Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Gangster (1947)

In 1989 Daniel Fuchs wrote “In all my time at the studios, I managed to get my name on a little more than a dozen pictures, most unmemorable, one (Love Me or Leave Me) a major success.” Since then some of the “unmemorable” pictures have grown in stature: The Hard Way, Panic in the Streets, Storm Warning (all with co-writers) and his solo screenplays The Scar and, especially, the noir masterpiece Criss Cross. When he wasn’t writing screenplays he wrote short stories, another novel, and memoirs of his Hollywood days.

Fuchs published three novels in the late 1930s, all set in Brooklyn. The Gangster (1947) is Fuchs’ adaptation of the third of these novels, Low Company (1937). Fuchs boils down the sprawling opus to an 84-minute screenplay. The film and novel are set in Neptune Beach, a thinly disguised Brighton Beach/Coney Island in Brooklyn. The story centers on Shubunka, the gangster of the title. Over six years he has built up a business of “rotten little rackets, living off people, ... the numbers, floating gambling games, one or two other things even worse.” (In the novel, the business is prostitution.) His partner, Jammey, rents properties he owns to Shubunka. He also owns a soda/ice cream shop, the center for most of the film’s activities. Major characters who work or hang out at the shop are Shorty, a soda jerker, Dorothy, the store’s young cashier, and Karty, an accountant who now has a destructive gambling habit. All figure in the story’s unfolding.

Shubunka’s empire is threatened by a national syndicate that is moving in and buying off Shubunka’s locations and cronies. Jammey is squeezed to rat out Shubunka by the threatened destruction of his store’s $2000 ice cream machine. Shubunka’s response is inaction. Believing that the syndicate is blowing smoke, he advises Jammey not to worry. There is a reason for Shubunka’s lack of response: beneath the bravado and arrogance, he is trapped in a paranoid fatalism. Smitten with up-and-coming singer Nancy Starr (a character not in the novel), he spends large amounts of money for gifts, a luxury apartment, etc. Although Shubunka knows he is rotten, his hope to trust a woman has led him to crisis. He loathes society but cannot escape it. He is unable to behave as he would normally in a situation that calls for action. As Fuchs writes in Low Company, “Formerly Shubunka had handled the complaints in his cool, apathetic manner … He had been unruffled then, easy, enjoying his sense of importance and yet his indifference. He thought of the respect he had forced out of men ... in spite of their distaste for him.” When we meet Shubunka in The Gangster, this power is fading away. He still craves respect, but the craving leads to stasis. Although he returns to his old self and takes action, it is too late.

The film’s major characters are all schemers. Shubunka schemes to maintain his money and power after escaping from a youth of poverty. Jammey schemes to hold onto his money even though the cold, rainy summer is hurting business and his hypochondriac wife spends money on doctors. Karty schemes for money to satisfy his gambling fix and to return money he has embezzled. Even Shorty schemes for free sex. Only Dorothy has no agenda. She has an Old Testament view of good and evil.

Barry Sullivan, with a scar running down the left side of his face, is strong as Shubunka, if a little one-note. (Interestingly, Shubunka in the novel is fat, very fat. One can imagine the young Raymond Burr or William Conrad in the part. The ideal for the role would have been Laird Cregar.) Belita, an ice skater who could act, is fine as Nancy. Akim Tamiroff captures Jammey perfectly. John Ireland is appropriately nervous as Karty. Joan Lorring has big moments as Dorothy. Sheldon Leonard oozes strength as Cornell, the syndicate head. Harry Morgan, in his Henry Morgan days, is hilarious as Shorty in the film’s comic subplot (left over from the novel, perhaps unnecessary, but it serves a plot function). The syndicate’s muscle is played by familiar faces: Charles McGraw, Elisha Cook, Jr., and John Kellogg. If one blinks, one will miss Shelley Winters, Jeff Corey, and Peter Whitney.

The film, a Monogram/King Brothers follow-up to Suspense from the year before, reunited Sullivan and Belita. The Gangster was directed by Gordon Wiles, photographed by Paul Ivano and art direction was by F. Paul Sylos. The film was shot on a studio sound stage. There is deep focus photography (including a breathtaking shot in the soda shop with all the lead characters at work or sitting at tables) and luminous close-ups of Belita.

With the studio sets, the rain swept streets, the darkness and a daylight fraught with danger, I would say there is a heavy influence of 1930s French poetic realism, especially Carne’s Port of Shadows, on the look of The Gangster.

The effective musical score was written by Louis Gruenberg, a major figure in American classical music of the 1920s and 1930s.

Two questions to readers. The first shot in the film is a close up of a painting that strikes me as familiar. Is it? Or was it painted expressly for the film? Nowhere can I find a credit for the voiceover at the end of the film. It sounds as if it could be Martin Gabel or, possibly, James Whitmore. Any ideas?

The Gangster has just been released by Warner Archive on DVD.


Written by fosterg


  1. A fantastic film. Yes, it shows influence of French poetic realism, and this creates a dreamlike atmosphere that really works in the film's favor. Shubunka is a really existential character--he knows he's really alone and can't depend on anyone else for anything. His feeling of entrapment in a hopeless existence is strongly expressed in the film's final sequence, using voice-overs heard in Shubunka's mind in combination with a mounting storm. As others flee the wind and driving rain, Shubunka stands alone in this metaphor for his meaningless life. A downbeat ending for the books in this movie that is like a pulp novel come to life.

  2. Re: the painting -- it's a (poor) copy of "Pobrecitas!" (Poor Little One!), No.22 from Goya's Los Caprichos (1797-98). It seems to show a group of mourners at the coffin of a dead infant. There's a decent repro of the original here:

    Great blog, btw!

  3. The voiceover at the end of the film sounds like Edmond O'Brien - Richcmovies


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