Friday, August 14, 2009

The Mob (Columbia, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Oddly, the second movie we watched last night, The Mob — likewise an urban drama about corruption, and also a Columbia Pictures production — was a good deal better. Indeed, the most ironic thing about it is that, three years before making On the Waterfront, Columbia did another story about corruption on the New York docks and made a film that, though hardly as “good” in terms of such indicia of quality as production values, stars and prestige names behind the camera, ended up as a good deal more exciting and fun to watch.

The Mob was based on a novel called Waterfront by Ferguson Findley, and was written by William Bowers and directed by Robert Parrish — hardly as much of a “name” to conjure with in the annals of all-time great directors as Joseph H. Lewis — but The Mob has a lot more noir atmospherics going for it (the cinematographer is old Columbia hand Joseph L. Walker, who shot most of the major Capras in the 1930’s) as well as much more in the way of excitement and proletarian credibility. Part of the latter is due to the choice of a star, Broderick Crawford, whom Columbia was desperate to cast because he’d risen from character actor to Academy Award winner in the lead in All the King’s Men (only because Columbia needed someone fast after Spencer Tracy withdrew from All the King’s Men at the last minute!), but he still wasn’t exactly the romantic leading-man type.

Here, though, he’s ideal in a custom-tailored role as Johnny Damico, a plainclothes police detective in New York City who, while on patrol in a driving rainstorm, watches a tall man in an overcoat and a hat worn low on his head shoot somebody. The shooter instantly claims to be a police officer himself -— “Lieutenant Henderson” — and even flashes an authentic police badge. Damico therefore lets him get away, and it’s only later when he meets his superior, Sgt. Bennion (Walter Klavun), that he finds out there’s no such New York cop as “Lieutenant Henderson” and the man he saw was really mob hit-man Blackie Clegg, whom he let get away with shooting a key witness in an upcoming case about waterfront corruption. As for the badge Clegg flashed, it was real all right — Clegg had taken it off the body of a cop he’d assassinated in a previous job assignment for the mob.

Bennion works out a plot to suspend Damico publicly — he even has a newspaper run a photo of him that’s really of a relative — but really assign him to infiltrate the gang undercover; he’s supposed to go to New Orleans, join the longshore union there, then get a job on a ship and work his way back to New York, then ask for a visitor’s permit and find out how the waterfront gang operates by doing longshore work and finding out how the syndicate extracts money from the workers as well as the shippers. The methods involved should be no surprise to anyone who’s seen On the Waterfront — involving kickbacks disguised as phony “charities” for injured workers; forced “loans” at massive rates of interest; as well as gimmicks that don’t involve the workers directly, like stealing valuable items from the cargoes of the ships they unload — though, if anything, The Mob is actually more progressive than On the Waterfront on at least one point: The Mob depicts the longshore union’s hierarchy as appalled by the corruption and working with the police to end it, while in On the Waterfront the union was itself part of the syndicate.

Using the name “Tim Flynn,” Damico bluffs his way into getting a visitor card and a highly coveted assignment driving a forklift (so he doesn’t have to handle cargo by hand). As part of his pose, he’s been ordered to be very combative and truculent, at one point accusing a gang of his fellow longshoremen of being “chorus boys” (Charles joked that they probably were chorus boys merely playing longshoremen!), and Crawford’s scenes in this mode are his most powerful bits of acting in the film. He makes us believe in him as a proletarian in a way Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, laden down by all his Method-actor tics and the gimmicks both in his performance and the script itself to make him seem “sensitive,” never did.

Where The Mob disappoints is in giving us too few scenes that actually take place on the docks — there’s no equivalent to the chilling scene in On the Waterfront in which the dock bosses throw the medallions that entitle their holders to a job that day at the workers like zookeepers feeding the animals, and the workers eagerly snap them up like zoo animals being fed — and it goes off the rails in its last half-hour by throwing so many reversals at us it gets confusing and one wonders whether William Bowers was a role model for Duplicity writer-director Tony Gilroy. We learn [spoiler alert!] that Clancy (Richard Kiley), whom Damico befriended in his cover identity as Flynn and sought out for help in working his way up the hierarchy in the docks, is himself an undercover agent — a federal one — and that Smoothie (Matt Crowley), the bartender at the misnamed “Royal Bar” attached to the fleabag hotel where Flynn and Clancy live, is really Blackie Clegg.

The film ends in a hospital, where Damico is being treated for wounds he suffered in a shoot-out and Clegg takes Damico’s fiancée Mary Kiernan (Betty Buehler, playing a typically nothing damsel-in-distress role) hostage until the police eventually manage to pick him off without hurting her — a confusing and low-energy ending for a movie that until then has been a quite credible crackerjack thriller and a good deal more entertaining than the more prestigious — but also much more pretentious — On the Waterfront, made by the same studio on the same subject three years later! And one interesting aspect of The Mob, was the number of future stars who appear in it in small roles, including Neville Brand (basically duplicating his appearance in D.O.A. as a hired gun for the bad guys who gets his sick psycho jollies by holding a gun on the hero as they’re riding together in the back seat of a car), Ernest Borgnine (as a gang boss) and even Charles Bronson (uncredited — if they had credited him, it would have been under his original last name, “Buchinsky” — as a longshoreman).