Noirvember 2018, Episode 9: The Gangster (1947)
The Gangster (1947)
Directed by Gordon Wiles
Produced by Frank King, Maurice King
Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Dalton Trumbo
Based on the novel Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Cinematography by Paul Ivano
Music by Louis Gruenberg
King Brothers Productions
Distributed by Allied Artists
(1:24) New to me - borrowed from a friend
I’m delighted to be joined today by my friend and fellow film noir aficionado Casey Koester (@NoirGirl on Twitter)! Casey is not only a lover of film noir, she also creates some of the most amazing fashions from the film noir era of the 1940s and 50s. You can find out more about Casey on her blog, Noir Girl: The Adventures of a 40s Girl in a Modern World.
The Gangster begins with a favorite noir device, the voiceover narration, as we see a man walking along the rain-soaked Neptune Beach area of New York City. Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) is a troubled man. The owner of a beachfront soda fountain shop, Shubunka’s a small-time protection racketeer who’s being challenged by a younger ambitious racketeer named Cornell (Sheldon Leonard). Cornell's boys soon put the pressure on shop manager Nick Jammey (Akim Tamiroff) to provide Cornell with the locations of Shubunka's rackets. Yet Shubunka’s self-loathing and paranoia may be a bigger threat than that of Cornell. Also Shubunka is unsure if he can trust his nightclub singer girlfriend Nancy (Belita), but he’s quite sure he needs to distance himself from a frequent loser named Karty (John Ireland), who’s always begging for money.
Casey (who had seen the film on TCM’s Noir Alley not long ago) and I both had reservations about Barry Sullivan, an actor who had a long career in Hollywood, but never impressed me much until now. Casey commented that Sullivan “has an oily quality that works so well in noir, but isn’t particularly appealing,” and I totally agree. Sullivan always seems uncomfortable in most of his roles, but that discomfort serves him well here as a racketeer slowly losing his grip on his territory and possibly his life. Casey also pointed out that Sullivan makes several nervous gestures with his hands, similar to what Humphrey Bogart does in The Petrified Forest (1936), visually revealing aspects of his character.
We also agreed that for a low-budget King Brothers production, The Gangster contains several spectacular visual scenes. Case in point: the soda fountain shop’s black-and-white checkered floor is visually arresting, contrasting not only in color, but also in the types of characters we encounter: the darkness of Shubunka contrasted with an almost always white-clad Shorty (Harry Morgan), a soda jerk who’s as close to a male Pollyanna as you can get. Almost as innocent as Shorty is his co-worker Dorothy (Joan Lorring), the squeaky-clean girl who, as pointed out by Casey, seems to act as the conscience that Shubunka lacks. The black-and-white floor tiles are also reflected on the ceiling, surrounding the characters with an inescapable black/white, innocent/guilty duplicity. Later we see bold, vertical stripes in the wallpaper, further reinforcing the contrasts.
But cinematographer Paul Ivano has even more up his sleeve as he often casts Shubunka in shadow and Nancy in brilliant, almost angelic light. In fact, the art direction and composition reminded us both of the famous Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks (1942), which certainly would’ve been familiar with the filmmakers.
As Shubunka’s world (to say nothing of his relationship to Nancy) starts to fall apart, his paranoia and sense of desperation go into overdrive, providing another nice contrast to Shorty’s optimism. As the pressure from rival Conrell mounts, Shubunka’s moves become more unsure and unsteady, while, as Casey noted, Nancy moves with an athletic, almost effortless grace. The casting department did a wonderful job pairing these two.
I’m not sure if the Fuchs/Trumbo story is directly addressing post WWII pessimism (portrayed in Shubunka’s character) in light of a more optimistic America (suggested by both Shorty and Dorothy), but the implications seem clear. The amazing storm near the end of the film is the perfect stage for this clash of worldviews and philosophies, yet never seems heavy-handed.
The film also features cameos from several film noir mainstays such as Charles McGraw, Elisha Cook Jr., Shelley Winters, and Jeff Corey.
Casey and I both agree that The Gangster is one of those unfairly neglected film noir titles that deserves much more attention. Once again, the King Bros. deliver a terrific crime picture that’s at least as effective as many “A” pictures. We both highly recommend it!
Once again, I'd like to thank Casey for taking a look at The Gangster with me and for her wonderful insights into the film!
Next time: You'll see more Elisha Cook Jr., this time as member of a heist that just couldn't go wrong... or could it?
Photos: DVD Beaver, Film Noir of the Week, Nitrate Diva, Noir Girl