Late and derivative organized-crime drama shows slackening momentum of noir cycle
There's little in the late noir Chicago Syndicate that hadn't already been done, and more memorably, in the cycle, but, given the limitations of its director and cast, it does its job. When a renegade syndicate bookkeeper is gunned down on a crowded street in broad daylight (incidentally triggering his wife's suicide), federal agents enlist Dennis O'Keefe, a forensic accountant working for the police, to infiltrate the underworld. In no time he's won the trust of boss Paul Stewart (whose start in movies was in Citizen Kane, as Raymond the sinister butler). Stewart idolizes his mother, who refuses to budge from his tough old neighborhood. But apparently she's the exception that tests his misogynistic rule (`Everything gets better with age, except women,' he observes).
He's right to be wary, because women hold the tools to destroy him. His current trophy (Abbe Lane), who sings with bandleader Xavier Cugat in mob night spots, drinks too much and endures humiliation and beatings at his hands. But even an attempt to `scare the girdle off her' fails, as she holds incriminating microfilm, stashed away as her insurance policy. Her rival for his attentions (Allison Hayes) has a secret agenda: she's the orphaned daughter of the slain bookkeeper, nursing a vendetta. When she thinks O'Keefe can grease her way to the top, she throws herself at him (`Now you're romancing me like I was Liberace,' he puzzlingly tells her.) She becomes his helpmate and decoy.
In the style of the syndicate movies of the 1950s, in the wake of the Kefauver hearings on organized crime, there's an emphasis on the complex corporate structure of Stewart's illegal business operations. Too much exposition, however, is left to voice-over narration. And while the movie doesn't shy away from ugly incident, it's quite devoid of the atmospheric dread that distinguished, for instance, Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. O'Keefe, too, seems to have aged more than the eight years separating this movie from his similar role in Anthony Mann's T-Men, making it less of a surprise that his first movie role was in 1930. Chicago Syndicate holds interest less for its own sake than as evidence of how the noir cycle was running down, if not quite out; the same year offered Joseph H. Lewis' brilliant take on much the same territory, The Big Combo.
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