Murder, Inc. (1960)
This is one of the most searing neo-Film Noir police procedural/syndicate treasure hunts and shadows eye candy featuring a truly frightening and frenetic performance by our beloved Peter Falk who not only manifested THE only possible rumpled detective in a raincoat, that– “just one more question” knows who the guilty party is in the first five minutes of meeting them, Columbo (sorry Lee J. Cobb) whose inimitable style began the television detecting technique where we know who did it.
As Columbo Peter Falk usually uses the art of ‘misunderestimation’ and quaint anecdotes about relatives who may or may not exist, as he politely taunts and squeezes with relenting loose end-tying questions pushing the culprit into a corner they can not escape from. In Murder, Inc (1960) Falk is so dark and brooding as a little thug with mad at the world and no acuity toward right and wrong. The only time I saw him create a darker character that sent chills down the back of my neck was in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that aired on December 13th, 1962 called Bonfire where he plays a psychopathic lady-killer who is posing as a firebrand evangelist.
I am planning a very special tribute to the genius of Peter Falk and his unmade bed detective always on the prowl for the jugular, with a very different slant on the show, (no hints please) hopefully getting it ready by the winter of 2017 if I can enlist the wit & wisdom of fellow Columbo-worshiping Aurora of Once Upon A Screen to join me in pulling it off!
In his 2006 autobiography, Just One More Thing, Peter Falk attributes his performance as the crazed Reles in Murder, Inc. to launching his career! Not to mention that the great stage actress/teacher Eva Le Gallienne highly suggested after Falk was caught sneaking into her acting class as part of the American Repertory Movement, that he stick with it!
Peter Falk received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his ruthless, violent, and misogynistic murderous thug real-life hit man –Abe Reles.
film critic Bosley Crowther wrote:
“Mr. Falk, moving as if weary, looking at people out of the corners of his eyes and talking as if he had borrowed Marlon Brando’s chewing gum, seems a travesty of a killer, until the water suddenly freezes in his eyes and he whips an icepick from his pocket and starts punching holes in someone’s ribs. Then viciousness pours out of him and you get a sense of a felon who is hopelessly cracked and corrupt.”
Reles who reigned over the Brownsville district of Brooklyn during the 1930s depression era, was a clever and shifty taker and hit-man who could make people’s murders appear like brain hemorrhages by using an ice pick in just the right way. Lawman Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) whose book the screenplay is based on, together with Det. Sgt. William Tobin (Simon Oakland) keeps track of this psychopathic criminal who is now working for the powerful crime boss Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter played as a self-indulgent burlesque man-child by David J. Stewart (Carnival Rock 1957, The Young Savages 1961) who runs the nationwide syndicate known as Murder Inc.
Directed by Burt Balaban (Lady of Vengeance 1957) and Stuart Rosenberg who later went on to direct the sublimely thoughtful Cool Hand Luke 1967 starring Paul Newman, he also directed The Amityville Horror in 1979.
Filmed in CinemaScope Murder, Inc. possesses a gritty realism painted effectively by cinematographer Gayne Rescher (A Face in the Crowd 1957, Man on a String 1960, Rachel, Rachel 1968 and Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends 1971)
The film’s musical score is indeed a great companion to the mood, as Frank De Vol who usually works with Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962) creates a tense and bitter little pill, a flamboyant world within the universe of egocentric criminals, petty thieves, depression era storekeepers like the wonderful character of Mrs. Corsi (Helen Waters who only appeared one more time in television’s Naked City in 1958) who runs the little soda shop or Joe Rosen (Eli Mintz) who live in fear for their lives. De Vol’s score in addition to a live smoking performance by the late Sarah Vaughan makes the film’s musical personality work very well with the visual story.
The viciousness touches the garment district, the Unions, the burlesque clubs all the way up to the Borscht Belt where comedian Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam) is hit by Reles at the request of Lepke. There are cops on the beat and the feds looking to finally incarcerate and shut down Murder Inc. The film is seeded with little cameos by some actor’s first appearances, like Sylvia Miles as Sadie the loudmouth who gets Reles’ hand shoved in her face while in the phone booth.
Joseph Campanella who is just a guy who gets killed in the hallway for whatever he did or didn’t do… and Diane Ladd as a showgirl.
A small but slick performance by Vincent Gardenia as the mob’s attorney Laszlo, and a terrific stage performance by Sarah Vaughan singing Fan My Brow and The Awakening written by composer George Weiss. I saw Sarah Vaughan at the Westbury Music Fair back in the 1980s! She was nothing less than magical!
The basic gist is this–Reles (Peter Falk) and his flunky Bug (Warren Finnerty) meet with Garment District crime boss Lepke Buchalter (David J. Stewart) who wants to hire Reles as the syndicate’s new hitman. Lepke’s first task is for Reles to hit comedian Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam) who has a headline act up in the Catskills. Sage has been holding out money from the slots and Lepke is a petty hothead (who constantly drinks milk) with a literal belly ache. Enter Joey Collins Stuart Whitman (I’ve had a long-time crush on this guy and his eyebrows!) a singer, who knows Sage from show business, and since he owes Reles $600 which will soon be $1,000 with every day he doesn’t pay back his loan he feels cornered into helping Reles do him a ‘favor.’ Joey Collins (Whitman) is coerced into driving up to the Borscht Belt in order to lure Sage out of the club so Reles can do his dirty work with his nice clean ice pick!
