Irish-American Crime Films: ‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Huntz Hall and a goon in "Neath Brooklyn Bridge."

Huntz Hall and a goon in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge.”

‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Written by: Harvey Gates
Directed by:
Wallace Fox
Starring:
Leo Gorcey Bobby Jordan Huntz Hall
Summary:
The East Side Kids get caught up in a theft scheme in a Lower East Side that seems entirely populated by sailors.

I can’t help but like Poverty Row movies. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Poverty Row” referred to a collection of independent, low-budget movie production companies that churned out mostly forgettable genre fare from the 20s through the 50s. They are typically not very good, with lethargic direction, inconsistent performance, and are often shot on barely disguised soundstages. The storylines are often hackneyed and the dialogue unmemorable.

But forget conventional wisdom about what makes a good movie. Poverty Row films put their attention elsewhere, often taking a successful formula and toying with endless permutations. Because there was a built-in audience for this, and because they could make these films cheaply, Poverty Row studios became a sort-of primordial swamp, tearing apart elements of other films and recombining them into endless mutations. These weren’t the prestige films of the major studios, they were the Frankenstein monsters, and, as a result, you would often see things in Poverty Row films you could not see elsewhere.

As an example, in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge,” there is a bar owned by a hoodlum named McGaffey, and it is sailor-themed. The walls are decorated with ships’ wheels, while starfish and sailor’s caps hang above the bar. There seem to be sailors everywhere in the bar, dressed in costumes that make them look like extras from a live-action Popeye cartoon.

The Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.”
The film is set in the Two Bridges neighborhood of New York, which, for most of the film career, was Dead Ends Kids territory, and this is a Dead End Kids movie — although produced by Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures, which had snapped some of the Dead End Kids up when Warner Brothers dropped their contracts and renamed them the East Side Kids. But the Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.” I rarely see films set in New York that show the world of its sailors at all, and this film is brimming with them.

In fact, two of the main supporting characters in the film are sailors. There’s a navy man, played by Noah Beery Jr., who is a grown-up version of the East Side Kids and still hangs out with them every so often — they have a basement clubhouse that seems exclusively devoted to model ships and airplanes. There is also an old man called the Skipper who is paralyzed but communicated by blinking in Morse code. Even the East Side Kids wear striped sailor’s shirts, as though this film were being marketed to the Sea Scouts, to be watched while members learned how to tie knots and and navigate by finding a pole star.

The film has a simple plot, and so I will dispense with it in a few sentences: McGaffey, The gangster who owns the sailor bar needs East Side Kid Leo Gorcey (here named Muggs McGinnis) to help him with a burglary. McGaffey kills a man and convinces Gorcey he is guilty of the crime. The gang bands together and solves the case. Spolier alert: They do this by gathering together a gang of friends and assaulting McGaffey and his lackeys in a silk warehouse, which is an example of the sort of surprisingly plotting that sometimes happened in Poverty Row films.

Leo Gorcey would be the leader of the gang for most of their work as the Bowery Boys, but in the early films he ping ponged back and forth between lead and supporting character, and it;s easy to see why, as he’s a squirrely lead. He has laconic and sometimes hesitant mannerisms coupled with wary eyes, and it feels as though his proper place in life is less to lead men than to cynically comment on their foibles, which he does often in famously mangled malapropisms.

But he’s also quick-witted and a bit of a bully, and you get the sense that he’s the default leader of the gang here. The other kids just defer to him, in part because he’s pretty bright, but in part because if they don’t, they risk a blast of his scolding wit and a sock on the shoulder. Nobody seems happy about this state of affairs — at one point he goes over to a kid making a model airplane and offers a suggestion, and the kid just hands him the model and tells him to finish it himself. Gorcey seems a bit taken aback by this, and doesn’t take to leadership easily; he spends most of the film keeping his own council, sorting things out by himself, and only enlists the rest of the gang’s help when he needs muscle.

Another of the kids, Huntz Hall, seems much more comfortable with the role he would later exclusively play — the gang’s clown. Hall was capable of more, as he showed in “Little Tough Guy,” but he had a talent for screwy goofballs, and the film gives him plenty of opportunity to goof around, including a scene in which he steals soup from ‘Snub’ Pollard, a silent film comedians. These Poverty Row films were full of slumming stars, and it’s fun spotting them in the background.

In fact, there’s one who goes uncredited who I think should be the subject of his own film: Frank Moran, who plays the bartender. Moran, the son of Irish immigrants, was an real sailor, having served in the Navy after having studied dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. While in the military, he started prizefighting (and was a sparring partner for President Theodore Roosevelt), and he fought under the nickname “The Fighting Dentist.” He quickly went into movies, playing tough guys and criminals, including having been part of Preston Sturges’ stock company. He also played his share of sailor, including in Fred Astaire’s “Follow the Fleet” (he played “Husky Sailor”) and Raoul Walsh’s “Sailor’s Luck” (playing “Bilge Moran”).

Other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.
You just don’t get life stories, or resumes, like his anymore. Let me offer up a few more roles he played. So here we go; other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.

