Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Case Against Brooklyn (Morningside/Columbia, 1958)

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

Charles and I settled in and watched a movie: The Case Against Brooklyn, which TCM ran on their night of undercover-cop movies right after The Undercover Man (which didn’t really feature an undercover man!) and The Mob (which did). It was also a Columbia release, co-produced with an outfit called Morningstar (which may have been a “collapsible” production company formed to make just one film) and directed by hack Paul Wendkos from a story inspired by an article by reporter Ed Reid for True magazine. The film credits Daniel B. Ullman with the story and “Raymond T. Marcus” with the screenplay from it, though “Marcus” was actually a pseudonym for blacklisted writers Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet.

The plot of this one has Darren McGavin playing Pete Harris, a former Army intelligence officer who after the war (which one? Probably Korea, since 1958 seems a bit late in the day for the character to be a World War II veteran, though an opening title specifies the time of the story as “a few years ago”) leaves the Army to join the New York Police Department and is just about to graduate from the police academy when the film opens. Actually the film begins with the sad tale of Gus Polumbo (Joe De Santis), who’s got himself $5,800 in debt to a bookie ring run by Finelli (Nestor Païva, a good deal heavier than he was in the “Black Lagoon” movies just four years earlier!) and is being told to come up with the money that day — or else! That night he’s ambushed in the auto garage he runs and beaten up while his wife Lil (Margaret Hayes), who was supposed to meet him so they could go out to a show, catches sight of what’s going on. Unable to raise any money for his gambling debt and knowing that the gangsters are just going to keep beating him up regularly until he either pays up or dies, Gus loads his truck and drives it at a frantic pace, ultimately losing control, running off the road and dying in the accident — actually a suicide but made to look like an accident so his widow can collect under the double indemnity clause of his life insurance policy. (We see the ominous words “DOUBLE INDEMNITY” stamped across the face of the policy — and we can’t help but flash back to the far better 1944 movie of that title.)

Then we cut to the office of Kings County district attorney Michael W. Norris (Tol Avery), who’s aware that the bookie ring has bribed cops not only to look the other way and allow it to operate, but actually shoot people who get too close to its operations. He figures that the way to combat it is to requisition newly graduated police officers, fresh from the academy and therefore, as he puts it, unaware that to all too many veteran cops “honesty” is a dirty word. Because of his intelligence background, Pete Harris is a “natural” for this assignment, but there’s one nagging detail: in order to get information on the gang, he has to pursue an affair with the widow Polumbo — even though he’s already married to Jane (Peggy McKay). The D.A. outfits him with an apartment near Polumbo’s garage, where he rents space for his car and pursues his acquaintance with the widow — who genuinely likes him and finds herself attracted to him.

Meanwhile, the police decide to rotate the officers’ beats so there’ll be a new group of people patrolling the Brooklyn territory of the bookie ring — only within a week the syndicate’s agents have got to them, too — and events move towards a climax when the syndicate’s hit man, Rudi Franklin (Warren Stevens, easily the most charismatic and interesting actor in the film), catches Pete’s partner Jess Johnson (Brian Hutton) changing tapes in the recorder with which they’re taping Finelli’s wiretapped phone conversations, reports him as a prowler and gets crooked cop Detective Sergeant Bonney (Robert Osterloh) to kill him. Meanwhile, Jane calls the number of Pete’s “cover” apartment and Lil answers — and Jane naturally leaps to the wrong conclusion and decides her husband is having an affair. The fact that he may be doing so in the line of duty predictably cuts no ice with her, and just as we’re beginning to wonder what long-term effect this is going to have on Pete’s and Jane’s relationship when the case is over, the bad guys turn the tables on Pete and bug his apartment (his “real” home with Jane), then send up a phony “repairman” with a booby-trapped phone that explodes when Jane answers it, killing her. (Thus the film turns towards the end into a semi-remake of The Big Heat, though in that movie the honest cop’s wife dies considerably earlier, also as a result of a booby-trap meant for her husband, and thus the ensuing affair-ette between the hero and the demi-monde girl he’s pumping for information is more poignant and less kinky.)

The shock of the loss of his wife turns Pete from a cool, calm, collected law-enforcement officer into a prototype of Dirty Harry, throwing his gun at the D.A. and going out after Rudi with every intent of killing him, but at the end the baddies are taken alive and Pete even smokes out the big boss of the outfit — and there’s a quirky final scene in which Pete and Lil meet again, only there’s no reunion; she’s leaving town and they say a bittersweet goodbye at the fade-out. The Case Against Brooklyn — a title suggesting an even more far-reaching criminal conspiracy than the one actually depicted — isn’t exactly fresh and original storytelling, and there are some wrenching bits like the voice-over narrator who suddenly appears on the soundtrack about 20 minutes in, but it’s basically a good movie, maintaining interest even as it travels down well-worn dramatic paths, and McGavin (as he usually did) turns in an unspectacular but workmanlike performance even though Warren Stevens steals the movie out from under everyone else.