Purple Gang, The (1959)

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A “youthful rat-pack of terrorists”!
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US / 85 minutes / bw / Allied Artists Dir: Frank McDonald Pr: Lindsley Parsons Scr: Jack DeWitt Cine: Ellis Carter Cast: Barry Sullivan, Robert Blake, Elaine Edwards, Marc Cavell, Jody Lawrance, Suzy Marquette, Joseph Turkel, Victor Creatore, Paul Dubov, Dirk London, Kathleen Lockhart, Nestor Paiva, Lou Krugman, Robert Anderson, Mauritz Hugo, Danny Mummert, John Close, Ralph Sanford, George Baxter, Paul McGuire, David Tomack, Don Haggerty, Congressman James Roosevelt.

This gives the impression—complete with pompous introduction from a political stuffed shirt—of being a dramatized documentary about the real-life Purple Gang, which terrorized Detroit during the 1920s and 1930s, but in fact its moments of consonance with the historical reality are fairly few and far between, and usually consist of the scripters merely incorporating a stray aspect of the truth in hopes it’ll somehow stand in for all the rest. Just to add to the air of divorcement from reality, while the setting is stated to be the late 1920s and the early 1930s, there’s no effort, through costume or effects, to place the action anywhere else but in the 1940s.

Congressman Roosevelt introduces our tale.

The stuffed shirt in question is Congressman James Roosevelt, Chairman (it says here) of the Committee on Narcotics of the California Delegation in the Congress of the United States, who bizarrely addresses most of his remarks not to the camera but slightly to our right of it. After he’s done, we then get a scrolled legend aiming to persuade us further of the movie’s authenticity:

This picture is based on information from official files which revealed the shocking story of the wave of juvenile delinquency which spawned Detroit’s Purple Gang.

Incredible as it may seem, this youthful rat-pack of terrorists dominated the city’s underworld for more than a decade during the prohibition era.

Phew! Now we’ve got that bit over with we can start watching The Purple Gang as the moderately entertaining fiction it is.

Hastings Street is, we’re told, the crummiest area of Detroit, and it’s there that the youthful hooligans of the Purple Gang shake down hapless shopkeepers and others. It’s there, too, that fresh-faced teenager William Joseph “Honeyboy” Willard (Blake) lives with his unwitting grandparents. Police Lt. William “Bill” P. Harley (Sullivan), in charge of the Purple Gang investigation, knows with a certainty that Honeyboy is the mastermind behind the gang, but damned if he can prove it.

Hank (Marc Cavell) is Honeyboy’s first recruit.

Honeyboy’s chief sidekick is his bottle-bottom-spectacled pal Henry Abel “Hank” Smith (Cavell) and, after Bill has failed yet again to coax any truth out of his boyish suspect, we get to witness Honeyboy give Hank a sort of Trumpish inspirational speech, although the expression is a tad more articulate and runs to over 140 characters:

Honeyboy: “After tonight, Hank, the chips are down. You know what we do? We pick the best men, and we hold ’em together. You know what makes a gang stick together no matter what? . . . I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. It’s one guy—one guy that they can look up to. See, people are like sheep, Hank—they like to follow. Not somebody they respect. No, there’s only one thing they respect, Hank. You know what that is?

“Fear.

“That’s the number that makes the world go round, Hank. That’s the number we play.

“And you know who they fear the most? The guy with the most guts.

“That’s me, Hank. Me, with you. Together we got more guts than any of them, huh?”

Throughout the movie, Honeyboy is eager to prove that, whatever else he may not have—like years and stature—he’s got guts a-plenty. Hank, on the other hand, is from the outset evidently a useful idiot, someone who’s always a passive follower, a yes-man, a spectator to acts of intrigue and violence rather than an active participant in them. It seems that Honeyboy needs him only to make himself feel bolder and gutsier and more of a go-getter by contrast. Toward the end of The Purple Gang, when Hank finally does muster the gumption to do some thinking independent of Honeyboy, his reward is to be buried alive in concrete.

Joan Macnamara (Jody Lawrance) tries to persuade Bill that all the Purples need is a bit of familial TLC . . .

. . . but Bill (Barry Sullivan) is unconvinced.

Also in the “useful idiot” category, although here useful to the scripters rather than to any of the other characters, are welfare worker Joan Macnamara (Lawrance) and liberal physician Dr. Riordan (Krugman). Their role is to spout psychobabble that we’re all supposed to find risible to the effect that the Purples are just deprived, misunderstood youths rather than the sociopathic little shits Bill and the other cops know them to be. The reality is, of course, a bit of a mixture of both. The fact that Macnamara and Riordan aren’t given a proper argument for their case is a major weakness of the movie, and it’s compounded by the fact that, right at the end, Bill seems to a great extent to have swung around to their view:

“Since the end of the Purples, only the times have changed. The daily headlines remain the same. Yet any intelligent adult could pick out any youngster earmarked for emotional troubles. The signs are plain.”

 The Purples move in on Joan (Jody Lawrance).

Macnamara’s comeuppance is that she gets sexually assaulted and murdered by one of the Purples, Joe Milford (Mummert). That’ll teach her to try to bring any attempt at rational understanding to a sociological problem.

Back to the plot.

Honeyboy’s first wizard wheeze is the shaking down by his mob of the illicit liquor runners bringing hooch across the water to Detroit from Canada. The first boat he snares belongs to bootleggers Eddie (Turkel), Tom (London) and Al (Creatore) Olson. Eddie, the eldest brother and brains of the “Olson Trucking and Shipping Company,” suggests that both groups could do far better if they acted in concert: the Olsons running the booze, the Purples acting as their city-wide enforcement mob.

