Written by: Leo Katcher (book), Jo Swerling
Directed by: Joseph M. Newman
Starring: David Janssen, Dianne Foster, Mickey Rooney
Summary: The life of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein and his many Irish associates, told in a way that mostly feels lost, but for an unexpectedly subtle performance by Mickey Rooney.
The main character in this film is a Jewish gangster — in fact, arguably the Jewish gangster, Arnold Rothstein. This was the man who is supposed to have fixed the 1919 World Series. This is the man that F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly based the character Meyer Wolfsheim from “The Great Gatsby” on. This is the man who created the 1920s, in the sense that he linked a variety of gangs together to create a network that would effectively push liquor in New York. Rothstein died on November 6, 1928, shot to death in a hotel room, and it’s fair to say that his death was the one event outside the Stock Market Crash that can be pointed to as the end of the Roaring Twenties.
There was a book about Rothstein called “The Big Bankroll,” written by Leo Katcher and published in 1959. Is it a good book? Not according to Nick Tosches, writing of Rothstein’s death and legacy in Vanity Fair in 2005. Tosches was of the opinion that the book’s “invented dialogue places it well inside the realm of parody, and I have wondered if Katcher ever laughed aloud as he wrote it.”
But the book does something that many Rothstein biographies fail to do, and the film adaptation, sometimes called “King of the Roaring Twenties” and released in 1961, does it as well. Both place Rothstein’s career squarely in the center of a matrix of Irish criminals, and so it was: He was a Tammany Hall man, and many of his partners and nemeses over the course of his life were Irish. Rothstein appeared in “Boardwalk Empire” as well, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and with his dapper couture and sharklike mannerisms, he seemed to have more in common with Irish-American bootlegger Nucky Thompson than the rogues gallery of belligerent street toughs that made up the show’s Jewish gang, Murder Inc.
There are three Irish characters Rothstein interacts with throughout the film. The first, and most important, is a childhood friend named Johnny Burke, and we will get back to him. The second is a political boss named Big Tim O’Brien, a stand-in for Tammany politicians and likley based on Timothy D. Sullivan, Tammany’s East Side political boss. O’Brien is played by Jack Carson, a performance spent almost entirely in a chair behind a big desk, squinting out at Rothstein, grinning a strange lopsided grin, and making decisions that sometimes push Rothstein forward and sometimes sabotage him. Tammany, as represented by O’Brien, is a sort of capricious Greek god in this film, ruining Rothstein, and then building him up to ruin him again.
There is also an Irish cop, Phil Butler, played by Irish native (and later “Twin Peaks” castmember) Dan O’Herlihy, who manages both to be deeply corrupt and absolutely scrupulous about the law where Rothstein is concerned, and in this way acts as a sort of synecdoche for the entire New York police force, whose likewise demonstrated a mixture of blind fealty to the law and profound corruption.
But neither of these characters are as important as Johnny Burke, Rothstein’s childhood friend, a fiction for the convenience of the narrative. He is played by Mickey Rooney, who was 41 when this film was made. He retained his boyish smallness, but his face had gotten creased, and he was in the nadir of a mid-career slump; this was the same year he appeared as a grotesque, nakedly racist representation of a Japanese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Burke is a liability to Rothstein. He’s pleasant but unremarkably, and Rothstein now traffics with men who are unpleasant but remarkable. So Rothstein cuts him loose, but Burke refuses to do likewise. Burke hangs around in the background, keeping tabs on Rothstein for his own reasons. This will eventually lead Burke to make a decision that signs his own death warrant, and for Rothstein to betray him with typical calculating coldness. It’s the real climax of the film, and it’s great.I have often said of the young Rooney that he was an actor who refused to play subtext. He was a loud, manic, fascinating screen actor who played things broadly, and the results were disarmingly artificial, like seeing an 80-year-old man play a 10-year-old boy. But it’s not that Mickey Rooney we get in this film. No, Rooney’s Johnny Burke is a loney man with haunted features and a soft touch — he almost seems to diminish as you watch him. Rooney plays him honestly; he’s believably, tragically broken. It’s an unusual performance for Rooney, not simply because it is so subtle, but because it is so generous. Rooney had been a scene-stealer in his youth, but now, playing a supporting role, he lets himself be the support. The younger Rooney would have made his character’s anguish operatic, but here it is counterpoint to Rothstein’s coldness. Rooney plays it just enough to get the point across, and then diminishes again. Even when he dies, he dies small, a little man splayed out in the street by a fast hail of gunfire.
But the 60s are a sort of lost decade for this sort of crime film. I’m not quite sure why, but it feels like Hollywood forgot how to make mobster films until the 70s, when, with the “The Godfather” and “Mean Streets,” they suddenly developed a new language for telling these stories. It’s strange, because the youth of the 60s developed a real fascination for the 1920s, reviving many of the decade’s signature elements.
But I suppose those would be the kids who would go on to revitalize the genre in the 70s, and just now the films were being made by men who grew up during the 40s and 50s. This was a generation that bought into the American dream and benefited from it, and so would be unsympathetic to gangsters, whose rise often seems like a burlesque of the American dream. This film certainly treat’s Rothstein’s career as grotesque, marked by his inability to work within established American institutions, even those that are corrupt, but especially those that are virtuous, like friendship and marriage.
It would take a more cynical generation to see Rothstein’s burlesque as a useful commentary on the hypocrisy of the American dream, instead of a self-destructive inversion of it. And that generation was just about to come of age.