Released Nov. 25, 1947: THE GANGSTER, starring Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, and Akim Tamiroff. Directed by Gordon Wiles (Lady from Nowhere, Women of Glamour, Prison Train). The story opens with a cynical voice over by Barry Sullivan, explaining how he fought his way up from the gutters to become a successful and powerful gangster who makes his money off the “broken down mutt” business owners along the beach boardwalk.
The voice over and visuals set the stage for what appears to be a typical gangster story, but what follows is a very different kind of movie. The Gangster turns out to be an arty character study about a brooding, unemotional, and ultimately lonely, thug. One part of the story concerns Sullivan’s tenuous relationship with his girlfriend (Belita), and the other is about a rival gangster (Sheldon Leonard) moving in to take over Sullivan’s territory, but the plot lines are almost secondary to Sullivan’s inner experience. There’s almost no violence or gun play, we never see Sullivan strong-arm anyone, nor do we get to see his vast operation or “crew”. Sullivan spends most scenes scowling in silence, and when he does have an outburst, it’s usually to reiterate his story about rising up from the gutters and how everyone around him are chumps. His climactic meeting with Leonard is one of the oddest encounters between rival gangsters on film. There’s a lot of talk, not all of it making sense, halfway through Leonard seems to capitulate for no apparent reason, and they finally reach a kind of vague understanding. This film shrugs off many of the typical conventions of 1940s cinema and ends up feeling a little ahead of its time. Stylistically, it could easily have been made in the mid-1950s. The sets are artful, geometric, and deliberately appointed, which is not surprising, considering director Gordon Wiles spent much of his career as an art director, and the cinematography is quite striking, mixing a variety of visual styles, from brightly lit interiors, to dark gritty rain-drenched streets, to surreal shadowy compositions. The cast does a fine job with the material. Sullivan certainly looks the part and is convincing in his role, and it’s interesting to see him become a sad puppy dog-like character whenever he’s trying to woo Belita. Akim Tamiroff, who plays Sullivan’s nervous business partner, provides much needed energy and charisma to the story. Belita delivers her lines in a refreshingly natural and sincere manner, almost as if they were on-the-spot improvs, which again, makes this film feel more like a product of the 1950s rather than the 40s. A special treat for movie fans is a small uncredited speaking part by a young Shelley Winters in the role of a cashier. It’s difficult to evaluate a film like The Gangster. The fact that it’s not a cookie-cutter gangster story is both its strength and it’s weakness. If you approach it expecting a by-the-book noir gangster film, you may be disappointed, if not a little confused, by the odd pacing, brooding aura, and talky nature of the film. But if you leave your expectations at the door, you may be pleasantly surprised by a bold and curious gem of a movie. We give The Gangster 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.