Darren McGavin socks jaws and blasts bullets as he exposes cops who’ve sold out to the Syndicate!
US / 81 minutes / bw / Morningside, Columbia Dir: Paul Wendkos Pr: Charles H. Schneer Scr: Raymond T. Marcus (i.e., Bernard Gordon), Daniel B. Ullman Story: “I Broke the Brooklyn Graft Scandal” (n.d. True Magazine) by Ed Reid Cine: Fred Jackman Cast: Darren McGavin, Maggie Hayes (i.e., Margaret Hayes), Warren Stevens, Peggy McCay, Tol Avery, Emile Meyer, Nestor Paiva, Brian Hutton, Robert Osterloh, Joseph Turkel, Bobby Helms, John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry, Joe De Santis, Michael Garth, Herb Vigran, Cheerio Meredith.
Journalist Ed Reid (uncredited, but possibly played by himself) has blown the story wide open: not only is NYC full of “horse rooms” (illegal bookie joints) but the taking of bribes by the cops to look the other way is rife. His stories in the newspapers draw the attention of DA Michael W. Norris (Avery) and leading bookie Finelli (Paiva), albeit for very different reasons.
Finelli (Nestor Paiva) hands over the days takings to his henchman Rudi (Warren Stevens).
Norris decides to set up a sting operation using recent graduates from the police academy, who presumably can be expected to have not yet discovered the allure of corruption. Chief among these—or, at least, the rookie whose story we follow—is Pete Harris (McGavin), a man who has some relevant experience in that he did intelligence work for the US Marines in Japan. Pete chooses as his sidekick his old academy comrade Jess Johnson (Hutton) and the pair rent an apartment that’s convenient for Finelli’s current horse room and also the garage now owned by Lil Polombo (Hayes).
Not long ago, Lil’s husband Gus found himself deep in hock to the gambling Syndicate and, after having been roughed over by Finelli’s thugs, decided the only way out was to kill himself in a truck “accident.” Pete’s thinking is that the vulnerable Lil, if wooed, might offer an opening into the Syndicate’s workings.
Gus Polombo (De Santis) can’t take it any longer.
Jess is pretty disgusted by the idea: how far, he asks, is Pete prepared to go with Lil in order to get the evidence? All the way, if need be, is the answer. Adding to Jess’s revulsion is that he’s a great pal not just of Pete but of Pete’s loving wife Janie (McCay).
The things cops have to do in the pursuit of justice . . .
Pete isn’t the only one chasing recent widow Lil. She discovered husband Gus bleeding and staggering after his beating, with Rudi Franklin (Stevens) apparently trying to help him. She assumed Rudi was merely a kindly passer-by. In fact, he’s Finelli’s main henchman, the guy in charge of moving the Syndicate’s money—including the bribes for the cops—around Brooklyn, all done under his guise as deliveryman for the Interurban Laundry & Linen Service. Rudi is truly keen on her, and his warning to her that she mustn’t suggest that Gus committed suicide is only partly motivated by his concern for the Syndicate: he also wants to keep her alive.
We thus have the interesting dichotomy set up between Pete, who’s one of the good guys but heartlessly exploiting Lil’s emotions, and Rudi, who’s a charming but utterly ruthless exploiter of his fellow man yet who genuinely feels for Lil and has her interests at heart.
Pete works himself into the trust of Finelli by posing as a punter recently arrived from California. He places few bets, shows that his credit is good, and in general plays the part of a sucker-to-be.
Pete and sidekick Jess decide to tap Finelli’s phone, and pick up all sorts of indiscretions on tape. Unfortunately, Finelli almost catches Jess at one point. Jess wants to back off but Pete, by now obsessed with cleaning out the entire vipers’ nest, presses him to keep going. That night a crooked cop, Detective-Sergeant Bonney (Osterloh), catches Jess in the act and guns him down in cold blood. Pete arrives on the scene and nabs Bonney, but too late for Jess.
Jess (Brian Hutton) meets his nemesis.
Janie wants Pete to put the case into hiatus for a while but, obsessed as he is, he can’t. While on the one hand pursuing his quasi-romance with Lil, on the other he sets up a sting operation to try to entrap some of Finelli’s thugs. He gives Finelli a large and deliberately dud check, then waits for the enforcers to turn up. When they do, he has a major fight with them—a fight that eventually he loses. The cops arrive but, either through stupidity or corruption, assume the undercover Pete’s the guilty party and arrest him. It’s not stupidity but certainly corruption that drives their boss, Captain T.W. Wills (Meyer), to make Pete’s life difficult.
Norris (Tol Avery) interrogates . . .
. . . Bonney (Robert Osterloh).
Meanwhile Lil, who was expecting Pete to call round to take her out on a date, starts to get worried about him—especially when the operator tells her his phone is out of order. She goes round to his pad, finds the place pretty badly busted up and the phone off the hook . . .
And it’s from here on, about halfway through, that The Case Against Brooklyn, which up until now has been a fine, workmanlike, strongly noir-influenced police procedural, really takes off. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the first half of the movie—it’s extremely well made, and its tale-telling is splendid—but it hardly sets itself apart from lots of other movies with the same merits. From the midpoint onward, however, it stands with the best of film noir.
That sequence with Lil nervously poking around in Pete’s apartment is in itself beautifully orchestrated. She replaces the phone on the hook, and almost immediately it rings. She picks it up hesitantly, to find Pete’s wife Janie on the other end of the line. Hayes is magnificent in her depiction of Lil as she slowly realizes that the man to whom she was prepared to give both her heart and a place in her bed is married to a woman who clearly loves him.
