(director: John Cromwell; screenwriters: W.R. Burnett/William Wister Haines/from a play by Bartlett Cormack; cinematographer: George E. Diskant; editor: Sherman Todd; cast: Robert Mitchum (Capt. Thomas McQuigg), Lizabeth Scott (Irene Hayes), Robert Ryan (Nick Scanlon), William Talman (Johnson), Ray Collins (Welch), Joyce MacKenzie (Mary McQuigg), Brett King (Joe Scanlon), William Conrad (Turck), Robert Hutton (Dave Ames, Reporter),Virginia Huston (Lucy Johnson), Don Porter (Connolly), Richard Karlan (Enright), Howland Chamberlain (Higgins); Runtime: 88; RKO; 1951)
“A typical gangster film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Howard R. Hughes produced a silent version in 1928 of this routine old-fashioned crime film, which was based on a play by Bartlett Cormack. It details the political corruption and violence in an unnamed Midwestern city, where the syndicate openly operates. Nick Scanlon (Ryan) is an old-fashioned ruthless local crime boss who uses rough tactics to get his way while his new bosses, a national crime syndicate, headed by the unseen and unidentified Old Man.They represent the modern type of crime organization who believe in smoothing things over with graft and deals. They are not pleased with Scanlon as they want a low-profile man in charge of the operation, no physical violence, and a more businesslike approach to their corruption schemes. They are opposed by a dedicated and incorruptible conservative police captain, McQuigg (Mitchum), who vows to get Scanlon and bring the syndicate to justice the old-fashioned way.
The secondary types depicted can be considered as film noir characters: nightclub torch singer Irene Hayes (Scott), who learns that Nick Scanlon’s brother is a weakling after he dumps her and she decides to blow the whistle on the mob even though that places her in jeopardy; the crooked prosecutor promised a judgeship by the syndicate after the election and would sell his soul for that, the pragmatic Welch (Collins); a dishonest police sergeant, Turck (Conrad), who straightens things out in a cunning way for the mob as a special investigator; Johnson (Talman), a young cop who is tough and honest like McQuigg; and, a naive cub reporter, Ames (Hutton), who falls for the blonde torch singer.
But this film didn’t have enough punch to be hard-hitting, as it softened all the things about widespread city corruption and made all the characters into one-dimensional types. All it had going were the action scenes and some gloss, as the original version was a much more effective film. I saw the colorized video version.
It comes evident in the first reel that Scanlon is a loose cannon as he takes care of a squealer (Higgins) to the Commissioner’s Special Investigation team, by having his men shoot him in the street. In the getaway after the rub out, traffic cop Johnson recognizes the driver and fingers him from a mug shot. McQuigg immediately promotes him to detective to work primarily in catching Scanlon, and uses the press to keep the pressure on the hoods. The Old Man’s method was to use nonviolent pressure tactics to hold something on Higgins so that it didn’t pay for him to squeal and therefore that would avoid all the bad publicity that was sure to follow a contract killing.
Scanlon feels pressured by McQuigg’s tough tactics, as he has his beloved brother arrested by Johnson on a variety of framed charges and squeezes Irene to talk when he holds her as a material witness. The hot-tempered Scanlon loses his cool and goes into the police station and kills Johnson, which leads to his downfall. In a number of action scenes that follow, it shows his demise and how justice slowly works to fix the machinery of its system.
The corruption is always something abstract. The corrupted are taken in by their own greed, hunger for power, or are just plain ambitious in a twisted way. The violence that comes from both Ryan and Mitchum seems to be nothing compared to the more blatant underhanded violence against the people’s trust by those in political office who sell out to gain favors for themselves. It’s only hinted that the real stink comes from the top of the political hierachy, the governor and all his cronies. But, unfortunately, the film never goes into that and just leaves it as a personal battle between Ryan and Mitchum. In one case, Mitchum tears up a writ of habeas corpus. In another case, he frames a suspect. While Ryan puts himself in trouble with his bosses and with the public by openly gunning down his enemies. The main difference between them is that Mitchum acts dirty for the good of Society and only goes after the bad guys, while Ryan is fighting dirty only to build an evil empire for himself and doesn’t care whom he hurts.
The film is more reflective of the 1920s than the 1940s, unfortunately it’s set in the ’40s. This is a typical gangster film of that era but is dated and too murky.
REVIEWED ON 9/3/2001 GRADE: C –