In the wake of the televised Kefauver hearings which revealed the extent of organised crime in the US to a fascinated public, Broderick Crawford stepped up to camera to play a leading member of a syndicate, in its Manhattan headquarters. Part documentary, part gangster thriller, New York Confidential (1955) (director Russell Rouse, and staring Richard Conte, Ann Bancroft and Broderick Crawford) is played to perfection and has a strong cast.
New York Confidential almost stands alone. We're much more used to seeing the corporate gangster these days, but in the mid 50s, at the tail end of film noir, it was a far harder pitch.
Broderick Crawford as the Manhattan Syndicate Boss
As the noir cycle reached its natural conclusion, many of the shadows melted away, leaving the cold light of day, and sometimes even throwing out the drama too, favouring brutal beat downs and a morbid reality to the action. After Kefauver, Hoover, who was obsessed with ‘subversives’, had no option but to admit that America had a problem with organised crime, and the FBI was obliged to stop chasing communists but instead catch criminals.
You may expect this film to deliver more than it does — you may even expect more noir. I like to think of noir as a checklist. You take each film as it comes and score it against the checklist. Some films, like Double Indemnity and Detour score hella high — they are noir. Others are mere black and white crime thrillers.
This checklist notion speaks volumes about what we think of film and noir in general — we are always looking backward. So it’s hard not to think of The Godfather or Goodfellas when you consider New York Confidential, as it’s one of these rise-of-the-foot soldier gangster stories, told from the heart of the syndicate, with virtually no citizen or police characters, just a drama unfolding in the criminal world.
Richard Conte is great here, and makes the film. He plays a polite and loyal, cold-blooded hit-man turned consigliere. It’s a high period mob pictures from the same source as 711 Ocean Drive (1950), and The Brothers Rico (1957) (also starring Conte). In these movies, crime is corporate, with formal hierarchies, wide-ranging interests, and strict rules for doing business. In New York Confidential, as in The Godfather later, these interests extend into government, although the theme in New York Confidential is that no individual is indispensable, and the survival of the organisation is what remains paramount.
New York Confidential is however pretty uneven, and is not in fairness, 100% noir. The leading members of the cast peddle some pretty weighty dialogue, but the supporting cast flounders in various cul-de-sacs pedestrian with clichés. The design of New York Confidential is static and lacks life, and there aren’t any of the expressive shadows which the dedicated noir fans require, for that extra depth of character, and that comforting feeling of doom they crave.
The background is corporate gangsterism. There wasn’t a lot of this portrayed in 1940s cinema, but it was certainly a trend to watch out for in the 1950s. Part of this was that in the 1940s, the FBI spent its time hunting communists, and formulating the dirty tricks program known as COINTELPRO, in order to catch Charlie Chaplin and other commies. The idea of organised crime then was newsworthy and shocking — the idea that alongside the legitimate capitalist outfits running everybody’s lives, there were also illegitimate ones, with just as much power in government. The idea of the gangster film as genre often overlooks the fact of the gangster protagonist, which is understandable as heroes, especially in the days of the Code, were preferred good guys.
By the time of New York Confidential though, the idea of the anti-social hero as typified in The Public Enemy (1930), Scarface (1932) and so forth had blurred entirely. The single-minded pursuit of money by an overachieving aggressive male really took off again in the 1950s, after a break in the 1940s, the period when noir truly developed. In noir, the hero is often there by accident — a real 1940s trope. And in noir, the crimes as again classic 1940s mode, are sexually or psychologically motivated.
The New York Times gave a mixed up review, which is perhaps fair as the film’s a little mixed up too. At one moment the reviewer from February 19, 1955 seems to like it, but winds up saying that it isn’t memorable in the slightest. To the credit of the movie however, there is this from the same review:
Credibility and drive it has, in spades, frankly contending that a diabolically efficient network of blood and terror invariably dissembles within. Such, at any rate, is the case with Mr. Crawford's underworld czardom, seemingly a composite of three notorious mobsters of the last decade, especially one far luckier deportee. The New York City Anti-Crime Committee has publicly vouched for the picture's over-all authenticity.
Maybe authenticity isn’t that useful, or perhaps it’s something that’s only going to drag a film noir to a halt. Noir, after all, has to be about darkness and psychological failure, and enemies that are not entirely obvious.
At a time when the FBI and Hoover were looking for Communists everywhere, they were actually ignoring the actual crime syndicates that are in discussion in New York Confidential. In a way, the imaginary criminals of the HUAC era are much easier to capture in the shadowy, paranoid world of noir. Although the word mafia isn’t mentioned in New York Confidential, you can tell from all the phone calls to and from Italy that there may be a connection between the Syndicate and ‘the old country’.
I also wonder in fact if it is authentic at all. Broderick Crawford is the head of the New York branch of the Syndicate, but the suggestion throughout is that no on person is bigger than the organisation. Fair enough. Then also there are intriguing suggestions about links to crime in all walks of life, including in the field of oil distribution, but then the modes of operation are always the same.
In fact whenever something goes wrong, the Broderick Crawford character calls in a hit man. He has a delicate stomach that can’t take any sort of pastrami-based abuse, and he hangs around with his mama, especially when the going gets really tough.
Lupo’s daughter is played by Anne Bancroft, and she’s a little more than the average noir heroine. Seething with self-loathing, anger for her father, and an independent spirit that is criminal in itself, Anne Bancroft is particularly intense here.
… the performances are generally vigorous and believable, especially Mr. Crawford and Miss Bancroft. The others, among them J. Carrol Naish, Onslow Stevens, Barry Kelly and Mike Mazurki, do well on the sidelines. All told, they make a stinging, unsavory eyeful. How they got that way might have made them, and "'New York Confidential," even memorable.
Reviews are funny. We lap them up in the newspapers when they are appropriate for a product that’s in the market on that day — but afterwards and with a little historical insight, they seem irrelevant, and generally miss the point. Still, it’s always good to read them and at least be aware of the manufactured consent at any given time.
New York Confidential makes it on to list for these reasons. It’s at the tail end of the cycle, but it’s noir all right, with fatal females and misguided males, it makes the cut. The idea is that this is a vicious circle of self-destructive criminal violence that will go on forever. The gangsters are trapped into a life of violence and betrayals and that’s a fairly simple message that almost anyone could get. Anne Bancroft is the one that wants out, and the one that tries the hardest, but there’s a strange and remarkably cold impression given, that most of the players in the drama have a reason not to be there, whether its health, moral or otherwise.