Irish-American Crime Films: The Devil’s Party (1938)

Originally called "Hell's Kitchen Has a Pantry."

Originally called “Hell’s Kitchen Has a Pantry.”

The Devil’s Party (1938)

Written by: Roy Chanslor, Borden Chase (novel “Hells’ Kitchen Has a Pantry”)
Directed by: Milton R. Krasner
Starring: Victor McLaglen, William Gargan, Paul Kelly

Summary: An often ponderous melodrama about a gang of kids in Hell’s Kitchen who grow up on opposite sides of the law; the film’s cast and strange details almost save it.

“The Devil’s Party” is a short film — most versions clock in at just over an hour — that nonetheless feels ponderous. I’m at a loss to say why, as it has a lot of elements that might have made it a classic. The script was based on a novel by Bordon Chase, who later wrote screenplays for a number of classic western films, including “Winchester ’73” and “Red River.” (As an aside, the original novel has a title I find unaccountably hilarious: “Hell’s Kitchen Has a Pantry.”) The film was cast with a collection of interesting character actors, including a lead performance by “The Quiet Man’s” Victor McLaglen, who was generally a tremendously entertaining performer. The film’s story is fine enough, about a group of childhood friends from Hell’s Kitchen whose mischief landed one in a juvenile home; he has since grown up to be a gambler, while the others have grown to be policemen, a lawyer, and a nightclub singer. They meet every year for a party, and this year, thanks to a gambling debt that leads to murder, it all goes bad.

It’s also worth pointing out that this may be the roughest crowd ever assembled for a film. Screenwriter Chase reportedly worked as a chauffeur for a mobster. McLaglen was a military man and professional boxer before he became an actor. William Gargan, who plays one of the boys who grows up to be a police officer, was a bootlegger and later a private detective. Paul Kelly, who plays the boy who grew up to be a priest, went to prison after accidentally killing another actor in a fight after a sex scandal with the man’s wife. Even the director, Ray McCarey, grew up in a pretty tough environment — his father was a boxing promoter back at the turn of the century, when boxing was barely legal and often crooked.

Paul Kelly, who plays the boy who grew up to be a priest, went to prison after accidentally killing another actor in a fight after a sex scandal with the man’s wife.
As you tell by the names, this group was also largely Irish-American, but for Victor McLaglen, who was English with Scottish ancestry but found a career playing enormous, two-fisted Irishmen. And there is something that feels essentially Irish-American about the main conceit of the film, which suggests that if you grow up in Hell’s Kitchen, you’re going to end up a cop, a priest, or a criminal. There’s a strangeness to the film as well, and I can’t put my finger on it. Some of it comes from details of the era that feel both authentic and alien, such as a climactic robbery that involves putting on gas masks to break into the ammonia room beneath an ice skating rink.

Some it comes from the script, which has the characters never completely stop acting as though they are children; at times the film feels like a photo negative of “Bugsy Malone,” in which adult actors never stop kidding each other, giving high signs, and flashing club house signals like they are still 10-years-old. And there is a near-comic book quality to some of the film: The gambler’s club is called the “Cigarette Club,” it’s name written out in deco lettering on its side. A murder takes place at an apartment called the “round house,” its name likewise emblazoned in deco lettering. The gang of children call themselves the Death Avenue Cowboys and have their own little masthead, like you would find on the side of a corporate office, but scratched into a wooden plaque, and they seem to carry this with them all the time. It sounds all sounds like names children would dream up and represented the way a cartoonist would, and even when the film feels especially plodding, these odd details are fun to discover.

I think the problem with the film is in its direction. It’s almost entirely shot with a static camera in the middle distance, with people just standing still and talking to each other. The actors mostly offer pretty deadpan performances, even William Gargan, who is supposed to be deranged with grief for most of the film. This sort of performance works in close up, because the camera captures and magnifies even the smallest gesture, and so a deadpan performance style starts seeming cagey and suspicious. But at the middle distance, it just seems like nobody is really doing much of anything, or even paying attention to each other. Terrible things happen in the film, and everybody just sort of stands in place, looking at each other mutely. We hear about the Irish temper now and then, but it only seems so show up a few times, always from Gargan, and he mostly demonstrates it by pulling out a gun and threatening someone; otherwise, he doesn’t seem especially upset.

But, again, there is a strangeness to the film, and so even Gargan’s pistol waving gets its own odd moment. Because at one point in the film, when Gargan pulls his gun out, Paul Kelly, the priest, also pulls a gun and waves it back at Gargan. And they stand there for a moment, guns pointed into each other’s bellies, promising they will shoot each other but behaving like nothing could be less interesting.

And the film is weird enough that, for a moment, it seems possible the cop and the priest will actually shoot each other. I mean, in the real world, it was a former bootlegger and man who spent 25 months in jail for manslaughter facing each other, and, no matter how deadpan the film might be, there’s a real thrill to this. What other movie has a cop and a priest, played by real criminals, menace each other with firearms? Where else will you find such a thing?

Only in the pantry of Hell’s Kitchen, I guess.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.