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The Purple Gang
Warner Archive Collection

The Purple Gang
Warner Archive Collection
1959 / B&W / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date July 12, 2011 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring Barry Sullivan, Robert Blake, Elaine Edwards, Marc Cavell, Jody Lawrance, Suzanne Ridgeway, Joe Turkel, Victor Creatore, Paul Dubov, Kathleen Lockhart, Nestor Paiva.
Ellis Carter
Original Music Paul Dunlap
Written by Jack DeWitt
Produced by Lindsley Parsons
Directed by Frank McDonald

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Gangster pictures arrived fast and furious in 1959, and the Allied Artists release The Purple Gang produced by Lindsley Parsons is possibly the cheapest of the bunch. Singled out for special mention in the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition, The Purple Gang was a very real Detroit mini-syndicate that provided 'ancillary services' to the Capone mob in Chicago, while concentrating on hijacking shipments of Canadian booze. Also known as the Sugar House Gang in deference to their warehouse headquarters, the gang members were mostly Jewish punks, some of them just teenagers. More often than not they'd steal other hoodlums' liquor as it landed on the beaches, killing everyone in sight. The gang-on-gang violence in the quiet upstate region didn't spark the same outrage as did shooting in the city streets.

Screenwriter Jack De Witt ignores plenty of facts to shoehorn the story of The Purple Gang into an MPAA-safe script, starting with the gang's mostly Jewish background. We first see some gang members behaving like ordinary street punks, terrorizing mom 'n' pop merchants. Lt. Bill Harley (Barry Sullivan) is assigned to the problem, even though his pregnant wife Gladys (Elaine Edwards) begs him to keep clear. Just as Harley suspects, the leader of the Purples is Honeyboy Willard (Robert Blake), a charismatic and ambitious hood. While lifting a shipment from the well-connected Olsen Brothers, Honeyboy accepts an offer by Eddie Olsen (Joseph Turkel) to work directly for the mob. Lt. Harley makes inroads into the gang by establishing communication with young Hank Smith (Marc Cavell), a punk who idolizes Honeyboy yet has pangs of guilt. Harley won't let up, so the Purples retaliate by terrorizing his wife. She runs through a glass door and sustains life-threatening injuries. When Honeyboy decides to change to an even more violent, higher-profile style of operation, Eddie Olsen bows out, but one of his brothers stays on. The law finally closes in when a group of dry cleaners extorted by Honeyboy's gang cooperates with the cops.

"... the whole rhythm section was The Purple Gang ..."

For The Purple Gang producer Parsons uses every trick in the Sam Katzman playbook. Most of the film's scenes are shot at night with acceptable lighting and production values, but at least once in every reel a cheap montage takes over, superimposing shots of blazing revolvers firing with old "generic gangster" footage from the stock shot bin. Then the cast reappears wearing hats, or gloves, to show that they've come up in the world. By the fourth or fifth narrated montage we realize that these sections of the story are really a radio show. Since we keep returning to the same sets, the movie never seems to get anywhere, even though several years have passed and Honeyboy and Co. are supposed to be big shots. As an added attempt at relevance, Congressman James Roosevelt, son of FDR, appears in a prologue to tell us that crime is indeed a bad thing. Roosevelt produced some movies before enlisting in the Navy in WW2; in addition to his 1959 movie appearance, he also special-guested on TV's "What's My Line?" Director Frank McDonald's invisible career covered dozens of program pictures and TV shows. He doesn't add much distinction to The Purple Gang.

The obvious hook with the true facts of The Purple Gang is the teen angle: in 1959 movie screens were awash with juvenile delinquency pictures. But the script as written sticks with gangster clichés, not adolescent angst. Since the boys aren't seen to enjoy their spoils in the company of women, the 'sensitive' Hank Smith seems to have a special connection with the magnetic Honeyboy, a sociopath with delusions of grandeur. The chances are that no homoerotic tension was intended, although Hank does partially shift his allegiance over to the police figure represented by Lt. Harley.

All The Purple Gang really has to say is that punk kid killers are no damn good. Foolish reformer Joan MacNamara (Jody Lawrance) voices anachronistic psychological protests when Lt. Harley slaps around Honeyboy's surly pack of thieves. She pays for her concern by becoming an early victim of the ruthless Honeyboy. We can see harm coming to Harley's wife from a mile off, so that part of the narrative is fairly uninteresting.

The movie de-ethnicizes the Jewish Purples with names like Willard and Smith; in reality the "Olsen Brothers" went by the name "Bernstein." No hint is made of the Purples being hired to terrorize union organizers; so that historical angle is neutralized as well. All in all there's not a lot to interest viewers except the occasional bouts of violence. The most startling bit of mayhem happens right off the top, when the Purples chain two hoods to an anchor and give them the old Deep Six into lake Michigan. Later on, a snitch in the ranks takes a similar watery plunge, but in a coffin filled with concrete. What might have been a really frightening scene stays rather tame, as the details are suggested and not shown.

That leaves the cast to bring the show to life. Barry Sullivan's stock cop character has no distinguishing qualities. But Robert Blake takes his Honeyboy role and runs with it hard and strong. Honeyboy has real gravity, standing up well to hoods twice his size and showing a flair for tough guy dialogue that only a few gangster stars can muster. He's also a credible leader of his peers -- he knows that his cohorts are basically a bunch of malleable idiots asking for someone to tell them what to do. It's credible that a punk might shoot a woman simply based on Honeyboy's say-so. Robert Blake's career had more ups and downs than a yo-yo, but when he stayed away from pretentious material he could be excellent. Although his talent was obvious, I can see Honeyboy helping him to get his role in Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood. He singlehandedly keeps this picture afloat.

Joe Turkel makes an uncommonly calm gangster. His Eddie Olsen is less a mentor for Honeyboy than a partner who can tell when it is time to clear out before the fireworks start. Also doing well is frequent Sam Fuller actor Paul Dubov, as a reckless hood called Killer Burke. Burke doesn't know when to quit, and ends up biting the pavement with the rest of the Purples.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Purple Gang brings to light a gangster drama that's been out of reach practically forever. We can imagine the violence and juvenile crime angle being responsible for the lack of reissues or TV sales. The film's period atmosphere is so tenuous that impressionable teens in the early '60s might assume it to be a contemporary tale.

The original printing elements for The Purple Gang have probably been languishing in studio vaults for fifty years. The WAC's discs look great, with only few marks here and there. Crime fans looking for elusive titles will be curious to check out this gangland rarity.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Purple Gang rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: None
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 3, 2011

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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