The Purple Gang (1959)
Serving as both the narrator and lead investigator in out story, Barry Sullivan takes top billing for this prohibition tale of the notorious Purple Gang that terrorized Detroit back when liquor was being illegally shipped by us inebriated Canadians north of the border. The same Canadians who could still kick back with the boys after work and have themselves a shot or two of smooth Canadian Whiskey while raising a toast to those thirsty dock workers across the line in the good old U.S. of A.
Playing as a fact based story I had to pause to see if this was based on real life events and sure enough it is. While I’m quite familiar with most of the gangster names of the twenties and thirties, I’ll admit to being ignorant of this group of fine fellows. The film from director Frank McDonald pits cop Sullivan against a rising punk played by Robert Blake who by this time had a long list of credits to his name as a child actor dating back to 1939.
Accompanied by a jazzy score, Sullivan is at first assigned to police the juvenile delinquent problems of the city and can’t seem to make any headway in the multiple robbings and beatings that the youngsters led by Blake continue to dish out on the elderly shop keepers that populate the Hastings Street area. Of course no one wants to point a finger at the wanna be Capones for fear of retaliation which only allows Blake to brush off Sullivan, “leave me alone copper.”
When Sullivan begins to get tough with the hoods even raising a fist in self defence he quickly finds himself at odds with a pretty young case worker (Jody Lawrence). Of course she believes that these young men need a little love and understanding. It’s that mindset that will see her brutally raped (off camera) and murdered under Blake’s orders for fear she’ll be able to point the fnger at her attackers.
This killing puts Blake and his gang of liquor running hoods back into Sullivan’s sights. Sullivan had been transferred to homicide after it was felt he was being too harsh on the boys but now they’ve crossed the line and he’s intending to put them behind bars. While Sullivan does send up the trigger man, it’s Blake he wants and it’s Blake that is on the rise in the underworld. Capone’s name is even mentioned a few times throughout the film serving as a measuring stick for Blake’s operation.
“No liquor! No junk! And no broads when I’m running the show!”
Blake is beginning to like the feel of both a shotgun and a tommy gun in his hands as he goes about mowing down all comers who challenge his authority. All those except Sullivan. This is where the film recalls Glenn Ford’s plight in The Big Heat. Like Ford, Sullivan has a wife at home expecting their first child. Sadly she’s to fall victim to Blake’s brutality that will cause Sullivan to seek vengeance against the pint sized hood.
While Sullivan is increasing his war on Blake, Blake is engaged in a Mob war against the boys from Chicago. Violence, bloodshed, cement coffins and plenty of stock footage from those 1930’s Warner Brothers gangster features will flesh out this film’s 84 minute running time.
The fact that all those old clips are in here leads me think this title came out about twenty years too late. It wouldn’t be hard to see Cagney or Raft in the Sullivan role and sign up Billy Halop and the Dead End Kids for the Purple Gang. In theory I guess that sounds about right but then aside from Raft we already got that to some degree in Angels With Dirty faces. The Purple Gang was probably put into production due to the rash of gangster films being released at this time covering the likes of Baby Face Nelson (Mickey Rooney) Machine Gun Kelly (Charles Bronson) and Al Capone (Rod Steiger).
One thing this film did have me pondering is just what would have happened in Humphrey Bogart’s career if he hadn’t died a couple years prior to this release. I bring this up because I couldn’t help thinking Sullivan was playing his role as the hardened cop as if was looking to Bogart for inspiration. There were times in this film that had I closed my eyes I would have sworn it was Bogie’s voice and mannerisms that Sullivan was giving us. I kid you not. If you have a copy of this one on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection give it a try. That’s not meant to be a shot at Sullivan either as he gives the part the authority it needed.
Blake plays it like a Dead End Kid gone over the edge with a touch of Cagney tossed in. Especially at the fade out and you’ll know what I’m referring to if you’ve seen Jimmy’s performance as Rocky Sullivan in Dirty Faces. I’ve always liked Blake on screen and that’s mainly because I grew up in the era of Baretta reruns on TV. I won’t bother getting into his eventual fall from grace but look forward to an eventual book I’m sure is being put together by someone on his life and career in and out of the film business.
Having not heard of The Purple Gang till picking up this title I have no idea of how much truth lies within the script but have a few reservations as to just how accurate it really is. Either way this is a worthy addition to those of us who enjoy old black and white gangster films from the past. If one has no idea it’s about twenty years too late in the making then it won’t really matter at all. It’ll blind in nicely with all the rest of those black and white gangland tales that Warner Brothers released to theaters ages ago.