Black Hand, The: True Story of a Recent Occurrence in the Italian Quarter of New York (1906)

US / c650ft (11 minutes) / bw / American Mutoscope & Biograph Dir: Wallace McCutcheon Pr: Francis J. Marion Cine: G.W. Bitzer Cast: Anthony O’Sullivan, Robert G. Vignola.

Supposedly based on a real case that took place in NYC, this is often cited as the earliest surviving gangster movie. There are no cast credits, though two of the actors have been identified.

Two Italian gangsters (O’Sullivan, Vignola), whose main occupation seems to be sitting around playing cards and getting schnockered, concoct a note to a local butcher, Angelo:

Black Hand - The threatening letter

The note.

Angelo doesn’t have the money so, a while later, sure enough, when Angelo’s little daughter Maria is strolling down Seventh Avenue, one of the gangsters lures the child into hunting for a supposedly dropped coin; moments later she’s seized and stuffed into a carriage driven by a third gangster.

Black Hand - Maria is seised on Seventh Ave

The kidnapping.

At the three gangsters’ HQ, our hoodlum friends settle down to the important business of playing cards and getting schnockered again while a woman who appears to be the mom of one or both roughs Maria up a little.

Black Hand - Maria tries to sneak away

The renewed schnockering offers cover for Maria to attempt an escape.

The third gangster goes to Angelo’s to pick up the money, but Angelo and his wife have called in the cops, two of whom lurk in Angelo’s coldroom, then spring out and arrest the man. Similarly, with the aid of Maria the cops invade the gangsters’ HQ and arrest the two loafers there.

Black Hand - Angelo's shop - check the prices

The scene of the arrest.

The story is, as must be evident from this description, pretty rudimentary, and so is the movie itself. At nearly 11 minutes’ running time, it was for its day a full-length feature, but clearly there wasn’t much lavished on the budget. The sets are quite obviously artificial, little effort having been made to make them look anything but: the wooden beams barring the door and window of the gangsters’ HQ don’t even look wooden. Far more effective are the exteriors: Seventh Avenue, where Maria is seized off the sidewalk, and one of the cross streets farther downtown, where the gangsters’ HQ is situated. These scenes are refreshingly full of incidental characters going about their business very naturalistically; it’s been suggested this was achieved by filming the scenes with a hidden camera, those incidental characters being unsuspecting passers-by.

The movie’s six chapters are named in the intertitles. They are:

•           Writing the Letter
•           The Letter Received
•           The Threat Carried Out
•           The Gang’s Headquarters
•           Levying the Blackmail: A Clever Arrest, Actually as Made by the New York Detectives
•           Rescue of Maria

The much later movie BLACK HAND (1950) dir Richard Thorpe, with Gene Kelly, J. Carrol Naish, Teresa Celli, Marc Lawrence and Frank Puglia, is set at about the same time as this one and likewise centers on the real-life Black Hand extortion rackets in NYC’s Little Italy; there the resemblance more or less ends.

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2 thoughts on “Black Hand, The: True Story of a Recent Occurrence in the Italian Quarter of New York (1906)

  1. Now THIS is really fascinating to me!!! 1906 and the caps are in excellent shape. The note itself is a classic, and it would be fair game to assert this is the earliest film of it’s type in the genre! Real nice post here John!

    • I’ve no idea if it definitely is the earliest surviving gangster movie, as claimed, but it does seem to make a contribution to film noir’s prehistory, so to speak. I suppose really it’s a very early dramadoc!

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