlier on. The other two female characters that inhabit the film are Mama Lupo (Celia Lovsky) who Charlie Lupo clings on to far too much, and Iris (Marilyn Maxwell), his girlfriend. I didn't much care for Mama Lupo, but Iris's character has more depth to it, played well by Maxwell. Iris comes off as a femme fatale in the movie until the final part where she shows she genuinely cares about Lupo. She may be a gold digger, and she certainly acts like it, but she's also human.

The movie is riddled with familiar faces, character actors that appeared in dozens of 40s & 50s movies, credited and uncredited. From Mike Mazurki ('Murder, My Sweet', 'Night And The City') to Nestor Paiva ('Alias Nick Beal', 'Rope Of Sand') to J. Carroll Naish ('Humoresque', 'Clash By Night'). More often than not as each new face appears you're left thinking 'Where have I seen this guy before?'

Visually the movie does not stand out and is shot in the flat style that was common in 50s noirs ('The Big Combo' was a notable exception). Still, the characters and the story are noir. Try and find a nice guy in this one. You'll come up empty handed. People get killed, left, right and center. And the people ordering the hits and executing them are the main characters here. Sure, Magellan has a soft spot for Lupo's daughter, and every noir-head has a soft spot for Richard Conte, but he's not sympathetic. His boss tells him someone has to die, he makes it happen. He doesn't question it, he simply does it. No matter what choices the characters make, they cannot control what happens to them, once the wheels are set in motion with the drive-by shooting of Lupo's guy, it's all just another ride on the downward spiral of doom.

There are some flaws in this one. It was shot on a tight budget, so most scenes take place on sets, making it feel static and even slow at times. It also has the unimaginative flat 50s look I mentioned before, I am not a fan. And to top it off there are a few plotholes that make little sense other than putting the right person, in the right place, at the right time. But oh well, nothing new. I'd still say not to pass up on this one. It not only has a great cast with equally great performances, but is also one of the bleaker noirs with some great assassination scenes to boot. Not a classic, but nowhere near a dud either...