Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gangs of New York (Republic, 1938)

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

The film was Gangs of New York, not the 2002 extravaganza directed by Martin Scorsese and dealing with Irish-American gangs in 19th century New York but a 1938 Republic “B” directed by James Cruze from a story by Samuel Fuller (his first movie credit!) scripted by Fuller, Wellyn Totman and Charles Francis Royal. (Interesting degrees-of-separation here: Martin Scorsese made a biopic about Howard Hughes, The Aviator, while Cruze directed the 1928 film The Mating Call, produced by Howard Hughes.) The credits announce the film was merely “suggested” by Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book Gangs of New York (and the American Film Institute Catalog gets two facts wrong about Asbury’s book: they say it was published in 1936 and call it a novel, though it was at least intended to be nonfiction) — and the Scorsese movie wasn’t much closer; according to Wikipedia, the Academy nominated it for Best Original Screenplay rather than Best Adapted Screenplay because the movie had so little in common with what Asbury wrote.

Anyway, the 1938 Gangs of New York is a contemporary-set gangster film that begins with a massacre in which at least three members of the Maddock gang are shot. Two die immediately, but the third one lingers long enough for police to question him in hospital and ask him who did this. “Rocky’s boys,” he answers — which nonplusses the cops because Rocky Thorpe (Charles Bickford) has been in prison for five years. However, an investigation led by police inspector Sullivan (Willard Robinson) and district attorney Lucas (Charles Trowbridge), who prosecuted Rocky in the first place, concludes that Rocky is still running his gang by remote control from the prison — they interrogate three of Rocky’s associates and find they’re still doing things the way Rocky wanted them to — only the meeting of Lucas and Sullivan is interrupted by Rocky himself, who has just been paroled and threatens them. Only it turns out this isn’t really Rocky, but undercover policeman John Franklyn (also Charles Bickford), whom Sullivan has recruited because of his uncanny resemblance to Rocky except that he doesn’t have the two deep scars on the real Rocky’s face. Franklyn agrees to have plastic surgery to get his face scarred the same way as Rocky’s, and the idea is that instead of being released, the real Rocky is locked in solitary confinement 24/7 with no contact whatsoever with other prisoners or the outside world, while Franklyn brazens his way into running Rocky’s gang. Before this they’ve found out the way Rocky was relaying his instructions to his gang members from prison: he was broadcasting them in code via a ham radio station inside the prison walls! From that point it becomes a pretty standard impersonation movie, with the suspense being what’s going to trip up Franklyn’s masquerade and how he’s going to get out of being killed when the gangsters discover he’s a cop.

He finally is exposed by Rocky’s girlfriend Orchid (Wynne Gibson) and his associate Dapper (Alan Baxter), who recalls that just before he was arrested Rocky had spent $5,000 on a jeweled bracelet for Orchid but hadn’t given it to her; Franklyn has no recollection of the bracelet and Dapper is thereby convinced that he can’t be the real Rocky, who would have remembered an item that was that expensive. Meanwhile, a prison guard who’s on the gang’s payroll finds the real Rocky hidden in the secret cell, and the meeting place for the final confrontation — Rocky (the fake one) has invited all the other gang leaders in New York City for a meeting, ostensibly to discuss a merger but really to get them all arrested with the documentation of their nefarious deeds on them — gets changed by Dapper and it’s touch and go whether the police force will get there in time to save the fake Rocky’s life from the gangsters — now led by the real Rocky, who’s sprung jail. Obviously, the folks at Republic weren’t going to give up the thrill of staging a fight sequence between Charles Bickford and Charles Bickford — though they do it in long shot and it’s pretty clear both men were being doubled — but there’s an earlier scene in which the bad Bickford takes a punch at the good one and the illusion is absolutely convincing.

 Gangs of New York has a lot going for it, including some marvelous characterizations of the subsidiary gangsters (especially Harold Huber’s dandy-ish “Panatella,” who appears to have been named after his favorite cigar!), good effects work and a well-staged car chase (well, chase scenes were another Republic specialty!) with some unusual angles, including a shot in which one of the cars heads straight for the camera and barrels down on the audience, much the way the famous train in an early Lumière film did (and sent a filmically naïve audience running from the theatre, screaming, convinced that a real train was actually coming towards them). It suffers from a cheesy stock music score from Alberto Colombo, and though Cruze directs it well enough (this was his next-to-last film; he had been a major director in the silent era, including making the first big-budget Western spectacle, The Covered Wagon, for Paramount in 1923, but though he made some excellent talkies — notably I Cover the Waterfront, with Claudette Colbert and Ben Lyon, in 1933 — his career never recovered from the transition and by 1938 he was on staff at Republic, where he would make only one more film after this, Come On, Leathernecks) it’s yet another crime film from the 1930’s that really needed the speedy Warner Bros. style and Warners’ great star, James Cagney, in the lead(s).