I think this demonstrates that a former sailor in New York could have a pretty interesting life, which “‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge” seemed to appreciate

Irish-American Crime Films: Irish Luck (1939)

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in "Irish Luck."

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in “Irish Luck.”

Irish Luck (11939)

Written by: Mary McCarthy (screenplay), Charles M. Brown (story)
Directed by: Howard Bretherton
Starring:  Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland
Summary: Frankie Darro produced a comic turn as a bellhop breaking a bond theft ring; the first film to pair him with African-American comic Mantan Moreland, but far from the last.

As this project progresses, there will probably be more reviews of films that star Frankie Darro, as “Irish Luck” does. The athletic, diminutive actor isn’t well remembered today, but he was a legitimate star in his day, albeit typically of juvenile films and b-movies. He even was responsible for one of the best-loved performances in film, even if it was uncredited and unrecognized at its time: He was the man wearing the Robbie the Robot suit in “Forbidden Planet,” which makes him to a previous generation what Kenny Baker, the man in the R2D2 suit, is to ours.

Darro has already come up a few times in these reviews: He played the young Cagney (sort of) in “The Public Enemy” and played a juvenile delinquent is Cagney’s “Mayor of Hell.” Although I can’t tell whether Darro actually had Irish blood or not (his real name was Johnson), he played an awful lot of Irish youth — here’s a brief list of character he played: Barnie Finn, Tad Dennison, Mickey Grogan, Billy Ryan, and “Orphan” McGuire. He even provided the voice of Lampwick in Disney’s “Pinocchio,” the only redheaded character in the film, and his casting is likely based on his long career of playing Irish delinquents.

But if Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.” The film is a bit of a nothing, telling of a bellboy named Buzzy O’Brien who can’t help but stumble into mysteries in his hotel. But it’s an entertaining nothing, helped by pairing Darro with African-American actor Mantan Moreland. I’m a fan of Moreland, and even visited his grave when I lived in LA, and his reputation deserves reexamination. He’s notorious for playing bug-eyed, frightened African-Americans, which became something of a noxious cliche in Hollywood. But Moreland’s bug-eyedness was natural, and his comic skills impeccable and understated. He never plays his character’s fear as an exaggerated burlesque, but instead as a perpetually fretfulness.

If Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.”
Darro and Moreland would go on to star in a series of films together, and they were a good pair, with Moreland acting as a sort of weary commenter on Darro’s boundless enthusiasm. In fact, in this film Darro is almost nothing but enthusiasm. Dressed in a bellhop outfit that would look right at home at the Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s determined to be a boy detective, and his hotel, which is the center of a bond-theft ring, given him ample opportunity.

The title, “Irish Luck,” is deliberate. Darro has an Irish mother in this, and, moreover, when he meets a female suspect in this, he decides she must be innocent, as her name is Monahan. Now, my name at birth was Monaghan, so I sympathize, but I also have to admit this is an odd plot point. After all, at the start of the movie he manages to capture a pair of bond robbers, and while they are unnamed, they are played by Pat Gleason and Gene O’Donnoll, so it’s not as though Irish criminals are unheard of, even in this film’s universe.

But the kid has an instinct that Monahan is okay, and, in general, his instincts are right on the money — there’s some suggestion that he literally inherited his genius for deduction from his deceased father, who was a policeman. His father’s former partner, player by Dick Purcell (who himself would make a terrifically entertaining film with Moreland called “King of the Zombies”), is nonplussed at Darro’s boy detective ambitions. But if there is one thing Darro demonstrated in films, it was that he tended to get swept up in things, and once swept was unstoppable.

If only the same could have been said of his career. He did a stint in the military during World War II and contracted malaria. Reportedly, he suffered long-term effects, which he attempted to manage with alcohol. Although he managed to make regular, often small appearance on film and television, he was broke for much of his adult life and struggled with alcohol. This was probably exacerbated when he opened a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard called “Try Later” and named after the response he typically got when he contacted Central Casting.

I worked as background talent for Central Casting several years ago, and I know how frustrating those calls are to this day. Boundless energy and enthusiasm doesn’t stand a chance against the drudgery of making tens or even hundreds of calls per day, hoping a job has opened up and that you’re right for it. It’s just murder, and it’s a murder that even a former boy detective couldn’t solve.

Irish-American Crime Films: Kiss of Death (1995)

Cage and Caruso: Method vs. glower in "Kiss of Death"

Cage and Caruso: Method vs. glower in “Kiss of Death”

Kiss of Death (1995)

Written by: Richard Price
Directed by: Barbet Schroeder
Starring: David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson
Summary: A competent, enjoyably eccentric film about an ex-con and a weird crime boss, but feels like Pulp Fiction’s leftovers.

“Kiss of Death” had the misfortune of coming out a year after “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a serviceable, fitfully entertaining crime film with generous helpings of eccentricity, many of them provided by Nicolas Cage. Cage plays the strangely named Little Junior, the son of an ailing crime boss named Big Junior, and the actor beefed up for the role — one of the first times we meet him he’s bench pressing a stripper. Cage plays his character as having a comparably thick neck and wit; he’s a hulking man with suspicious eyes but little recognizable intelligence.

