Saturday, June 25, 2011

Crime, Inc. (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Crime, Inc., a 1945 old-style gangster melodrama from PRC which we downloaded from, in a version that was reduced from the original 75-minute running time to 71 minutes by the simple expedient of lopping off the opening and closing credits. Crime, Inc. was basically the sort of film Warner Bros. could have made in the 1930’s but it had some intriguing “wrinkles” that made it interesting, including a cast that was probably as close to “all-star” as PRC could get: Tom Neal as the protagonist, crime reporter Jim Riley, who’s convinced that all major crime in New York City (the locale is unnamed in the script but a couple of stock shots of Times Square at night give it away) is controlled by a syndicate that runs it as efficiently as a legitimate business; Leo Carrillo as Mobbed-up nightclub owner Tony Marlow; Lionel Atwill, ill used (he’s only on screen a few minutes) but still authoritative as Pat Coyle, the Syndicate’s mouthpiece; Sheldon Leonard not as a gangster but as a Dirty Harry-ish cop, Captain Ferrone; Danny Morton (a tall, handsome and surprisingly personable actor who should have had a major career at studios beyond PRC; this was his first film and for his remaining career he stayed stuck in cheap adventure movies and serials — where were the major-studio casting directors when he needed them?) as Bugs Kelley, t/n Mike Egan, an independent gangster fighting a desperate battle to stay in business and resist either joining or getting killed by the Syndicate; and Martha Tilton, ex-Benny Goodman band singer seeking a career of her own, as Bugs’ sister Betty Van Cleave (both have abandoned the last name “Egan” for fear someone will find out the connection between them), who performs a series of mediocre songs at Marlow’s club (neither the material nor the grainy, distorted sound recording of the print we were watching does justice to Tilton’s voice, and as an actor she was a very good singer — she’s personable on screen but Doris Day needn’t have worried about the competition).

The basic plot is that Riley is trying to expose the gang and also put together enough material for a book; Captain Ferrone is trying to bust the Syndicate but doesn’t know who he can trust on his own force, so deep have the Syndicate’s hooks reached and so many cops are on its payroll; and Bugs is attempting to stay in business as an independent, to the point where he kidnaps Marlow and extracts a ransom payment for him from Coyle after he discovers that Marlow has ordered his execution. Bugs duly gets knocked off (one contributor to the film’s Web page suggests that the character was based on Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel — s/he identified as the giveaway a line in which the character says, “Don’t call me ‘Bugs’!” — which would make the screenwriters, Martin Mooney and Raymond L. Schrock, prescient, since they had a Siegel character killed by his fellow gangsters two years before that happened for real) and his sister and Riley unsurprisingly fall in love — there’s a minor hiccup in their relationship after her bro gets killed and she briefly suspects he was dating her only to get information about his gang and their rivalry with the Syndicate, but within less than a reel she’s reassured that he’s genuinely interested in her after all. Towards the end Crime, Inc. gets more interesting; instead of a pretty straightforward gangster movie, so much in line with the genre conventions of the 1920’s and 1930’s there’s some uncertainty as to when it’s supposed to be taking place (the new footage features 1945-vintage cars but there’s plenty of stock footage of older ones — “Help is on the way!” — and, as Charles noted, the President pictured on the wall of Ferrone’s office is Woodrow Wilson), it takes on some interesting quirks.

Some of them have to do with Martin Mooney’s involvement in the project; Mooney had achieved his 15 minutes of fame in the mid-1930’s when, as a crime reporter in Chicago, he had gone to jail rather than testify before a grand jury and give away the sources for his stories. When Warners signed Mooney as a writer to do the script for the 1936 film Bullets or Ballots, the trailer used Mooney’s background as a selling point for the film and advertised it, “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!” To come up with a denouement for Crime, Inc., Mooney put Tom Neal’s character in the same predicament he himself had been in a decade before: Riley finally publishes his book, only to be hauled before a grand jury and questioned by a prosecutor who demands to know who his sources were and also the real identities of the people he wrote about under false names.

Meanwhile, a Secret Six-like crime commission has been formed to put the racketeers out of business once and for all — only, as anyone who’d seen The 13th Man, Law of the Underworld or other films that used that basic premise could have guessed, one of the secret members of the commission, Wayne Clark (played by officious character actor Grant Mitchell), is also the head of Crime, Inc. And the final exposure of the gang is carried out through high-tech surveillance: their office is bugged not only by an audio recorder but a film camera as well, and therefore the good guys have actual movie footage of Clark and attorney Coyle proposing the elimination of Riley and his girlfriend the nightclub singer, and the other gangsters approving the motion without audible dissent. The Syndicate is broken and, in a cute ending, Riley and Betty are married then and there by a judge attached to the grand jury which has just taken their testimony.

Crime, Inc. is a pretty straightforward movie but it’s dark enough that it’s on the cusp between ordinary gangster film and noir; the director is the usually hacky Lew Landers, but he was on his best behavior that week — the acting (especially Morton’s; the authority with which he plays the most ambiguous character in the film — a gangster, yes, but one with a fiercely independent streak that leads him to take on the Syndicate — should, like his boyish good looks, have marked him for biggers and betters at major studios) is first-rate and the plotting is quirky enough it’s a cut above your average gangster cheapie. Landers and cinematographer James S. Brown, Jr. shoot most of it straightforwardly but there are quite a few shots that look like film noir, dark and shadowy. Had Bugs Kelley been a more important character and had the writers focused the story on him, Crime, Inc. would be a better movie than it is — but even so it’s quite good, and also surprisingly brutal for a Code-era film: after a while the bodies pile up so quickly (the Syndicate’s favorite method of murder is drive-by shooting, which itself makes this film seem surprisingly contemporary — as does the reporter’s finding himself put on the spot by the grand jury and giving a ringing defense of journalistic confidentiality) one wonders how PRC got the sheer level of the carnage past the censors.