Left to right, Eddie (Joseph Turkel), Tom (Dirk London) and Al (Victor Creatore) Olson.

In the early stages, it all goes swimmingly well. As the youthful gangsters swan around trying for a toughness that belies the baby-bottom smoothness of their faces—even the Olson Brothers look as if they might have to produce proof of age if they wanted to buy cigarettes—we might think we’re heading for some Bugsy Malone (1976)–style piece of cuterie, but there are incidents of distinctly adult nastiness, like that sexual assault and murder of Macnamara, which undermine any such idea. When a St. Louis gang attempts to horn in on the Purples’ territory, its emissaries are perfunctorily massacred; when Daisy (Marquette), who habitually wastes police time by falsely confessing to high-profile crimes but is otherwise as harmless and good-hearted a creature as you could hope to find, witnesses the Purples dumping the murdered corpse of Laurence Orlofsky (Paiva) of the Cleaners’ and Dyers’ Union, Honeyboy and his goons murder her, too, in cold blood even though the cops cordially disbelieve the evidence she’s trying to give them.

Daisy (Suzy Marquette, splendid in her minor role) witnesses the dumping of Orlofsky’s body.

Bill (Barry Sullivan) breaks it to wife Gladys (Elaine Edwards) that his duties chasing down the Purples tie him to Detroit.

But the vilest of the Purples’ depicted crimes is to invade the home of Bill and Gladys (Edwards) Harley and terrorize the pregnant Gladys to the point that she jumps clear through a plate-glass window, incurring injuries that lead to the death of both her and the child she was carrying. At this stage, leaving her deathbed, Bill determines to take the law into his own hands and wreak bloody vengeance on the gang. Fortunately he encounters an elderly nun (Lockhart) on his way out of the hospital, and she speaks strongly to make him see sense:

“Do not place yourself above the law—either man’s law or God’s law.”

A nun (Kathleen Lockhart) persuades Bill (Barry Sullivan) not to go out on a vengeful killing spree.

Sullivan, who gives us lots of tough-guy voiceover narration in addition to his on-screen role, is suitably steadfast of jaw as the intrepid cop, and one would be hard-pressed to find a poor performance among what’s a surprisingly large cast for such an obviously tight-budgeted movie. The turn that has attracted the most attention over the decades has been that of Robert Blake as the psychotic Honeyboy, and for the most part I’d go along with the accolades. Toward the movie’s end, however, as Honeyboy is becoming progressively more under the rule of his psychoses, it seems to me that Blake crossed the line that divides powerful portrayal from outright hammery.

By the later stages the psychosis of Honeyboy (Robert Blake) is in full swing.

Oddly enough, he’s quite convincing in a couple of scenes where Honeyboy’s strong claustrophobia expresses itself (we’re meant to reflect upon how difficult Honeyboy’s long period of incarceration is going to be for him), but his scene as, eyes like catherine wheels, he explains to Hank why being buried alive in concrete is just, like, totally rational and the way it has to be, seems definitely a product of the Rowan Atkinson school of melodrama.

Hank (Marc Cavell) prepares to be encased in concrete.

Bill gets his first indication that Honeyboy (Robert Blake) is claustrophobic.

The Purple Gang have been the subject also of Public Hero #1 (1935) dir J. Walter Ruben, with Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Joseph Calleia and Chester Morris, which is likewise highly fictionalized, and the documentary The Purple Gang (2008) dir H.G. Manos.

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17 thoughts on “Purple Gang, The (1959)

  1. Wow, this sounds like a most unusual and powerful film. I love reading your reviews, these are films I would never have known even existed. Good work, dear chap!

  2. Is Barry Sullivan a mediocre actor, or did he just get a lot of unexciting roles? Between Jeopardy and Cause for Alarm, he’s just a noir stand-by to me.

    As for Blake, yeah, he does love chewing scenery, as his later career would show.

    Thanks for sharing another flick I didn’t know!

  3. I’m another one who can never place Barry Sullivan. I just took a quick look at his filmography and his career certainly did peter out in the 1980s.

    Anyway, I loved your analysis of the film’s half-hearted attempt at authenticity. Sounds like an intriguing story and, even though this film may be flawed, I will definitely watch it if I cross its path.

    • As I say so very often, this is one of those that’s well worth a watch if it comes on the telly, or whatever, but it hardly deserves making a big effort to track it down.

      One advantage of watching the movie, for me, is that I can now place Barry Sullivan! He’s pretty okay here — perhaps it was just the right role for him.

  4. Your review is spot on! I liked this one even though I am not a real big Barry Sullivan fan. There is of course the odd exception to this, Sullivan’s work in FRAMED and THE GANGSTER stand-out to me. Also in the mix for me is a 1954 episode of The Ford Television Theatre called, THE FUGITIVES. It is a nifty noir like episode directed by 99 RIVER STREET helmsman, Phil Karlson. Raymond Burr and Mary Beth Hughes are in the cast along with Sullivan with Burnett (IN A LONELY PLACE) Guffey handling the cinematography.

  5. Well Sullivan did have his wonderful performances (in the 40’s) and I’d never dismiss him–I loved him in Rene Clair’s “And Then There Were None” and of course as the elderly priest in “Going My Way” so I’d be inclined to further investigate his filmography. Another masterly piece here John!

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