He’s responsible for a prison term served by the film’s ostensible hero, a former lackey and barely recovering alcoholic played by David Caruso. This is a remake of a well-liked 1947 noir film, and in that the characters were Italian, but they have been changed to Irish for this film, probably because Caruso, despite being half-Sicilian, resembled nothing so much as a Thomas Nast caricature of an Irish bruiser. So Caruso is named Jimmy Kilmartin, and he’s constantly led into trouble by his noxious dunce of a cousin, named Ronnie Gannon and played by Michael Rapaport. Through a complicated plot twist that causes the death of Kilmartin’s wife — played in a surprisingly abbreviated role by Helen Hunt — Kilmartin becomes an informer.

There is a lot in this film that is memorable; unsurprising, as it was scripted by Richard Price, and he’s good at this sort of story. As an example, Gannon comes to a horrific end that must rank as one of cinema’s most unique gangland assassinations. Another example: Kimartin is accountable to a police detective played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was shot in the face and now has an eye that weeps continuously. In one of the film’s more memorable bits of plotting, Cage’s character attempts a halting, awkward friendship with Kilmartin, despite the fact that Caruso’s trademark glower communicates nothing but contempt and loathing for the other man. But they share a tragedy, and so Cage just blurts out knuckleheaded facts about himself, like he has an Elvis-style acronym that he basis his life around, and he can’t stand the taste of metal. It goes bad with alarming speed, and then goes worse when some double-dealing on the part of the DA (an oily Stanley Tucci) leaves Kilmartin and his family out to dangle.

Cage’s character attempts a halting, awkward friendship with Kilmartin, despite the fact that Caruso’s trademark glower repeatedly flashes contempt and loathing for the other man.
It might be a very good film, but for “Pulp Fiction.” “Kiss of Death” shares cast members with the earlier film — besides Jackson, there is Ving Rhames and Paul Calderon. And “Kiss of Death” suffers in comparison. Its oddness feels mannered, and Caruso’s downbeat performance, consisting of a series of grimaces and a habit of. speaking, very. deliberately, comes of as charmless and unengaging compared to the collection of live-wire weirdos Tarantino populated his universe with.

Unfortunately, what resulted felt like a film that was unneeded. The original “Kiss of Death” was good enough not to need a remake, and the conventions of the crime genre had been thoroughly goosed by Tarantino so that more mundane crime stories felt dated and unwanted. “Kiss of Death” still feels this way, even though it is a film that also feels borrowed from actual police logs. Unlike Tarantino’s universe, which always seems like a series of speedy, ironic supercuts of Tarantino’s favorite movies, “Kiss of Death” is set in a world of ploddingly stupid crime bosses, where a few bad decisions can lead to a deepening spiral of misery, and where various law enforcement agencies screw up, and screw each other over, constantly, leaving splashes of blood behind without concern for who is bleeding. In other words, it sounds like our world.

But, I guess, our world just isn’t as much fun as Tarantino’s.

Irish-American Crime Films: The Big Bankroll (1961)

A little man left behind: Mickey Rooney in "The Big Bankroll"

A little man left behind: Mickey Rooney in “The Big Bankroll”

The Big Bankroll (1961)

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.

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.
So it is with the film version of “The Big Bankroll.” Rothstein is played by David Janssen, a half-Jewish, half-Irish actor best known for playing the fleeing Dr. Richard Kimble in the television series “The Fugitive.” Janssen plays Rothstein as a cheerful sociopath — he never stops grinning throughout the film, but it a fixed, artificial grin. The film’s Rothstein is single-minded about gambling — there’s a bravura scene in which he abandons his own honeymoon to lovely actress Dianne Foster (it isn’t made explicit in the film, but Rothstein’s wife was also Irish Catholic) to orchestrate a devastating victory at a racetrack, which he improvises based on a rumor that the favored horse has a cold. He improvises the thing on the spot, even roping in police to help him, oblivious to the fact that his abandoned wife is self-destructing at a nearby table, drowning her frustration in teacup after teacup of expensive bootleg champagne.

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.

The film is talky where it should be showy, and Janssen plays his character with so few notes he might as well have been called Arnold Monotone.
It’s the best thing about this film, which otherwise feels stagey and hokey, like an afternoon television film blown up for the big screen. The film is talky where it should be showy, and Janssen plays his character with so few notes he might as well have been called Arnold Monotone. There are a few lively performances in this film, including one from Mickey Shaughnessy, playing a very drunk and very dim partner to Rothstein; his performance is so blinkered and thick-tongued that you get the sense John C. Reilly might have borrowed from it for his incompetent television doctor, Steve Brule.

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.

Irish-American Crime Movies: Monument Ave. (1998)

Mean Street Hockey: Colm Meaney and Denis Leary in "Monument Ave."

Mean Street Hockey: Colm Meaney and Denis Leary in “Monument Ave.”

