CAUTION: Contains “Spoilers.”
It has been pointed out before by others that Gordon Wiles’ 1947 film “The Gangster” is more like a play on film than a movie about a crime boss’ downfall. Some would even suggest that it should be tossed from the hallowed ranks of Film Noir. Really?
I would argue that the plot of the film is as noir as it gets–a powerful figure suffers a failure of nerve and suddenly the insider is on the outs. Barry Sullivan’s Shubunka is a direct ancestor to Jason Miller’s Cooper, “The Key Man,” from Robert Mulligan’s 1970s noir, “The Nickel Ride.” In both films we have a protagonist whose comfortable criminal existence is suddenly upended when an ambitious newcomer turns up in his patch. Of course Mulligan’s film is starkly realistic, whereas Wiles’ embraces theatricality–in its mise-en-scene, in the performances of its actors–to an extent that the film itself becomes a symbolic representation of the theme of Downfall. The fact that “The Gangster” began life as a novel, “Low Company” by Daniel Fuchs, and that Fuch and an uncredited Dalton Trumbo adapted it for the screen may account for the finished film’s literary tang.
It’s not that Wiles tried for naturalism and couldn’t bring it off. He never even bothers. The scenes in Jamy’s ice cream parlor, where loser-gambler Karty and his wife sit at separate tables in a tableau of loneliness and miscommunication, and remain there even as the store is closing and lights are turned out scream Broadway more than Hollywood. But do they work dramatically? I think that they do. Again, the entire production functions as a symbol and the Kartys serve as a foreshadowing of the fate of Shubunka’s relationship with Nancy Starr, his show-girl beloved. And no one listens. Shubunka refuses to listen to his money-man, Jamy who wants to meet with and make a deal with the new boys. Jamy refuses to listen to the desperate Karty, claiming he has no money to give him to ward off the debt collectors even as he holds the day’s receipts in his hands. Karty ignores the pleadings of his wife to give up playing the ponies. In one sense the entire mechanism of Shubunka’s downfall is precipitated by his ignoring an invitation to a sit-down offered by Cornell, the new boy in town with the out-of-town backers.
Sheldon Leonard’s turn as Cornell is about as threatening as was his turn as Big Julie’s mouthpiece in “Guys and Dolls,” but he doesn’t have to be Cody Jarrett. In the symbolic world of “The Gangster” it’s enough that he simply is there as The Threat. Elisha Cook Jr.’s turn as one of Cornell’s underlings almost verges on being a parody of Wilmer Cook, but again the aura of theatricality is what’s called for.
About the only Big Reveal that “The Gangster” has to offer is the revelation that Nancy is also working for Cornell, and just like the young cashier at Jamy’s shop who Shubunka is constantly trying to impress, despises him. There is a certain grim irony at work in the film’s denouement. Jamy has sold out to Cornell who, after contemptuously offering Shubunka an $80-a-week job as one of his collectors, is content to let the thoroughly defeated Shubunka crawl out of town. But Karty, desperate for that money that Jamy refused him, kills him. Cornell assumes that Shubunka did the deed out of spite and orders his execution. Having learned that Nancy is an enemy and hates him, and been refused refuge at the apartment of the cashier, Shubunka goes to his death on the rain-swept streets of Nepture City having learned in his own mind that he came to grief not because he was rotten, but because he wasn’t rotten enough and didn’t have Cornell killed as soon as he blew into town.
Shubunka’s failure as a gangster is mirrored in a comic vein by Henry Morgan’s soda-jerk, a would-be lady killer, failing to impress Madame Olga, the dress-maker, who tosses him out of her parlor when he gets fresh on their first date. But even this comic misadventure feeds into the downfall of Shubunka. Being forced to take a short-cut through the kitchen of Jamy’s store, he discovers his corpse, which otherwise would have lain there until morning, giving Shubunka time to catch that train out of town that Cornell advised him to be on. But in the hermetically-sealed world of “The Gangster,” when your number is up it’s up.