In 1940, Metro Goldwyn Mayer produced a short subject called Jack Pot as part of their gritty "Crime Does Not Pay" series. Viewable on Warner Archives' terrific Crime Does Not Pay set, the film matter-of-factly delved into the then-current epidemic of racketeers pressuring small business owners to stock slot machines for their customers to play, then hogging all the profits for themselves. Dated and sometimes funny though it was, Jack Pot followed the template of the other "Crime Does Not Pay" shorts by delving into a hot-button subject concisely and with little fuss.
What does all this have to do with Hoodlum Empire, a 1952 drama recently reissued on home video by Olive Films? Well, Hoodlum Empire is basically Jack Pot dragged out five times longer, gummed up with Rashomon-style flashbacks, a few too many unnecessary characters, and Claire Trevor as a flamboyant party gal. All in service of the simple message - that racketeering can turn the most decent of men into amoral thugs.
Although the packaging on Hoodlum Empire highlights the never-uninteresting Trevor and her co-star Brian Donlevy (he of the flinty gaze and underdeveloped mustache), the film primarily focuses on a regular-guy character by the name of Joe Gray, played by John Russell. The tall, square-jawed Gray is a former gangster who served honorably as a soldier in World War II. Back in the U.S., Gray has made an effort to go straight by running a gas station with a few of his ex-Army buddies. His respectability is being called into question, however, when he is called upon by Donlevy's Senator Bill Stephens to testify in a court case investigating the shady activities of some of his former colleagues. Once they find out that Gray is testifying, the men under investigation - which include snaky mob boss Nick Mancani (Luther Adler) and hit man Charly Pignatalli (Forrest Tucker) - take extra steps to ensure that he won't be a stool pigeon. Causing undue stress on Gray and his patient wife, Marte (Vera Ralston), the thugs' bullying escalates towards outright deadly consequences.
Hoodlum Empire decently serves as an entertaining, ungainly piece of quasi-noir, produced with some thoughtfulness by Republic Pictures (although it's weirdly overlit and artificial, often making it appear like a filmed stage production). At times, however, the film just about unravels due to the muddled way it's structured. It might as well be presided over by an over-caffeinated Oprah Winfrey, shouting "You get a flashback, and you get a flashback, and you get a flashback!" Yep, just about every major character here gets their own flashback, sometimes remembering scenes that they aren't even participating in (huh?). Supplying background on various characters' motives - we learn that Joe Gray once dated Trevor's hardened society belle, Connie Williams, dumping her once he fell for Ralston's Marte in France - the flashbacks were obviously meant to add a touch of distinction to this otherwise routine crime drama. It would have been an infinitely more absorbing story had it been told in a straightforward manner, though.
Another hard to swallow aspect to Hoodlum Empire lies in its depiction of Joe Gray as some All-American everyman. As played by the angular Western actor John Russell, the character comes across as a wishy-washy and not particularly interesting protagonist. His criminal past coming back to haunt him affords some shading to this otherwise bland-as-milk guy, an aspect that could have been convincingly done by a better-grade actor (John Garfield or Dane Clark, perhaps?). Joe's French wife is adequately played by Vera Ralston, the actress Republic tried and failed to make into a movie star. Claire Trevor and Forrest Tucker provide some color for a film that desperately needs it; Gene Lockhart and Grant Withers also appear as, respectively, a sanctimonious senator and a friendly priest - two characters who meet very different fates.
Note: image does not reflect the contents of the Hoodlum Empire blu ray.
The Blu Ray:
The video quality on the Hoodlum Empire Blu Ray is along the same lines as other vintage films released by Olive, meaning it looks fabulous. The print they acquired for this reissue is crisp and clear, showing just a few instances of dust specks and white dots. The picture is detailed without looking overly sharpened, with excellent levels of dark and light.
The only audio option available is the film's original mono soundtrack, a decent mix with a pleasantly modulated balance between dialogue and sound effects (aside from the opening credits, there is very little music scoring). No subtitles or alternate audio is provided.
Hoodlum Empire is a decent, workmanlike drama on how the crackdown on an illegal slot machine racket affected a diverse group of people. The strange, flashback-heavy structure used on this 1952 drama doesn't do it any favors, however - nor does the ultra-bland lead character, played by square-jawed John Russell. Olive Films' Blu Ray edition supplies a good gloss to this undistinguished potboiler. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.