Monument Ave. (1998)

Written by: Mike Armstrong
Directed by: Ted Demme
Starring: Denis Leary, Colm Meaney, Famke Janssen
Summary: A squalid look at petty criminals in Boston’s Charleston neighborhood featuring a typically unsympathetic lead performance from Denis Leary

Denis Leary first rose to prominence as a comic, with a stage persona that consisted of cigarette-fueled rants inspired by, if not actually stolen from, fellow comedian Bill Hicks. But Leary always had a second career as an actor, at first as a comic bit player, but increasingly as one of America’s primary representations of a certain kinds of wounded Irish-American manhood. He’s done this in a few ensemble television series, “The Job,” where he played a NYPD officer who was also a piece of human wreckage, and “Rescue Me,” where he played a FDNY fireman who was also a piece of human wreckage.

He’s very good at these roles; maybe a little too good. With his irritated eyes and his perpetual scowl, he rarely seems like someone you would want to spend much time with; his characters have a tendency to turn petty, mean, and vicious on a dime. There is a film in which he plays a mob enforcer, “Suicide Kings,” and there is a scene in it in which Leary beats a man with a toaster, and he’s totally believable as a man who might pick up a kitchen appliance and hospitalize you with it. He has the sort of persona that would ordinarily be relegated to supporting performances — and often is — because it is a strong, bitter spice. The amazing thing is that Leary has so often been able to carve out a career as a lead performer.

Sometimes, they steal cars for their local boss, played as a gregarious bully by Colm Meaney. Whatever they make they immediately blow, on alcohol and cocaine and, in Leary’s case, on bad bets.
“Monument Ave.,” which originally had a more classic crime film title, “Snitch,” has Leary at his least pleasant. The film is set in the same neighborhood of Boston where Ben Affleck’s “The Town” would be set a few years later: Charlestown. And the two films both address the town’s essential Irish clannishness, the sense that the delicate order of the place has been upset by the encroachment of gentrifying yuppies.

But “Monument Ave’s” Irish men are much more ragged than those of “The Town.” They’re mean, racist, drug-addled, often stupid, and directionless. Leary is at the center of a gang of these manchildren, all seemingly cousins, played by some extraordinary character actors, including Ian Hart and Billy Crudup. They’ve adopted a cousin from Dublin, and he’s a hanger on to their misdeeds, which are plentiful.

Sometimes, they steal cars for their local boss, played as a gregarious bully by Colm Meaney. Whatever they make they immediately blow, on alcohol and cocaine and, in Leary’s case, on bad bets. And once in a while, Meaney gets paranoid and shoots one of them; you get the sense that the reason this gang is so wretched is that Meaney has eliminated all the cousins who had intelligence or ambition. All but Leary, who can’t stand his life and acts out in little ways, such as playing rough with Meaney during a street hockey game. But if Leary is smart enough to be unhappy, he isn’t ambitious enough to do anything about it; he sometimes hints that he wants to just skip town, but then gets drunk and places a bet he can’t repay during a blackout.

Make no mistake, the film is about miserable people, and isn’t shy about making us watch their misery, and watch them misbehave toward others. The film has a scene in which Leary, coked out of his mind, kidnaps a black teenager and threatens to murder him, all because he’s irritated by the casual racism of one of his friends and, I don’t know, wants to show him what real racism looks like. As staged by director Ted Demme, the scene is agonizing, mostly focusing on the young man, seated in the backseat of a car with a gun pressed to his side, quietly sobbing. There’s no doubt that it is a hate crime we are witnessing, and it is being perpetrated by our heroes.

There’s no doubt that it is a hate crime we are witnessing, and it is being perpetrated by our heroes.
I both respect the scene for being unflinching and feel that it can’t help but undermine whatever sympathy we have for the characters, but, then, I’m not convinced we’re supposed to feel sympathy for them. A lot of crime films have smart, unhappy men as their leads, and we’re supposed to think they are better than their circumstances and root for them to be able to rise above them.  “The Town” certainly had that, in Ben Affleck’s character.

This film constantly seems to want to undermine that. Leary has a quick wit to him, but he never seems better than the story he’s in, and his occasional bleating about getting away seems more cowardly than aspirational. He’s as mean as any of them, he’s often casually homophobic, he’s not very good to the women in his life, and, come to think of it, he’s not very good to his male friends either. When his Dublin cousin complains that Leary has dragged him into a terrible world, Leary simply acts insulted, angrily complaining that the cousin wanted a job and Leary got him a job. He may not be Colm Meany, but he’s part of a machine that allows Meaney to thrive, even as it kills his own family.

It’s probably as honest a representation of crime as you’ll find onscreen, as something perpetrated by unpleasant misfits and losers, and I respect that the filmmakers didn’t shy away from the meanness, the squalidness, or the complicity of these men. But, my goodness, it’s a lot to ask us to spend an entire movie in their company.

Irish-American Crime Films: Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Michael Keaton as Johnny Kelly AKA Johnny Dangerously.

Michael Keaton as Johnny Kelly AKA Johnny Dangerously.

Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Written by: Harry Colomby, Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff, Norman Steinberg
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Michael Keaton, Marilu Henner, Joe Piscopo
Summary: A genially surreal sendup of 1930’s gangster films buoyed by the easygoing anarchy of star Michael Keaton

1984 feels like a weird year to release a spoof early mobster movies. For one thing, it was a bit hard to see them. The video revolution was just getting underway, and it would be years before the studios raided their vaults to release most of their genre films. Film noir had a cult following, but that cult tended toward the moody, shadow-lit films of the 40s and 50s and not for the melodramatic gangster operas of the 20s and 30s. I remember the first time I saw 1931’s “Little Caesar,” still regarded as one of the classic of the genre: It was 1986 at a special screening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and it screened for one night.

But, for whatever reason, a gang of screenwriters (there are four listed), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” director Amy Heckerling, and Michael Keaton, then in his second lead role, decided to spoof the genre with “Johnny Dangerously”; moreover, they decided to particularly satirize the films of James Cagney. This was tow years after “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” which built an entire new movie out of scenes from earlier crime films, tying it together with funnyman Steve Martin playing a PI, but that drew from 40s crime films and today seems more like a strange experimental film than a comedy. Johnny Dangerous often feels like a purer form of homage, sending up conventions of a film genre that nobody remembered anymore.

The whole of it is done in the rat-a-tat, million-jokes-per-minute, throw-it-all-in-and-see-what-works style that “Airplane” had successfully translated to the screen, but borrowed from Mad Magazine. And, in fact, if “Johnny Dangerously” feels like anything, it feels like a Mad Magazine film satire — it’s breezy and cartoonish, filled with little slangy asides, and delights in silly names (Danny Vermin) and strange sounds (one of the film’s best running gags is an Italian gangster whose torrential foul mouth spews nothing but mispronounced curse words: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights.) Especially in he early scenes, the film is shot with a breathtaking verve: characters literally run from place to place, and one women, when summoned, leaps off her second floor window and slides down a pole to get to the ground floor. News reporters tend to rush whatever telephone booth is nearby, literally flinging whoever is in it over their shoulders like Russian tumblers. Johnny Dangerously can’t cross a street without machine guns emerging from every imaginable nook and crevasse to open fire on him.

The film is positively daffy, and Heckerling’s direction has been compared to Frank Tashlin, a Warner Brothers cartoonist who moved on to live-action films but continued to treat them like Bugs Bunny shorts. There doesn’t seem to be one sense of humor driving the film, but dozens, all squeezing in jokes wherever possible with barely any awareness that there is another joke going on at nearly the same moment. Star Keaton rides the thing with an easy charm and a wild grin — he had proven, and would prove again, that anarchic comedy was his metier, and he settles into this film like it’s where he belongs.

The story is simple, if the details are lunatic. Johnny Kelly is the son of an Irish immigrant women in New York’s slums, and turns to crime to pay for her poor health. He pays his brother’s way through law school, only to see his brother join the DA’s office and promise to bring him down. Other gangsters frame Johnny and attempt to kill his brother, leading to a spectacular death-row escape and a shootout in a movie theater that is playing Cagney’s “The Roaring Twenties.” The bones of the film are solid; this could be any of the dozen actual crime films from the era.

This is not a mother from a Cagney movie. It’s a cutout in the shape of a mother, designed to showcase whatever joke, however unlikely or silly, that the writers want to place on it.
But then Heckingly and company start to pile the jokes on. The mother, played by Maureen Stapleton, has an endless series of health crises, each less likely but more expensive than the predecessor. In the meanwhile, she does laundry, and her entire apartment is piled high with it, including an entire room filled with shirts that need ironing. She carries a vibrator in her purse and winkingly tells her daughter-in-law that she swings both ways. This is not a mother from a Cagney movie. It’s a cutout in the shape of a mother, designed to showcase whatever joke, however unlikely or silly, that the writers want to place on it. Every character is like this; the whole film is like this. But, because the film still hews to such a straightforward plot, it somehow manages to be chaotic without becoming completely lost.

Watching the film again recently, I think it holds up a lot better than many of the comedies of the era. It probably benefits from the fact that it was parodying a much older film genre, and certainly benefits from having Heckerling as a director, but a lot of 80s comedies traded in a sort of casual mockery that seems dated now, but, more than that, just seems mean, as though the primary targets of humor in the era where women (and their sexuality), gay people, and people of color. There is very little of that in the film, but instead we get a mounting collection of gently surreal humor coupled with a cartoonish slapstick sensibility. The film is mostly cast with television actors, which was a trick sometimes used to keep costs down, but makes the film strangely comforting. We’ve seen these people on television for years, and so the film has the feel of old friends getting together and goofing around.

I suspect this will be  bit of a disappointment to those who want their comedy with bared teeth and red claw, and I suspect a truly vicious satire could be made from the same source material, instead of this collection of genial absurdity. The films that inspired these were tough and mean, filled with vicious psychopaths and sometimes shockingly cynical, and these elements are ignored in “Johnny Dangerously,” which, like it’s lead actor, has a frantic charm but no real menace.

But still, it’s hard to fault a film for being what it wanted to be instead of what you wanted it to be. The meaner film can still be made, if someone wants to tackle it. Now might be a better time anyway, as the old gangster films are much more available, and there have been a recent spate of similar films to remind audiences of what these sort of crime films are like, and why they are so thrilling. Call it “Johnny Murderously”; I’ll go see it.

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.

