Getting is easy. Keeping is hard. That’s the lesson that parvenu mobster Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) learns as he loses his grip on the boardwalk empire he worked so hard to build. Why does he lose it? No big surprise there: ’twas beauty killed the beast.
In this case, the beauty happens to be the enigmatic chanteuse Shubunka obsessively romances—played, appropriately enough, by “Ice Maiden” Belita, a champion figure skater turned actress. The moment she appears onscreen, emerging from the bottom of the frame in a cascade of hair (an homage to Rita Hayworth’s famous Gilda entrance, I’d wager), she seems to erupt like a blonde volcano. We know she means death to Shubunka. He just can’t have nice things.
No, nice things are for nice people. Shubunka will always be mean. And although the end might justify the means, it can’t erase the meanness. Ironically, Shubunka’s rottenness comes from his aspirations towards something higher, towards the 5th Avenue gentility he longed for as a kid. The trouble is, the ruthlessness that it takes to get to the top has contaminated him, so that he’ll never really belong there.
Noir likes to tear the American Dream to pieces the way a kid likes to tear the wings off bugs—for kicks. Burbling up from poverty row studio Monogram (well, actually its upwardly-mobile subsidiary, Allied Artists), The Gangster offers a rancid commentary on that dream. This underseen crime drama deserves a place among noir’s bitterest and most eloquent takedowns of the Horatio Alger myth. Prosperity is a rigged game, and victory lasts about as long a tart’s lipstick. If you lose, you lose for good. If you win, it’s only a matter of time until you slip.
The Gangster suggests that a self-made man makes himself for keeps. And what he makes is often damn hard to look at in the mirror every morning.
The first post-credits image of the movie confronts us with an ugly, menacing figure in the Goya-esque painting that hangs on Shubunka’s ritzy apartment wall. The brutish face in the picture becomes a major motif, reflecting the protagonist’s ugliness back to him. Indeed, the first lines of the film, “That was me,” spoken in voice-over, coincide with that shot, as though Shubunka were directly equating himself with the figure in the painting.
In The Gangster’s opening, camerawork also links the painting to Shubunka’s psychological state. The camera tracks out from a detail of the canvas—the ugly man’s face—to reveal the space of the apartment (and, because this is a Monogram movie, we get to see the fleeting shadow of the camera as it moves!). The next shot is Shubunka lying on his bed, alienated and alone, picking up a mirror to examine his disfigured cheek.
Later, in a notable transition, a dissolve makes the parallel between the man in the painting and Shubunka quite explicit, shifting from a tight close-up of the gangster to the monstrous figure’s face. Throughout the film, Shubunka betrays a morbid anxiety about his appearance, accusing others of looking at the scar etched into the side of his cheek for his sins. Even as he reclines listlessly in his opulent digs, Shubunka’s grotesqueness haunts him through that picture.
Yes, despite (or perhaps because of?) his insecurities, Shubunka repeatedly rationalizes his gangland lifestyle and dismisses the victims of his racket though intense homilies, for instance:
“Whaddya want me to do? Worry about the whole world? Let ’em rot. They don’t mean a thing to me. Don’t flinch at me. Don’t you dare look down at me. I’m no crumb, no cardie. I made somethin’ outta myself. And I’m proud of it.”
Shubunka delivers this peppy little motivational speech framed from below against the checkerboard ceiling of a soda joint he controls. The ceiling pattern is the same as the one on the floor, as though the world has been flipped and our sense of direction turned on its head. The top and the bottom are often interchangeable in The Gangster; you can take the boy out of the gutter but can you take the gutter out of him?
The gangster tends to deliver his angry monologues to a naïve cashier (Joan Lorring) who rejects his gifts of money and recoils from his ethics or lack thereof. This sweater-clad, squeaky-clean teenager largely serves as a surrogate for the audience. As Shubunka lectures her, he sometimes seems to be talking directly to the viewers, defending his ambition and dissecting his fatal flaw: he wasn’t rotten enough.
These exchanges between the bad guy and the good girl—all rhythmic, snappy cynicism on his part, all earnest indignation on hers—give the movie a morality play vibe. Will idealism stand up to experience? Superficially, yes, but the gangster has a point. His cutting logic sticks with us; against the realities of the world, just as ugly as Shubunka, the cashier girl’s syrupy, whining rebukes don’t stand a chance. (Speaking for myself, I wanted to slap her.)
Amusingly enough, Shubunka talks like he ate a copy of Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” for breakfast and downed it with a shot of bootleg hooch. This not-so-tough mug’s slangy self-awareness actually deepened my sympathy for him. He’s a thinking man. That’s what makes it so hard to watch (and identify with) his decline. At times I found myself frantic over the inevitability that he’d wind up back in the gutter the crawled out of.
The greatest gangster movies of the 1930s let their audiences rejoice in the antiheroes’ giddy ascents before eventually gunning the outlaws down. Sure, we feel the gut punch dealt by the theatrical death throes of Cagney and company. Nevertheless, we’ve shared their reckless fun too viscerally to feel chastened to the core by their last-reel demises.The pleasure of the rise might be worth the agony of the fall.
By 1947, however, we’re dealing with a very different animal, one devoured by doubt and ennui. The Gangster is no rise, all fall.
The theme-heavy, over-articulate dialogue might feel phony in another film, but the stylized, richly detailed studio set gives this movie a pleasing artificiality echoed by the script. Shubunka’s turf, Neptune Beach, is an enclosed world, almost an intricate Build-Your-Own-Noir LEGO set.
With Akim Tamiroff, Sheldon Leonard, Charles McGraw, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Shelley Winters among the cast, The Gangster could also easily win film noir Bingo.
Whatever you love about noir, this little-known gem has probably got it. Not only is The Gangster well worth your time, but the movie stands as a testament to the artistry that even a small-time studio could attain during Hollywood’s Golden Age.