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"You don't set anybody on fire unless I tell you to, you understand?!"
In the late 1950s producer Albert Zugsmith went on a cinematic search for popular exploitation hits, making several offbeat movies with minimal resources and roughly the same group of actors. A distribution deal with MGM resulted in movies linking the themes of teenagers, crime, rock 'n' roll and jazz in various mixtures: High School Confidential!, Night of the Quarter Moon, The Beat Generation, Girls Town and Platinum High School. Zugsmith connected three times with ex- MGM star Mickey Rooney. The multi-talented Rooney was a busy player trying to re-brand his stardom, in several directions at once. He was excellent in a supporting role in the comedy Operation Mad Ball, and also won major attention in a live TV drama, John Frankenheimer's The Comedian. At the moment he was also on a crime film kick, and still wanted to star on the big screen.
1959's The Big Operator is an old-fashioned crime film trying to cash in on latest wave of gangster tales: Al Capone, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, King of the Roaring 20's. Mickey Rooney takes the lead in a contemporary story about a racketeering union boss. Made on the cheap and dotted with odd casting choices, The Big Operator is noted mostly for one sequence -- a fairly intense torture session.
Life in America is great for machinists Bill Gibson and Fred McAfee (Steve Cochran & Mel Tormé until they run afoul of their corrupt, tyrannical (and deranged) union boss "Little" Joe Braun (Mickey Rooney). Little Joe's thugs Lou Green and Oscar "The Executioner" Wetzel (Norman Grabowski & Ray Danton) have just tossed a dissenting union official into the back of a cement mixer. Little Joe becomes paranoid when he sees Bill and Fred on the street. He tries to buy off their silence with easy jobs and big salaries, but they don't bite. Little Joe then calls their machine shop out on strike without a vote, so he can extort money from management. Bill and Fred volunteer to testify for anti-racketeering politician Ciff Heldon (Jim Backus), and The Executioner retaliates by setting Fred on fire. Little Joe then has Bill and his son Timmy (Jay North) kidnapped, to silence the honest union man's testimony.
Mickey Rooney never coasted through a film role. In this show his powerhouse performance is let down by a shabby script and rushed direction of Charles H. Haas, who spent most of his career in Television. Poor blocking neutralizes Little Joe's intimidating manner, making him look like cheap blowhard. At one point a sliding panel reveals Rooney red-handed, threatening young Timmy in a hidden room - what's supposed to be a big moment comes off as funny. The screenplay isn't particularly subtle. Little Joe offers the two clock-punchers lavish jobs, and they're too stupid to guess why. He chomps his cigar and makes eyes at Bill's demure, unsuspecting wife -- Mamie Van Doren! Rooney also gets the silliest line of dialogue, when his sinister hit man Ray Danton oversteps his authority and turns poor Mel Tormé into a human torch. Rooney: "You don't set anybody on fire unless I tell you to, you understand?!"
The Big Operator is just plain odd. The normally arresting Ray Danton is an almost completely ineffective hit man. Sex icon Mamie Van Doren plays a sweet and unaffected housewife and mother -- no stripping, hip-wiggling or gravity-defying brassieres. Strapping tough guy Steve Cochran is a meek workaday dope unaware that testifying against a mob maniac might have consequences for his family. Bill is such a dope that he obeys an anonymous phone call instructing him to meet a stranger in a secluded location, and not tell anybody about it. The 'casting against type' doesn't really work. Van Doren looks as though she wants to tear her clothes off. Cochran is so much rougher looking than any of the bad guys, we don't believe it when they push him around.
And was Mel Tormé a masochist or what? In TV's The Comedian he's bullied without mercy by Rooney's character. In this show he suffers what look like massive third-degree burns. We almost believe the 'toast Mel' scene was an afterthought, for Fred turns up a little later in good shape, wearing only a couple of bandages. He even participates in the film's climactic brawl.
You may have noticed that Old Hollywood was never pro-labor; exposés about strikes and riots almost always slammed Labor leaders as racketeers, or communists. The union men in The Big Operator are pawns in the grip of a corrupt monster. Carrying a pass from Little Joe, thug Leo Gordon just goes to the shop foreman and demands a featherbed job. The workers discover that they're on strike when hired goons turn over a car and block the factory gates. 1 At home our clueless heroes coach their sons to fight over minor disputes. They don't understand that Little Joe is trying to bribe them, and neither do they really understand what the racketeering investigators are all about. For a while there, Bill and Fred remind us of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.
The torture scene does become a little dangerous, when Bill has tape strips put over his eyes. His negotiations with Little Joe Braun at least make sense, when they argue whether or not Bill has a chance to survive. Little Joe's strategies make little sense, in that no tyrant can keep all of his workers terrorized, all the time. In an early scene in an open meeting he tears up Fred's union card, proving to all that he's a worthless rat. He spots two union members outside their own union hall and goes berserk. How'd he ever become a big wheel? 1
In the final reels The Big Operator generates some suspense from an old story gag. Bill has been blindfolded on his way to and from the house where Timmy is held captive. He finds his way back by remembering dips in the road, and audio cues that he heard. He counts his own pulse rate to measure how far he's gone. It works well enough, but a cheap sound effects job doesn't help much.
Al Zugsmith's eclectic stock company of supporting characters would seem to be the producer's personal pals. Jackie Coogan is another union bigwig and Maila Nurmi (billed again as 'Vampira') has a bit outside a jazz club. Norman Grabowski is well cast as a thug. Trumpeter-bandleader Ray Anthony is Mamie Van Doren's husband. Just the year before Anthony belted out the title tune solo for Zugsmith's classic sci-fi hit The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Big Operator is in perfect shape. The B&W CinemaScope looks sharp, even with Walter H. Castle's flat TV lighting. The blaring soundtrack music by Van Alexander (apparently from Mickey Rooney's TV show) opens the film on a jazzy note.
Olive's text says that Rooney 'took a departure from musical comedy roles' when his last such film role was arguably 1953's Off Limits.. But they do nail producer Zugsmith by calling him "the king of the tawdry B-picture".
The Big Operator bears a production credit to 'Fryman Enterprises', which also put together the Mickey Rooney / Albert Zugsmith pictures Andy Hardy Comes Home, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve... and the critically lauded, nowhere-to-be-seen Don Siegel / Mickey Rooney gangster noir Baby Face Nelson. If Olive Films can gain access to that rare gem, we're ready for it to surface, the sooner the better.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Operator Blu-ray rates:
1. The dark and brutal-looking Steve Cochran plays a detective in Zugsmith's better-known The Beat Generation, from the same year. His detective in that show is trying to catch a slick, psychotic rapist who preys on housewives (a much better role for Ray Danton). Cochran is again not very bright -- he fails to realize that his own wife (Fay Spain) will become the clever Danton's next target.
"Glenn, you remind me of a meme... or, a picture from your Saturday Column does:
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