Irish-American Crime Films: Run All Night (2015)

 

The quick and the dead: Liam Neeson in "Run All Night"

The quick and the dead: Liam Neeson in “Run All Night”

Run All Night (2015)

Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman
Summary: Neeson is game and the plotting is straightforward in this story of an enforcer looking to save his son from a mob hit, but the direction is intrusive and the action sometimes nonsensical.

To give credit where it is due, there is an elegant simplicity to the plot of “Run All Night,” and it is this: Liam Neeson has 24 hours to protect his son from a mob hit. It starts grubby, with Neeson playing an alcoholic former enforcer to an Irish mobster in New York, played by Ed Harris. Neeson is a man who is haunted by his past, when he was a notorious butcher of men, and Harris is a man who has moved past his criminal roots into semi-legitimacy. Neeson has an estranged son and Harris has a deranged son, and when the former sees the latter commit murder, the two families collide, with Neeson’s faculty for murder his only defense against the considerable resources Harris can muster. This includes rapper Common as a nearly inhuman killing machine with an unexplained yen to destroy Neeson.

The film has a series of vivid set pieces, included a protracted and lurid showdown in a burning and police-infested housing project that is like a miniature version of the Indonesian actioner “The Raid: Redemption.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Run All Night’s” screenwriter will be scripting the American adaptation of “The Raid.”). And the film tries for a gruffness, an unglamorous workaday quality like the decidedly low-rent crime films of the 70s. Liam Neeson, at the start of the film, is intoxicated and begging money to repair his heater while working as Santa at Harris’ Christmas party; we’ll see him later hugging a space heater in his ramshackle home. Neeson’s son, played by Joel Kinnaman, teaches kids in a boxing gym. The film has them visit Neeson’s brother, played by an uncredited Nick Nolte, and the former lead actor has developed a second career playing squalid, broken men, his always-raspy voice now completely ruined. Harris’ gang, in the meanwhile, is filled with an assortment of terrific Irish-American character actors, including Bruce McGill and Holt McCallany, and it’s about the most authentically Irish-American-looking mob since “State of Grace,” which this film sometimes resembles, especially in casting Ed Harris as a mob boss.

The film tries for a gruffness, an unglamorous workaday quality like the decidedly low-rent crime films of the 70s.
But there’s something a bit daft about it all. Director Jaume Collet-Serra often lenses scenes with a flashiness that manages to be showy but distracting — he especially favors cutting between scenes by sending his camera flying through the city from one location to the next, like a cinematic version of plotting a route on Google maps. The results are a bit unreal looking, and I can imagine it might have been a useful device if the intention was to clarify where scenes were set in relation to each other, or to show that everybody lives by each other, but they instead serve no obvious function.

And the script by Brad Ingelsby is sometimes oddly stupid. Harris has a gang of several dozen men, all of whom, we are given to believe, are fairly skilled at enforcing their boss’s will. Harris sends them out into the city to find Neeson and his son, and somehow they never bother to look in on Neeson’s brother, his sick mother, or the gym where Neeson’s son works to see if there is anybody there who might know anything. The police don’t bother with this either, even though, they believe (rightly) that Neeson has murdered two cops. Even Common, who is supposed to be superlative at this sort of thing, simply skips doing basic investigation and just shows up wherever a police scanner says Neeson might be, which makes his task needlessly complicated, as now his task of killing Neeson and son also involves assaulting and shooting the cops who are also looking for them. Stranger still, none of this is necessary. Neeson has made it clear he means to kill Harris; they just have to hang around by the mob boss and wait for Neeson to show up.

A pity, because the film would have benefited from making everybody competent at what they do. Every scene would have had an enjoyable frisson of potential danger to it if everywhere Neeson went, his hunters had already arrived or were on their way. His choices would have had to be smarter, and the way he went about them craftier and deadlier. Worse still, there is very little sense of a struggle in Neeson’s character — the moment the bullets fly, he stops being a drunk and just becomes the sort of towering figure of skilled murderousness that Neeson has been essaying for the past decade. But the film would have been much tenser if it were the broken Neeson, his skills undermined by years of drinking, his head foggy and his behavior stupidly and sometimes suicidally desperate.

Despite this, there are some pleasures to be had in the film. One of them comes near the film’s climax, and I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say this: It’s very similar to the ending of “State of Grace,” where a man with a gun enters an Irish bar and starts shooting. In that film, the scene ends very badly for Ed Harris. There is an almost identical scene in this film, and when the man with the gun enters the bar and starts shooting, Ed Harris behaves like he remembers the earlier film. Instead of pulling out a gun and joining in the shooting, he throws open the back door and just runs away.

I always like it when people learn from mistakes they made in earlier films.

Irish-American Crime Films: Men of Boys Town (1941)

Men of Boys Town: A two-fisted priest fights for juvenile offenders.

Men of Boys Town: A two-fisted priest fights for juvenile offenders.

Men of Boys Town (1941)

Written by: James Kevin McGuinness
Directed by: Norman Taurog
Starring:   Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson
Summary: Embedded in this beat-by-beat retelling of the first Boys Town movie is a genuinely harrowing look at abusive reform schools.

