by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I wanted an envoi to Tony Curtis and so I picked one of his more obscure movies, Lepke, a 1975 gangster movie directed by Menahem Golan and co-produced by him and Yoram Globus before they started billing their films as “A Golan-Globus Production.” This was co-credited to Warner Bros. and a company called AmeriEuro Pictures, and was obviously an attempt to suck off the market for big gangster films in recent-past settings kicked off by the blockbuster success of The Godfather. I remembered seeing Tony Curtis on a talk show promoting this movie and mentioning that what made Lepke unique was not only that he was one of the few Jewish gangsters to crack the inner precincts of the Mafia (the others were Dutch Schultz — depicted as a character here and played by John Durren — along with later arrivals Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky) but he was also just about the only gangster of his day who was actually imprisoned and executed instead of being shot down by rival gangsters or cops, or managing (as Lansky did) a long life, peaceful retirement and quiet, natural death.
Lepke is a well-done movie, surprisingly unexciting for a gangster tale but good-looking (Andrew Davis’ cinematography actually uses more of the visible spectrum than greens and dirty browns) and decently if not spectacularly acted — with two exceptions, one good and one bad. The bad one is Anjanette Comer as Lepke’s wife Bernice, who delivers her lines in a flat, affect-less manner that makes one wonder how she got a role after just two days of acting classes and who she was having sex with to get the part. The good one is Milton Berle as Bernice’s father, Mr. Meyer, who astonishingly delivers by far the best performance in the entire film; though he has only a few scenes, he’s fascinatingly enigmatic and powerful as the Orthodox Jewish father whose daughter has already been burned in marriage once (her first husband died young for reasons we’re never quite told, though the implication is that he too was a gangster and was knocked off by his colleagues) and who wants to make sure that this time she’s marrying a man worthy of her — and he insists on an Orthodox wedding in a synagogue even though Lepke, a.k.a. Louis Buchhalter, has never seen the inside of one since his childhood.
Lepke begins with a scene more typical of a 1930’s than a 1970’s gangster movie: a black-and-white prologue showing Lepke (played as a boy by Barry Miller — who actually does like he could conceivably grow up to look like Tony Curtis) breaking into a store, getting caught and sentenced to reform school, then ending up in reform school again shortly after his release and treating the authorities in an insolent fashion that lets us know this person is never going to consider any other sort of career besides crime. The script (by Tamar Simon Hoffs and Wesley Lau) is oddly structured and depicts Lepke’s rise in the first hour, built mainly on protection rackets, until it’s derailed by the advent of crusading district attorney Thomas E. Dewey (Richard C. Adams). In the film’s most chilling scene, a group of nine gangsters, including such famous names as Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano (Vic Tayback) and Albert Anastasia (Gianni Russo) meets to decide whether or not killing Dewey is worth the risk; the vote splits 4-4 and Lepke, as the chair of the syndicate, casts the deciding vote to let Dewey live, then orders a hit on Schultz when he announces his plans to have Dewey killed anyway, majority rule be damned.
The film also does a good job of dramatizing the racist antagonisms between the Jewish and Italian gangsters who are battling for control of New York City’s rackets, and eventually Luciano decides that protection rackets have run their course and the real money is in drugs, which he (correctly) guesses will be the coming thing once Prohibition is repealed. Lepke decides to establish his own opium connection in China, but the whole thing runs afoul of both Dewey and the FBI, for which Lepke’s former attorney Robert Kane (Michael Callan) is now working, and in the second part of the film Lepke is forced into hiding because the New York police, the FBI and Luciano’s gang are all after him. (One ironic touch is that during part of his underground period he lives in the back room of a movie theatre that continually shows gangster films.) He finally cuts a deal with the feds, using Walter Winchell (Vaughn Meader), of all people, as his go-between, in which he’ll plead guilty to a drug rap, serve 12 years in prison and avoid New York jurisdiction — only the judge who takes his plea double-crosses him and announces that at the end of his federal sentence he will be turned over to New York, where he’ll be tried for murder, convicted and executed.
Lepke is a decent movie, not bad but not especially good either, and while it’s interesting to see Tony Curtis (née Bernard Schwartz) in one of the few roles in which he got to play his real-life Jewish ethnicity, he’s not an especially menacing figure and one can’t help thinking James Caan from the Godfather cast would have been a better choice.