American filmgoers have had a long love affair with the gangster movie. The Pre-Code era was riddled with rat-a-tat-tat tommy gun action from Warner Brothers, MGM, and the other studios, helping to make stars out of Edward G. Robinson , James Cagney , Clark Gable , and a host of movie tough guys. Things quieted down once the Code was strictly enforced, but the gangster was still around, sometimes in comedy masks as likeable lugs, deneutered yet always lurking on-screen in some capacity.
By the late 1940’s, film noir introduced us to a darker vision, one seething with murderous rage. Cagney in WHITE HEAT, Robinson in KEY LARGO , and virtually everything Lawrence Tierney was in showed us gangsters were no “swell guys”, but anti-social psychopaths. The 50’s saw the gangster relegated mainly to ‘B’ status, just another genre to pit the good guys against the bad guys. Then in 1959, along came TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, bringing the Roaring Twenties back to colorful life, and the gangster was back with a vengeance.
It’s here we find MURDER INC., a true-life tale about the infamous hit squad from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section who conducted a nationwide kill-spree under orders from organized crime. The film doesn’t break any new ground, but it does introduce Peter Falk as a force to be reckoned with playing Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a psycho-killer if there ever was one. Falk’s Reles fits right in with the Warner Brothers’ Gangland Rogue’s Gallery of Cagney, Bogart, et al, and earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He’s as cruel and vicious as the devil, his weapon of choice an ice pick, and makes for one memorably malevolent mug!
Reles and his band of assassins get their contracts from Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (David J. Stewart), a Jewish “businessman” who controls New York vice alongside Mafioso Albert Anastasia (Howard I. Smith). Their first hit is on Catskills comic Walter Sage (Morey Amersterdam in a cameo ), and Reles recruits unwitting ex-band singer Joe Collins (Stuart Whitman), in debt to Reles up to his ears, to help set the crooked comedian up. Collins’s dancer wife Eadie (May Britt) is repulsed by Reles and insults him when he’s brought to her home; the hood later responds by attacking and brutally raping her. Reles then sets them up in a lavish apartment furnished with ill-gotten gains.
When Lepke is under indictment and forced to go into hiding, he stays with Joe and Eadie, keeping them virtual prisoners catering to his whims. Lepke sends his right-hand man Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard in a chilling performance) to kill the witness against him. The crime lord ends up in Leavenworth, and pressure is put on the mob by crusading DA Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan, the radio and TV personality, not the man from M*A*S*H). Lepke, feeling the heat, orders Mendy to hit everybody, including the Murder Inc. gang (which may have served as the inspiration for Michael Corleone’s revenge in Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER!). Reles and Eadie start singing like canaries; she’s killed on the boardwalk, and Reles is thrown out a window, leaving only Joe to lift the lid off organized crime and reserve a seat for Lepke in the electric chair.
There are some good flourishes in MURDER INC., with the violence coming in quick spurts, but on the whole the movie suffers from its budget limitations. Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE ) began the film as director, but was fired and replaced by producer Burt Balaban (actor Bob’s cousin). The actors, while all good, were from the Broadway (and Off-Broadway) stage, giving the film little star power. Falk was a virtual unknown at the time, and Whitman just another Fox contract player. The movie boosted both their careers, with Falk going on to much greater success as everyone’s favorite rumpled detective Lt. Columbo.
MURDER INC. features soon-to-be Familiar Faces like Simon Oakland as a dogged cop and Vincent Gardenia as Lepke’s mobbed-up lawyer. Actors Seymour Cassel and Sylvia Miles make their film debuts, and jazz singer Sarah Vaughn shows up to perform a couple of numbers. While not in the same category as gangster films past, it will certainly sate the crime buff’s appetite for destruction, and Peter Falk’s sociopathic ‘Kid Twist’ alone makes it more than worth watching.