Barry Sulivan is a cynical gangster who controls the Neptune Beach waterfront. He runs a numbers racket with the local soda shop owner: the police are in his pocket and the local hoods are on his payroll.
Chubunka is the self-made head of the rackets in the sleazy boardwalk community of Neptune City, a low-rent version of Coney Island. He has become infatuated with a sultry nightclub chanteuse and lavishes her with gifts and attention, spending money on her that might better go to maintaining his hold on his operation. His obsession with her, as well as his pride, clouds his judgment as Cornell, a much more ruthless hoodlum, moves in on Chubunka's territory, bribes and threatens his associates, and compromises his operation. As if in a Greek tragedy, the petty gangster's weaknesses conspire to cause his downfall. Written by
When Jammy gets the note from Cornell's hood, the rain is pouring all around him, but when the camera cuts into his face holding the umbrella, there are no raindrops hitting the puddles behind him. See more »
[Opening lines of first person narration as the camera dollies back from an ugly expressionistic painting]
That was what I was. I work the rackets... dirty rackets... ugly rackets. I was no hypocrite. I knew everything I did was low and rotten. I knew what people thought of me. What difference did it make? What did I care?
[Lying in bed looking at his face in a mirror]
I got scarred - sure! It can hurt a little when you fight your way out of a gutter.
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Patch of doomed urban poetry belies its tommygun title
Belying the promise of tommyguns and bootleg hooch implied in its title, The Gangster instead unfolds as a patch of doomed urban poetry. Its script, by Daniel Fuchs from his novel Low Company (with, it's said, a hand from Dalton Trumbo), looks down loftily and detachedly at a handful of "little" people in a day-trippers' seaside resort way out in Brooklyn. Each character is a gear meshing precisely with other gears in a clockwork plot perhaps better suited to footlights than the kick-lights of film noir.
But its milieu and aspirations remain decidedly -- ostentatiously -- noir, from the baroque, shadowed ironwork of the El to the nighttime cloudbursts over the littered pavements. A soda fountain serves as the drama's central "set" into which self-styled racket kingpin Barry Sullivan frequently drops to flash his cufflinks. He's unable to confront the fact that his tiny crime empire is under siege and crumbling; he's too obsessed with his stage-struck mistress (Belita). Blind with jealousy and bloated with delusions of his invulnerability, he drifts impassively, almost catatonically, toward the fate that's already been meted out for him (the dramaturgy brings to mind Periclean Athens or Elizabethan London).
An unusually starry cast of noir players inhabits The Gangster, many in no more than walk-ons. Among them: Akim Tamiroff as the drugstore proprietor and Sullivan's partner; Harry Morgan as a soda jerk and Joan Lorring as cashier; Fifi D'Orsay, in an inexplicable role; John Ireland and Virginia Christine as a compulsive gambler and his despairing wife; Sheldon Leonard as Sullivan's predatory nemesis; Elisha Cook, Jr. and Charles McGraw as (what else?) thugs; even an uncredited Shelley Winters, fixing her face.
Plainly, there's a lot to admire in The Gangster, from the stagily constructed neighborhood to Louis Gruenman's melodramatic score. The trouble is that all the admirable bits and pieces don't quite jell into the organic flow of vital cinema, and the purple passages don't ring true as the street lingo of a raffish backwater called Neptune Beach.
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