Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The surprising popularity of the 1959 television show The Untouchables reignited interest in gangster pictures. A changed Production Code made it possible for movies like Al Capone to use the real names of Prohibition-era gangland figures and to depict some of their violence realistically. Murder Inc. fashions a fictional story around the activities of such notorious notables as Lepke Buchalter, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, Mendy Weiss and Albert Anastasia. Based on a best seller by Sid Feder and Burton Turkus, the Assistant District Attorney assigned to break the mob, the film uses some historical facts to good effect.
The psychotic mob hit man Abe Reles, known as Kid Twist (Peter Falk) uses a loan debt to force unemployed singer Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman) into criminal service. Joey's wife Eadie (May Britt) resists but is raped by Reles. When Reles' boss Lepke Buchalter (David J. Stewart) goes into hiding, Joey and Eadie are made to cook and tend for him in a swank Manhattan safe house. The ruthless Lepke is tricked into turning himself in to investigator Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) and goes to prison for relatively minor offenses. Fearing that his associates will implicate him in capital crimes, Lepke has his main assassin Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard) start killing off the insider witnesses to his murders -- a long list of names that includes Reles, Joey and Eadie.
Noted for its grim violence and good acting, Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg's account of the 30s racket known as Murder Inc. was simplified and sanitized for the screen. Lepke Buchalter at one time employed 200 hired killers and the power and reach of his organization was frightening. Lepke's associate Lucky Luciano had most of the New York rackets tied up and was expanding to the West by sending Bugsy Siegel to Los Angeles. Albert Anastasia was technically the head of the Brooklyn clan, but Lepke's appointment to the head of Murder Inc. gave him a special edge.
Murder, Inc. starts with Lepke's Brooklyn organization winning the 'overall contract' for the mob's dirty work, providing precise, clean and dependable assassinations. The top killer Abe Reles had seized his Brownsville turf by literally burying his competition alive. He was a tough short guy with an inflated ego and no conscience. He sneered at judges and once told a court, "I will take on any cop in the city with pistols, fists, or anything else." Peter Falk plays Reles with a frightening mix of nerve and malice that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He performed the same character on a Television drama called The Witness the same year.
Mel Barr and Irve Tunick's script passes over most of the brutal detail in Burton Turkus' book, preferring to show a standard series of mob hits backed by a contrived melodramatic situation. While Stuart Whitman and May Britt play conventional gangster victims, Falk's Reles inhabits his role on a different plane entirely. When he flies into a rage and attacks Eadie, we realize that his entire involvement with Joey was a ruse to get at her. The film isn't about Murder Inc. as much as it covers this fictional husband and wife affected by the killers. The Joey Collins character seems to be loosely based on one Pretty Levine, a garbage truck driver who became a mob flunky after borrowing money to pay his wife's medical bills. Murder, Inc.'s Joey does the same for Eadie. He works for Reles by transporting dead bodies in cars, another detail attributed to Pretty Levine.
Assistant D.A. Burton Turkus is played by Henry Morgan, a television personality popular on talk and quiz shows of the time. He teams with Simon Oakland's detective to put pressure on the mob. Realizing that his boss Lepke has him on a kill list, Falk's Reles turns state's evidence but taunts Turkus with the knowledge that his testimony will be useless without corroboration from another stool pigeon. Joey refuses to cooperate, forcing Eadie to use extreme means to get him to change his mind.
Detractors point to Murder, Inc.'s implication that organized crime is easily toppled when courageous witnesses help dedicated lawmen. The unraveling of the mob only happened because Lepke Buchalter turned against his own organization to save himself; forcing key people like Reles to turn themselves in or be murdered. The film avoids mention of the widespread complicity of judges and the police with mob activities. Abe Reles, for instance was arrested dozens of times and served little time in jail. With the profits from drugs, labor racketeering and extortion, the mob had plenty of money to suborn officials of the law. Murder, Inc. repeats the myth that organized crime is somehow separate from "normal" society, when it obviously thrives on the passive cooperation of the population at large.
The medium-budget picture has many atmospheric night scenes but is short on period detail. Although the events depicted reach from about 1934 to 1941 the film story appears to cover only a few months. Excellent casting compensates, with Joseph Bernard and David J. Stewart especially loathsome as the mob bosses. Among the cast of victims and innocent bystanders is Morey Amsterdam (The Dick Van Dyke Show) as a luckless club owner and young Sylvia Miles and Seymour Cassel as young kids in a diner. Singer Sarah Vaughan sings in one nightclub scene, and a youthful Vincent Gardenia makes a brief appearance as well.
Fox's DVD of Murder, Inc. is a fine enhanced transfer of this good-looking B&W CinemaScope production. Cameraman Gayne Rescher (A Face in the Crowd) must not have had access to the newest 'Scope lenses, for faces tend to distort in close-up scenes. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
Co-directors Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg keep the pace fast and impart an efficient brutality to the various mob hits depicted. Balaban didn't have a long career, although his gangster film Mad Dog Coll introduced actor Gene Hackman and has become a cult favorite. Stuart Rosenberg was much more prolific in Television work before breaking back into feature directing with Cool Hand Luke seven years later.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murder, Inc. rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson