Monday, April 27, 2015

Chicago Syndicate (1955)

Film noir is littered with titles referring to US cities: 'Inside Detroit', 'New York Confidential', 'Miami Exposé', 'New Orleans Uncensored', 'The Las Vegas Story' and so on. The windy city, Chicago, might top them all however in this list with 'Chicago Deadline', 'Chicago Confidential', the near-noir 'Chicago Calling', the proto-noir 'Gangs Of Chicago', and this one, 'Chicago Syndicate'. Released in 1955, it's also part of another long list of noirs, those dealing with exposing crime rackets. They became very popular after the Kefauver hearings in the early 50s, as I already mentioned in my review of 'New York Confidential'.

In this movie, Chicago's criminal top dog is Arnie Valent (Paul Stewart). By setting up countless small legitimate outfits as fronts for his less legal activities, and by using strawmen in his books, he's virtually untouchable for law enforcement. His top accountant however is ready to spill the beans to a newspaper editor, only get get gunned down by Valent's men outside the newspaper office. The newspaper editor and several city officials convene and decide they need an inside man to find something they can use on Valent. That man is Barry Amsterdam (Dennis O'Keefe), an accountant with an army background. After dropping hints he saw the hit and a talk with Valent he lands himself a job as an accountant for one of Valent's legitimate insurance firms. By first saving the company money on some big claims, and then showing Valent his top men are holding out on him, he works himself up to Valent's personal accountant. But before he can get to Valent's books, the ones with his name in them, he has to deal with Valent's girlfriend Connie (Abbe Lane) and socialite and high stakes gambler Sue Morton (Allison Hayes) who has her own reasons for wanting to get close to Valent.
'Winters said you were a bright boy.'
'I'm bright enough to be a coward where the syndicate is concerned.'
The movie's climax takes place in a tunnel system below Chicago, supposedly used for moving stock from a central warehouse to department stores around the city without having to deal with traffic. It's short but sweet, altho not coming close to similar and more memorable underground/tunnel scenes like those from 'He Walked By Night' and 'The Third Man'. But for a B-movie which this clearly is, it's really well-done.

Dennis O'Keefe is best known in noir circles for his lead roles in the Anthony Mann/John Alton noirs 'Raw Deal' & 'T-Men'. He appeared in a ton of noirs tho, mostly for B-studios. In some ways he always reminds me of a poor man's Alan Ladd, and like Ladd, he's perfect for film noir. He has the right look and stoic expressionless face. His Barry Amsterdam doesn't take the inside job out of a sense of duty or injustice, the only reason he's interested is the $60K reward that the group is offering him, so he can start up his own accounting firm. A nice touch, which helps set this movie apart from the usual breed of 'brave' men in these movies. His adversary here, Paul Stewart, was an accomplished actor, both on the screen and in radio, having paid his dues in Orson Welles's Mercury Group. Like O'Keefe he appeared in many noirs, such as 'Champion' and 'Kiss Me Deadly'. He is great here, giving a sophisticated edge to Valent, while also showing Valent to be from the streets when he visits his mother in one of Chicago's lower class districts with Amsterdam.

Allison Hayes plays a tricky role here, as Sue Morton is only an alias, she's really somebody else. That reveal comes at the halfway point of the movie, both for Barry Amsterdam and the viewer. It adds an extra plotline to the movie, and Hayes pulls it off well. I also liked that her character and Amsterdam have obvious chemistry, but don't really do anything about it, they're both 'all business' in a sense. Contrast that with Abbe Lane's Connie, who is only about one thing, her relationship with Valent and more importantly, everything that comes with it. She's jealous and suspicious, trusting nobody except Valent and her bandleader, played by Lane's husband Xavier Cugat. Cugat was a bandleader in real life, he and his orchestra appeared in several movies, primarily those with Lane in them. They also do a few musical numbers here, with Abbe Lane singing, she's not dubbed as was often the case in these noirs. Lane does an nice job of portraying a beautiful and jealous woman, including a scene where Connie and Sue exchange catty remarks back and forth before enaging in a catfight.
'Everything gets better with age... except women.'
The names behind the camera are far more obscure. Director Fred F. Sears did direct several of the city noirs mentioned before, together with one half of this movie's duo of cinematographers, Henry Freulich. The other half, Fred Jackman Jr. lensed B-noirs like 'The Night Holds Terror' and 'They Made Me A Killer'. They managed to give the movie a decent, if unimaginative, look. The writers were also fairly undistinguished, Joseph Hoffman and William Sackheim. The crew does show what experience and workmanship can accomplish, as this is by no means a bad movie, it is well-paced and well-made.

As per usual, the movie ends with voice-over narration. But unlike most of these crime-busting noirs, the words spoken are not of the patronizing 'The brave government agents saved the day, order has been restored, you can sleep safely at night again.' sort, but more cynical, as it also implies that everybody, not just law enforcement agents, but also the general public needs to stay on their toes to keep the syndicate from rising up again. A nice touch to an above-average movie. 'Chicago Syndicate' is no classic by any standard, but it's well worth the effort.


1 comment:

  1. What a coincidence. I've just watched this and enjoyed it. Great shots of Chicago.