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Another prime noir that goes unheralded, Allied Artists' The Gangster is an evocative and moody little anomaly. Gordon Wiles had a scattered career, dividing his time between directing and serving as an art director. He passed away in 1950, after working on Cyril Endfield's acidic The Underworld Story. The accomplished screenwriter Daniel Fuchs wrote an admirable roster of film classics, including the key noirs Criss Cross and Panic in the Streets. The Gangster suffers from a generic title, but viewers will find it a diverting story of the fall of an established hood. With its ensemble cast and amusement pier setting, the movie plays a bit like Graham Greene's Brighton Rock or Gerald Kersh's original novel of Night and the City. Not an action show, the movie saves its violence for the final act. At other times it pauses for decidedly strange effects, always underpinning its story of betrayal and doom with more levels of sadness and misery. Barton Fink might have written this, had he been more talented.
For seven years Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) has had the rackets tied up around the Neptune Beach boardwalk. Getting it done put a scar on his cheek, but he's finally arrived. Everyone pays him for protection, and he insulates himself by using café owner Nick Jammey (Akim Tamiroff) as his collector. The money he rakes in controls the local hoods and keeps the police out of his business. But Shubunka's mind isn't on business, lately, it's on his new heartthrob Nancy Starr (Belita) a local singer who wants to be a Broadway actress. Shubunka keeps her in furs and a fancy apartment, but worries that he's being used. Nancy claims otherwise and shames him when her 'secret rendezvous' turns out to be a harmless appointment with a theatrical agent, Beaumont (Leif Erickson). The nervous Jammey warns Shubunka that an outside mob is moving in, but the gangster is too distracted to pay him any attention. But the new-style gang lord Cornell (Sheldon Leonard) has already gained a foothold on the neighborhood. When Shubunka finally realizes that his fiefdom is threatened, it's too late to mount a defense.
Barry Sullivan makes the best of his rare starring role in The Gangster. Shubunka is like a feudal lord too caught up in his personal desires to realize that his kingdom is slipping out of his fingers. He continues to shower lavish gifts on Nancy Starr, even though she never seems to have much time for him. When she whines that he's getting too worked up or suspicious, Shubunka backs down, accepting her word that he's the only man in her life. The other great performance is from Akim Tamiroff, whose Nick Jammey frets that Shubunka doesn't take his warnings seriously enough to return phone calls. Jammey gets pressure from the outside hoods and Shubunka just tells him to ignore them. Shubunka talks incessantly about the brutal things he had to do to get on top, but the people around him either hate him or become more frightened. Jammey's cashier Dorothy (Joan Lorring) leads the chorus of voices that talk about Shubunka behind his back. He has no illusions of love from the denizens of Neptune Beach.
The Gangster has a fistful of great character parts, with colorful appearances by Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Murray Alper, Jeff Corey and Sid Melton. Two side stories in the café stand out. Soda jerk Shorty (Henry Morgan) fancies himself a ladykiller, and suffers a humiliating date with the stuffy Mrs. Ostrolong (Fifi D'Orsay). Even more pathetic is the desperate gambler Karty (John Ireland), who owes big money and blames Jammey and Shubunka for not bailing him out. In the movie's most touching (and theatrical) scene, a pair of patrons in a booth at closing time talk about the difficulty of romantic relationships. Meanwhile, Mrs. Karty (Virginia Christine) enters to beg her miserable drunk of a husband to come home. He wants nothing to do with her. The scene is a little pretentious, but in a very pleasing way.
This scene is echoed in a scene in screenwriter Fuchs' Hollow Triumph, when Joan Bennett has a breakdown of morale and admits that when a woman runs out of options, she'll lower her standards to grab at even a hope of happiness. The Gangster plays a similar note of human melancholy, and its portrait of the "low company" around Shubunka's twisted world is very affecting.
We of course know where the story's going, as Fuchs' script makes it clear that a noose is tightening around Shubunka's neck. The end comes in a whirlwind of betrayal, murder, and ironic indifference. Shubunka hopes that Dorothy might finally understand him, but she's replaced by a new cashier, Hazel, who doesn't know Shubunka from Adam. But we know her -- Hazel is played by Shelley Winters. It's her 17th screen role, and just one away from her major "discovery" in George Cukor's A Double Life.
Barry Sullivan and Belita were a romantic re-pairing from Allied Artists' interesting Suspense of the previous year. These were big features for AA and made to highlight the name change from Monogram Pictures. Art Director Frank Paul Sylos provides some impressive sets including an interior/exterior of the Neptune Beach pier. Director Gordon Wiles' work is enhanced by cinematographer Paul Ivano, who shot Von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture and Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy. Neptune Beach is an enclosed little kingdom about to undergo a palace coup. Even when the end is near Shubunka retains his bitter view of life, saying that his only sin is that he wasn't tough enough, shouldn't have trusted anyone and shouldn't have loved anybody. It's a hardcore noir attitude.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Gangster is a really fine transfer of this worthy little gem, with its collection of characters both deluded and disillusioned. The B&W image is sharp and clean, and the audio matches. With this new release most of the key early King Bros. crime films are now on disc: Dillinger, Suspense and Joseph H. Lewis's sublime Gun Crazy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gangster rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.