Hoodlum Empire (1952)
Directed by Joseph Kane for Herbert J. Yates’ Republic Pictures, this black and white crime drama features a large canvas of characters who all converge in the present and a steady stream of flashbacks delivering an enjoyable crime yarn involving a state senator clashing with underworld figures over the gambling racket.
Starring as the Senator and looking to bring down the criminal element running the rackets is Brian Donlevy. His number one target is Mafia Don, Luther Adler, who is ducking the subpoena that’s been issued in his name. Alongside Adler is Claire Trevor recycling her often played role of a gangster’s moll and Forrest Tucker as the second in command who is hot tempered and a psychotic killer to boot. Sitting alongside Donlevy on the bench is Gene Lockhart who is himself bringing fire and brimstone to whoever is sitting in the hot seat fielding the questions.
Time for a flashback that takes us to a WW2 battlefront with leading man John Russell under the command of Donlevy. It’s a hellacious battle that sees Russell wounded and saved from certain death in a farmhouse by Herbert J. Yates’ favorite gal/leading lady Vera Ralston. Russell is the nephew of Adler and slated to move into the family business. But this is war and Donlevy isn’t concerned with mob activities at this point. Ralston takes more than a motherly interest in our wounded soldier and Russell is receptive. So much so that he’s going to go straight following the war.
Among the soldiers doing overseas duty in the platoon you’ll spot a baby faced Richard Jaeckel who honestly never seemed to age in his lengthy career and Phillip Pine who doubles as a piano player during the front lines Sunday Mass held by the platoon’s Minister Grant Withers.
There’s plenty more plot to follow in this 98 minute black and white feature. A quick rundown has Russell back in the states turning his back on his lover, Miss Trevor, and telling Uncle Adler he wants no part of the family business. Let the power thirsty Tucker have it. The violent minded Tucker would much rather knock off Russell who knows too much about the underworld figures in our story.
Flashbacks? We’ve got plenty more including Claire’s memories of being in love with her tall hood but that’ll come to a crashing halt when he drops her for his overseas savior. Vera will have a flashback of her own that could result in some criminal charges levied at Adler who by this time has come out of hiding to take the stand and put up with the overacting Lockhart and listening in on the stern warnings of Senator Donlevy.
All these flashbacks are going to set the stage for a major showdown between our gun toting hoodlums and Russell with Donelvy and the police nearby. For all you state senators stopping by to read up on my latest film from yesteryear, “let me state for the record that not all of our leading characters are going to be alive at the fadeout.” If you ask me to name names “I’ll take the fifth.” Whatever the hell that really means. We’ve heard it so often in movies it’s become part of our everyday vernacular.
A first time viewing for me and that’s thanks to the film’s release on home video by Olive Films who continue to put out some rare and harder to find titles. Always one to enjoy spotting character players from the past in minor or bit roles I caught sight of William Schallert swearing in the witnesses in the courtroom and heard the voice of Whit Bissell before actually seeing him. Thinking he wasn’t going to get a close up I actually rewound his first scene that had filmed him from the back. I knew that voice! Nailed it and then a moment or two later he got a second scene that did indeed confirm my suspicions on who in fact that voice belonged to.
Billed sixth in the opening credits behind (in order) Donlevy, Trevor, Tucker, Ralston and Adler, this film really belongs to John Russell. His character is the focal point of the plot. Both in the present and in the flashbacks that continually move our plot of the present forward. For the most part I associate Russell with westerns in part to both the movies and the small screen where he would regularly don a cowboy hat and strap on a six shooter. Modern audiences are likely to associate him in a pair of Eastwood oaters, Josie Wales and Pale Rider.
Classic film fans might recall Vera Ralston best from a pair of John Wayne movies that Duke made while under contract to Yates and Republic, Dakota and The Fighting Kentuckian. She’d marry Yates in 1952 and remain with him till his death in 1966. Her final screen role came in 1958’s The Man Who Died Twice.
There is much here in Hoodlum Empire to draw interest for lovers of classic cinema. Notably the cast of familiar faces from yesteryear in the leading roles and the character actors that populate the background scenery. Worth a look if you’re so inclined.