Monday, September 15, 2008

The Big Operator (MGM, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles returned I ran him one of the DVD’s he’d got from a private source as my last year’s birthday present; The Big Operator (MGM, 1959), produced by Albert Zugsmith for his independent company and quite obviously inspired by Estes Kefauver’s U. S. Senate investigation of labor-union corruption in general and Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union in particular. Directed by Albert Haas (a far cry from the directors Zugsmith had worked with at Universal-International before he went independent, including Jack Arnold, Douglas Sirk and Orson Welles!) from a script by Paul Gallico, Allan Rivkin and Robert Smith (Gallico and Rivkin had served time on the blacklist and one gets the impression that writing an anti-union story like this was a sort of penance imposed on them to prove that their renunciation of Left-wing politics was sincere), this was a movie I was a bit skeptical about because the Hoffa-esque labor leader at the center of the action, “Little Joe” Braun, president of the “Toolers’ Union” (i.e., the Machinists — well, machining is what the members of his union actually do for a living), was played by Mickey Rooney, and some of his previous attempts to extend himself into “straight” acting roles in crime thrillers had been a bit on the silly side.

As things turned out, Rooney’s performance was far and away the best thing in the film! He’s tough, authoritative, commanding and yet curiously vulnerable, much the way James Cagney (a short Irishman who played these gangster and semi-gangster types to perfection) is in his best films, and even Rooney’s enthusiasm, which in some of the Andy Hardy films made him almost unwatchable, here comes across as part of the character’s psychopathology. The force for good in this movie is Bill Gibson (Steve Cochran in a rare good-guy role, at which he’s surprisingly capable), honest rank-and-file union member who stands up to Braun at a public meeting (booing him when everyone else is applauding). The opening scene depicts the murder of the union’s treasurer, Bill Tragg (Charles Chaplin, Jr.), by a gang of Braun’s enforcers, led by Oscar “The Executioner” Wentzel (Ray Danton, with one of those itty-bitty moustaches that in old-line Hollywood always marked a character as a crook or at least a no-goodnick).

In a televised U.S. Senate committee hearing, Gibson and his best friend, Fred McAfee (Mel Tormé, in a straight acting role that’s less risible than his one in Girls’ Town if only because this time MGM wasn’t asking us to believe in him as a teenager, though lots of people could have played this better and at one point, when he’s reminiscing about his career, I joked, “Did I ever tell you about the hit song I wrote for Nat ‘King’ Cole?”), realize that they’ve actually seen Braun and Wentzel together and therefore they are the key witnesses that can put Braun away for perjury, since he’s just testified before the Senate committee that he not only had never met Wentzel but had never even heard of him before they asked if he knew him. Braun, predictably, first tries to buy Gibson and McAfee out by offering them jobs as organizers, then attempts to keep the support of the rank-and-file in general by ordering thugs to set up a picket line around the company where Gibson and McAfee work and declare a strike (the goon squad is led by a thug named Zatko, who in a typical bit of Zugsmith “gimmick” casting is played by Vido Musso, best known as the star tenor saxophonist for Benny Goodman in the 1930’s and Stan Kenton in the 1940’s!) which, because Braun also represents workers at the company’s principal raw-metal supplier, is over in a day or two with the workers promised a 15 percent raise and three weeks’ paid vacation.

When all else fails, Braun tries kidnapping, first seizing Gibson himself (after a low-level thug in his organization grabs McAfee and sets him on fire — in an ineptly directed scene, we don’t actually see McAfee burning, we just see him being dumped on Gibson’s doorstep and their wives covering him with a coat to put the fire out) and taking him to a house for interrogation and pressure on him to recant his testimony and tell the court instead that he didn’t see anything, he’s not sure, it was too dark, etc. They tape his eyes shut throughout this process so he can’t figure out where he is, and when they’re unable to break him they grab his son Timmy (played by Jay North, who was Dennis the Menace on the 1950’s live-action TV series based on Hank Ketcham’s comic) and threaten to kill the kid. Gibson enlists the aid of his wife (Mamie van Doren, who got shoved into just about everything Zugsmith produced during this period — and though she’s certainly physically alluring, as an actress she’s terrible, delivering all her lines in the familiar porn-star’s monotone), McAfee and his wife (Ziva Rodann), and the local police and attempts to retrace the route back to the house where he was interrogated, and where he presumes his son is now being held, via the noises he heard along the way and the time he took based on his own pulse.

Though weighed down by some of the “gimmick” casting (not all of which flops; Jackie Coogan is quite good in a bit role, as is former Western star Don “Red” Barry) and a lazy resort to old-fashioned gangster tropes in its shoot-out climax, for the most part The Big Operator is a quite good movie and Rooney’s performance is especially fine. Obviously this was a role that really turned him on, which most of the parts he was getting in the 1950’s didn’t; though it wouldn’t be a Rooney film if he didn’t overact, for the most part he keeps it under control and gives a chillingly effective reading of the role that really “makes” this film.