An ageing New York mob boss receives constant grief from his employees, family and doctor. The mother of said mob boss is still a major part of his life, imparting wisdom that he fails to heed. Corruption and double-crossing are a way of life.
The above may read like a synopsis for 1990s TV drama, The Sopranos, but rewind 40-or-so years and you’ve got the set-up to Russell Rouse’s long lost 1955 noir, New York Confidential, a film based on the book by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer which goes beyond the standard scenario of tough guys and their molls so beloved of the genre.
A sonorous voiceover and shots of the New York sky line introduce us to The Syndicate, a crime organisation headed up by Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford). A member of Lupo’s business empire has performed an illegal hit on a rival, resulting in him signing his own death warrant as Nick Magellan (Richard Conte) is flown in from Chicago by Lupo and his number two, Ben Dagajanian (J Carroll Naish).
Eager to please and comfortable doling out violence as required, Magellan seems the perfect addition to Lupo’s organisation, at least until the latter’s beautiful-yet-troubled daughter, Kathy (Anne Bancroft), is introduced and Magellan’s relatively straightforward job starts to get complicated.
Restricted somewhat by the production code, which meant that some of the more violent sequences had to be implied rather than seen by impressionable viewers who may go out and organise a mob hit of their own, New York Confidential still manages to pack more than a few punches.
Watching the great Mike Mazurki follow his prey into a bedroom, we see him beat him up a little before the camera cuts away and returns as he’s folding up his pocket knife. No blood is seen, but we know the result of his handywork.
Crawford’s fast-talking and hilariously no-nonsense Lupo is tired of being surrounded by incompetents (to him, everyone is a pig or illiterate) and sees his operation as merely the lower rung of an America that is inherantly corrupt and corruptable. When his daughter argues that she lives on blood money, Lupo’s response is that she’s “spoiled”, not that he’s done any real wrong.
The view of the USA’s political ecosystem is one which still resonates today, and it’s hard not to empathise with Lupo, even if gunning down the opposition hasn’t quite become a way of life for politicians (that we know of).
While Crawford is a hugely entertaining presence, it’s the pairing of Conte and Bancroft that is the most interesting aspect of the film. Magellan knows he needs to avoid getting romantically involved with his boss’ self-destructing daughter, but it’s not easy. The pair should be a couple but we know that if they do it would mean trouble for everyone.
Conte and Bancroft add class to a film that could so easily have been run-of-the-mill. Their dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle (this doesn’t rival Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep for memorable lines, though Bancroft’s “Pappa’s got liver” jibe comes close) but the looks in their eyes and the chemistry between them is perfectly pitched.
Although Rouse’s direction never rises above the pedestrian, doing little to make the many interiors stand out from one another, he handles the large cast well and ensures his central trio of Crawford, Conte and Bancroft dominate proceedings.
Odeon Entertainment’s new release, the first in the UK, looks crisp and clean and ports over the Alan K Rode and Kim Morgan commentary from the 2010 US edition. As well as noting the film’s importanceto the genre and its disappearance from TV screens for many years thanks to a rights problem, Rode offers a string of behind-the-scenes stories, mainly involving the hard-drinking Brod Crawford.
An important entry in the series of 1940s and 50s “real life” crime dramas and, to a certain extent, the film noir genre, New York Confidential should now reach a wider audience and send a few of us searching for more Richard Conte performances and, perhaps more importantly, more stories about Brod Crawford, Robert Mitchum and those heady days in 1950s Hollywood that the commentary teases us with.