She makes excuses and gets off the phone. As she looks up Pete’s real address in the phone book, the landlady (Meredith) stumbles in and tells her what happened earlier. Mortally betrayed yet still loving Pete, Lil goes to tell Janie that he’s been arrested.
Unfortunately, she then goes to her habitual bar and gets totally shnockered with the still-persistent Rudi. Maudlin, she without thinking gives Rudi the Harris home address. She’s not so hammered, though, that she doesn’t recognize his lascivious intentions:
Rudi: “You can’t walk. I’ll drive you.”
Lil: “Oho, no, you don’t. Thanks just the same. But I know I’m a little bit . . . You drive me home, the next thing I know you’ll want to come upstairs for a cup of coffee, and the next thing I know I’ll be frying your eggs in the morning and washing your shirts. No, thanks, Rudi. Goodnight.”
Norris has learnt from Janie of Pete’s plight, and gets him released from custody. Alas, the Syndicate is aware of what’s going on and plants a mic and a booby-trapped telephone in the Harris apartment. Through the mic Rudi and his cronies listen to a sort of reconciliation between Janie and the badly bruised and lacerated Pete. “There’s a big empty place inside you, Pete,” says Janie, “that separates you from other people.”
Janie (Peggy McCay) is terrified for Pete.
Moments later the phone rings, and Janie goes to pick it up . . .
And just then I realized I’d seen the movie before. That might seem like faint praise—hey, I already saw the movie and I only just now remembered, gawsh!—except that the previous watching was approximately half a century ago, in a curious little second-run (or, more like, fifth-run) cinema that I used to frequent as a schoolboy in Aberdeen, Scotland. (The reason the place got my patronage was that it was dirt cheap by comparison with the other fleapits. Aberdeen, you know.) This particular sequence is so good and so moving that it stamped itself into my mind for that long a time.
I also have vague memories of the climactic sequences, as Rudi stalks Pete through the creepily steaming works of an industrial laundry. Director Wendkos ratchets up the suspense most creditably.
Pete (Darren McGavin) watches Rudi (Warren Stevens) from on high.
Lots of things that presumably went over my head back then forefronted themselves this time around. On the minus side, there’s a completely irrelevant sequence, stinking of product placement, of pop star Bobby Helms (of whom I’ve never knowingly heard) singing along with his jukeboxed self at a restaurant where Pete and Lil are having a date. (“I have a headache,” says Lil by way of non sequitur.) Luckily the song’s a short one, so that the integrity of the movie isn’t too much threatened.
Bobby Helms in what seems to be an early example of product placement.
Another questionable aspect is the casting of Hayes. She’s a wonderful actress and I could watch her for hours on end, but at the same time she presents a very distinguished persona that’s hard to reconcile with her role as a garage-owner’s widow who’s thinking, not too long after his death, of tumbling into bed with some random guy on the second date. There’s the same kind of cognitive dissonance as with Lana Turner’s role in The POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946): the actress is far too classy for the role. In Turner’s case the classiness was expensively bought and skin-deep. In Hayes’s there’s a little more depth to the problem. It seems impossible that even the driven Pete could feel happy about treating Lil as just some other exploitable floozie; at the same time, Hayes’s characterization of the part surely helps when she’s portraying Lil as having the decency to warn The Other Woman—Janie—of Pete’s plight.
Lil (Margaret Hayes) makes her feelings plain to Pete.
I’ve gone on at length about the movie’s demerits because they’re few and, to be honest, negligible when placed alongside its strengths.
One of those strengths is its screenplay. This was done by Bernard Gordon, working pseudonymously because at the time Gordon was a victim of Joseph McCarthy’s vile House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Schneer was aware of this, but employed Gordon for a series of pseudonymous scripts. Soon Gordon moved to Europe where he penned a number of highly distinguished screenplays, including 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Battle of the Bulge (1965). Gordon was one of those who protested the awarding to Elia Kazan of an Honorary Oscar on the grounds that Kazan had disingenuously, seemingly for the sole purpose of personal advancement, sold out lots of his erstwhile colleagues to HUAC.
Among the other strengths are the performances. Even the supporting actors deliver for the most part committed and terrific turns. For example, Avery’s rendition of the DA could so easily have been something merely phoned in, but instead he builds up a character whom we can completely credit.
Lil (Margaret Hayes) tries to talk sense into Pete (Darren McGavin).
And we shouldn’t forget Jackman’s cinematography. Whether or not Wendkos thought he was making a film noir, Jackman was certainly more than aware of the style and wanted to imprint it upon this movie. There are gratuitous upshots galore—an introductory conversation between Rudi and Bonney as Bonney takes over the Syndicate business from another corrupt cop (an uncredited Vigran, in a splendid turn) is full of them. There are plenty of downshots, likewise: I especially liked the moments when first Pete and then Lil looked down to the parking lot outside as Rudi arrived to date and/or interrogate the latter.
Jackman shows a noirish love for shadows, too. My favorite moment here comes late in the movie, when honest cops follow Pete and the crooks to the scene of the final showdown. Rudi’s van is parked outside the industrial laundry. After it sneaks the cops’ car. We can hardly see the car because of the city lights behind it. What we do see is its shadow on garage doors:
McGavin played various roles in noirish movies, such as The MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955), and depicted Mike Hammer in the tv series Mike Hammer (1958–60; 78 episodes). His devotees, though, probably remember best his role as Kolchak in the two noir-influenced fantasy/horror TV movies The Night Stalker (1972 TVM) dir John Llewellyn Moxey and The Night Strangler (1973 TVM) dir Dan Curtis, plus the subsequent series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–5; 20 episodes).
Serpico (1973)? Nope. But in its way it’s every bit as worth attention.