New York Confidential (VCI) is neither the first nor the best of the “ripped from the headlines” crime expose dramas that followed the Senate hearings into organized crime chaired by Estes Kefauver, but it is a classic mix of Hollywood docudrama and tabloid exploitation. Made in 1955 and inspired by (if not quite based on) the book by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, this precursor to the mafia movies stars Broderick Crawford as New York crime boss Charlie Lupo, a real “family man” who swaps family snapshots while plotting a hit, and Richard Conte as the loyal pro Nick Magellan, a cool, smart and savvy gunman who is brought in from Chicago for a killing and stays on as Lupo’s trusted right hand. Crawford won his Oscar for All the King’s Men but Lupo is less Willie Stark than crime boss turned big businessman, trying to keep of a front of respectability with legitimate deals. But while he wears the front of a citizen, he’s an uncomfortable fit in the halls of power (he reverts back to thug while conferencing with his bought-and-paid-for Senators) or society.
J. Edgar Hoover had denied the existence of the mob for decades until the Kefauver hearings finally brought too much attention. This film quietly but clearly establishes the chain of command in the opening scene as Lupo takes his orders in a phone call from Italy, and acknowledges the open secret of the mob (called “The Syndicate” here) through his daughter Kathy (a stunning young Anne Bancroft), who moves through society circles but treated like a pariah because everyone knows the Daddy is a gangster. “You’re still a hoodlum,” she spits at him after another boyfriend has been scared off, this time by Nick. “You’ll never be anything else.” Contempt drips from her every utterance but she can’t outrun the family name or the criminal stain and she finally turns that contempt on herself: the poor little crime princess who chokes on her self-hatred. Nick’s adoring courtship only makes it worse, especially when his desire conflicts with his loyalty to Lupo. Kathy can’t even debase herself properly.
Russell Rouse (who wrote D.O.A. with his screenwriting partner Clarence Greene and directed Wicked Woman, also from a script with his Confidential collaborator Greene) is not a dynamic director but he has something here in this tabloid crime thriller. Dialogue scenes lack any dramatic tension but he delivers the thuggery of the underworld—brutal beat-downs, cold-blooded killings, Nick smiling while he does his work—with a straightforward bluntness that suggests tabloid photography and captures the morbidity of the criminal world: part exploitation, part operatic drama. The Syndicate is more important than any individual, is Lupo’s philosophy, which you know will come back on him. No one touched by the corrupting tentacles of organized crime gets out alive, which meets the production code “crime doesn’t pay” morality while delivering its own grim, brutal portrait of the underworld. And Conte cuts a riveting figure as the loyal, smart and icily effective gunman turned lieutenant, an educated soldier whose loyalty is ultimately to the organization, not the man. Too bad the organization doesn’t return the respect.
The disc lists a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it has been sized to fit the 1.77:1 widescreen TV format. While it’s fine, the open matte presentation leaves too much dead space headroom in numerous scenes and would play better at the correct aspect ratio. Otherwise it’s a fine print that has been decently mastered for disc. Features commentary by film noir historian Alan K. Rode, who hosts the track and provides most of the production comments, and critic/noir maven (and fellow MSN writer) Kim Morgan, who chimes in for color commentary (and an obsessive appreciation of the pickle that J. Carrol Naish chomps in an early scene; Kim, sometimes a pickle is just a pickle) plus a gallery of stills and advertising art.