“Men of Boys Town” is about as overstuffed a film as I have seen. Much of it is almost a plot-point-by-plot-point rehash of the original “Boys Town.” Father Flanagan’s colony of in-need youths suffers from financial troubles, a tough kid is humanized by the school, and a car accident sets the climax in motion, although this time it is a dog, and not cherubic actor Bobs Watson, who is run down.

And the script is thick with sentiment. The New York Times could not have been less charitable when they reviewed it, saying:

[The film is]an obvious and maudlin reassembly of cliches out of the cabinet marked Pathos, lacking completely the sincerity which did distinguish the first, and so frequently punctuated by close-ups of blubbering boys that one finally feels an embarrassed inclination to look away.

And yet, stuffed right in the middle of the film, book-ended by so much plot that it feels like an aside, is a look at a brutal boys reformatory that is utterly harrowing. There’s too much plot, really, for me to explain it fully. Suffice it to say that Mickey Rooney’s character, a former swaggering delinquent named Whitey, is adopted out-of-state and accidentally gets himself sent to the reformatory there. We already know about the particular reformatory, as the film starts with a boy named Ted remanded to the care of Boys Town. He was crippled by a guard at the reformatory, and murdered the guard in revenge.

There aren’t many scenes at the reformatory, but they are all of brutality, much of it rained down on Whitey’s head. He has turned into an honorable boy, and that’s a liability in this place, where standing up for another child will get you knocked unconscious. Worse still, Whitey witnesses a boy die in solitary and refuses to keep quiet about it, and so he finds himself likewise exiled to solitary, where, the film intimates, terrible things happen unwitnessed. White has been given another tiny sidekick in this film, a boy named Flip, played by Darryl Hickman with exaggerated gestures of bravado, slinging dime-store tough-guy lingo, and it’s mostly played for laughs. That is, until Flip ends up in the reformatory, at which point his bravado dies up and he weeps with terror. In a film of exaggerated sentiment, these scenes feel unforced and terrifying.

It resolves itself pretty quickly: Spencer Tracy, reprising his role as Father Flanagan, shows up and physically threatens the warden, and almost immediately the place is shut down. Unlike the original “Boys Town,” which at least borrowed from the real story of Father Flanagan, this one barely glances at history, making its story up whole cloth.

12-year-old murderer Herbert Niccolls.

12-year-old murderer Herbert Niccolls.

What the film does get right is Father Flanagan’s disgust with the juvenile reformatory system. In 1931, Flanagan fought to have a 12-year-old murderer in Washington named Herbert Niccolls remanded to Boys Town. Niccolls had shot a sheriff who had surprised him during a robbery, but Flanagan argued the boy never had a chance. “He went to the reformatory at the age of 9 and stayed there 15 months,” Flanagan told the press. “He’s no criminal; he’s simply like any other hungry, neglected boy.”

Martin paroled Niccolls in 1941, and the former child murderer eventually found work at the MGM movie studio as an accountant — the very studio that produced “Men of Boys Town” the year after Niccolls’ release.
Flanagan’s pleas were ignored and Niccolls was sentenced to life imprisonment — an unusually harsh punishment for a minor. Fortunately for Niccolls, a new governor was elected in Washington named Clarence Martin, and Martin took a personal interest in Niccolls, visiting him in his cell. Niccolls received unusual treatment for a prisoner — he wore street clothes instead of prison denims, ate with the guards instead of his fellow prisoners, and received homework from the school district. He excelled at his studies, receiving a high school diploma and took correspondence classes from Washington State College.

Martin paroled Niccolls in 1941, and the former child murderer eventually found work at the MGM movie studio as an accountant — the very studio that produced “Men of Boys Town” the year after Niccolls’ release. Niccolls lived to 1983 and was reportedly a model citizen, and its hard not to wonder if his 10 years in prison was necessary — with just the slightest amount of discipline and opportunity, he made a good life for himself, and he would have found that at Boys Town.

“Men of Boys Town” was a moderate financial success, but hasn’t left much of a legacy — even at Boys Town itself, where the film was shot, there is scarce mention of the film. There also isn’t much mention of Flanagan’s stance against reform schools, although there is brief mention of a tour he did of such school in Ireland in 1946, which Flanagan decried in no uncertain terms: “[A] scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” Perhaps this is because 1930s-style reform schools seem like a throwback to an earlier era, of boys in newsie caps threatening Italian store-owners with homemade Saturday night specials.

Of course, they never actually went away, although the phrase has become passe, replaced with “juvenile correctional institutions” and similarly sterile phrases. The legacy of abuse is still around too: In January of this year the Nampa, Idaho juvenile corrections center was rocked with allegations of sexual abuse, and newspapers reporting on the story pointed to statistics from national inmate surveys that show that juveniles suffer sexual abuse at the hands of staffers at almost three times the rate incarcerated adults do.

I don’t know if I believe the moment in “Men of Boys Town” when Spencer Tracy takes off his collar to threaten the warden of a juvenile facility. It seemed very out of character for Father Flanagan. But, gosh, it sometimes feel like somebody needs to be ready to put up their fists and fight for children, even those charged with serious crimes, and Flanagan has been gone a long time.