When Reles pays a visit to the small apartment where Joey and his refugee showgirl wife Eadie (May Britt) live, Eadie is not only rude, she tries to throw Reles out. Reles who obviously has an inferiority complex takes Eadie’s dismissal as a rejection of his manhood and he comes back while Joey is out of the apartment and brutally assaults her with his, “dirty hands, his dirty fingers.”
But Joey is so entangled and emasculated by the predicament he’s gotten himself into, he doesn’t even try to stand up to Reles, but rather feels he is trapped, though Eadie wants to just run and get as far away from Reles and the whole deal. While the couple stays together because they are forced into a dynamic by Reles, they no longer sleep in the same bedroom nor act as a married couple. The weak and shameful Joey should have listened to Eadie!
Reles set the kids up in this glamorous apartment as a front.
Now that Lepke thinks he has everything under control he has Reles working full force taking out anyone who can fink on him. Reles gives a maniacal soliloquy about ‘taking’ manipulating the couple into living as a cover in his gorgeous apartment that is furnished with imported stolen goods and dope.
The police want to bring Lepke in because they have found a witness, small businessman Rosen who Lepke warned already to keep his mouth shut. He should have had his trusted man crush Mendy push him down the elevator shaft when he had the chance. Rosen is seen brought in by Detective Tobin by Lepke, Mendy, and their lawyer Laszlo in the halls of the courthouse. Rosen is now, at least this time– a dead man…
Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard) is asked by Lepke to kill Rosen himself, gunning him down right on the street in front of his shop, one pop in the guts, and then a bullet to the back of his head at Lepke’s request. Lepke comes to hide out at Joey and Eadie’s apartment, where he proceeds to demean and treat Eadie like a servant.
While Detective Tobin (Simon Oakland) has been trying to shake things up and harass Reles and Lepke, even asking the small shop owners for their help, as Mrs. Corsi explains to Tobin that innocent people are being threatened, ‘acid thrown’ on their wares, even attacked just being seen talking with the police. She refuses to say a word. He can’t break the protective shield surrounding this gang, nor legally fight against a sly lawyer like Laszlo (Vincent Gardenia).
District Attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) moves in and begins an all-out mission to bring down Murder Inc. which has its tendrils in Chicago and Florida (What happened to New Jersey? hmm)
Burton Turkus is interrogating Reles after he agrees to turn in state’s evidence. He asks Reles how he can simply murder people without any feelings around it. Reles asks him how his first time on the job as a cop effected him. He tells Reles, he was shaky at first but “he got used to it.” Reles gives him a very matter-of-fact ‘that’s your answer’ look.
Before the police finally pick up Lepke, while in hiding Lepke gets paranoid about his people squealing so he orders a hit on anyone in Brownsville that can connect him to the syndicate, especially Joey Collins and his wife Eadie who are living with him and now know too much. Finally, Eadie can’t bear it anymore and goes to the police and becomes an informant. Turkus takes Joey and Eadie into protective custody. Which isn’t so protective but hey, I won’t ruin the film for you.
Once Reles realizes that Lepke is on his trail he agrees to spill the entire can of Murder Inc. beans on the operation too, knowing the law very well, and making a deal with Turkus for a lesser murder sentence and his promise of protection.
So Reles is also hidden away at the less-than-fortress-y Half Moon Hotel room watched over by disgruntled uniformed cops in Coney Island. I won’t give away the defenestration climax, but I will say that Lepke does finally face execution for his part in several unsolved murders. His last meal must have included a gallon of milk for that upset stomach disorder…
You can absolutely say that it’s Peter Falk’s incendiary performance as the high-strung little punk with a Napoleonic complex based on true-life Brooklyn gangster “kid twist’ Abe Reles earning him the Academy Award nomination for his combustive performance and his myriad of colorfully vicious asides.
It’s what makes Murder, Inc (1960) work so well, but there are a lot of little inlaid gems that make this neo-noir crime drama a conflagration of mind-gripping tropes and wonderful little characterizations.
Murder, Inc is a neo-noir/documentary style/crime-drama masterpiece featuring not only Falk’s searing performance, but David J. Stewart as the despicable complainer -Lepke who ran the syndicate in New York City and was connected to all the major city crime bosses who oversaw big money, murder, and mayhem like a miserable business, taking out potential stool pigeons, or little shop owners who just can’t pay their protection fees — Vicious brutal and utterly mesmerizing the film plays like a nightmare while the well intended but at times inadequate good guys who just can’t seem to legally or physically pin down the bad guys without getting their witnesses murdered. Or it’s suggested that there are also insiders in the police department and government that shield these criminals from prison time. Murder Inc spreads like an insidious disease taking over the city, but like all things violent -they must eventually self-destruct as Stuart Whitman who plays Joey Collins: says to Reles, after he is arrested “I’m gonna watch you fry! I’m gonna watch you fry! I’m gonna watch you fry!”
Eadie (May Britt) is the film’s sufferer and sacrificial lamb as a woman who is either consistently abused and mistreated or woefully looked after by all the men in the film. She is surrounded by dread and ruin.
Talking about Lepke–“He came in the door like a king. He came with a hole in his stomach. All the time he stayed I was his housemaid. Two Minute Eggs… (she closes her eyes)… I boiled a thousand two-minute eggs and never did it right once…”
“I boiled a thousand two minute eggs and never did it right once…”
This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying I gotta go make a two minute egg!