Irish-American Crime Films: Great Guy (1936)

James Cagney in "Great Guy": The housewife must not be cheated.

James Cagney in “Great Guy”: The housewife must not be cheated.

Great Guy (1936)

Written by: James Edward Grant (story), Henry McCarty, Henry Johnson
Directed by: John G. Blystone
Starring:   James Cagney, Mae Clarke
Summary: An odd but fascinating story of a two-fisted inspector for the Department of Weights and Measures battling organized corruption in machine politics

This film is an undeniable oddity, in that it is about a two-fisted inspector for the New York Department of Weights and Measures, based on a series of stories by fiction author James Edward Grant. One wouldn’t initially think the Department of Weights and Measures is the sort of place where violence would be common or necessary; instead, one would think the worst you might expect is an occasional slide-ruler accident.

But this is 1936, and, in the film’s New York, it is dominated by two things: The Great Depression and machine politics. As a result, petty graft has gotten into everything, tacitly supported by ward aldermen, all of whom seem to have their own gang of thugs on hand to put down an upstart. As a result, anywhere that a weight or a measure can be massaged, it is massaged. Chicken is weighed down with lead pipes to sell for higher prices. Gas stations charge for four gallons and pump three. It’s as though the whole economy is kept afloat by Peter robbing Paul, and, in this instance, Peter is the small businessman and Paul is his client. The amount this costs the nation, we are told, is greater than the war debt.

“The housewife must not be cheated,” Cagney tells his men, and he’s not kidding, and neither is the film.
And so the Department of Weights and Measures has hired its own enforcer, a former pugilist named Johnny Cave, played, appropriately, by James Cagney. Cave is straight-talking and hard to bully — he needs constant reminders to keep his fists in his pockets, lest he start punching, which he does anyway. Every time he catches a businessman cheating a customer, they offer him a bribe, and then attack him. It’s a marvelous structure, and one can’t help but think the film might have had more fun with it, like those Japanese manga that take backgammon or couples dance and treat it like urban warfare.

Still, this is a film with a surprisingly daffy sense of humor about its subject. As tough a guy as Cagney is, he’s a bit henpecked by his finance, played by Mae Clarke, the woman on the receiving end of his grapefruit in “Public Enemy.” She bosses him around relentlessly and keeps a tight reign on their joint bank account, and while this is presented as comedy, it also serves as a subtle reminder of how cautious people were with money during the Depression. Cagney is also partnered with a giant, garrulous Irishman named Patrick James Aloysius Haley, played by James Burke with a terrible Irish accident but marvelously understated comic timing — he tends to start grand, overlong folk tales and then just peter out when people get sick of him talking, muttering an extra line of dialogue that I feel sure was improvised and is often the funniest part of his story. When Haley attempts to talk about fairy folk who live under strawberries, Cagney interrupts him with a curt “There are no strawberries in Ireland.” “I feel sure I saw a few at the farmer’s market,” Haley mutters.

Cagney pushes back, and it escalates until Cagney finally gets the drop on him, and then Cagney locks him in a room and beats him insensible.
The plot mostly revolves around one especially aggressive ward alderman, Marty Cavanaugh, who doesn’t think twice about sending his goon squad out to enforce his wishes. There’s not terribly much to say about this story — he tries to push Cagney around, and Cagney pushes back, and it escalates until Cagney finally gets the drop on him, and then Cagney locks him in a room and beats him insensible. The villain isn’t especially villainous — he’s more oily than anything — and his goons are pretty nondescript, both of which are a pity considering how odd this movie is. With a dash more melodrama, or a dash more pulpy two-fisted men’s tale, it could have been a spectacle.

But, then, it’s a film that takes very seriously the costs of this sort of endemic political corruption. “The housewife must not be cheated,” Cagney tells his men, and he’s not kidding, and neither is the film. Still, the blame for this sort of corruption is placed squarely at the feet of machine politics, as though there were something about a political machine that will inherently cheat the common man and housewife. American was in the process of busting political machines just then, which was sold to America as a way to preserve democracy but today reads as just a way to sabotage effective Democratic politicking. After all, we didn’t get rid of corruption or cronyism, neither did we end the system of quid pro quo whereby political supporters get favors from their candidates. If anything, it is worse now than it ever is. But machine politics, which made votes — not money — the important currency in politics, at least gave the everyman some power.

But, the film argues, the housewife was getting overcharged every time she went to buy a chicken! Well, that still happens, and has become institutionalized. If I buy food in the city, where it is hard to find a supermarket and the closest thing available is a corner bodega or convenience story, I am likely to spend as much as 37 percent more on my food purchases. No weights have been tampered with, no scales have been altered, and there is no James Cagney punching out a store manager for cheating me. They just get to charge more and I have to take it. But now I don’t even have a ward heeler knock at my door at Thanksgiving to give me a free turkey.

Come to think of it, I don’t even have a department of weights and measures in my town. Maybe they are sticking lead pipes in the chickens and pumping three gallons of gas for every four purchased. How would I know, and who would I talk to?

It’s enough to make a man vote Tammany.