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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.

13 Comments »

  1. Have not heard about this movie. However, I remembered John Russell in addition to the above movies, he was conspicous in Rio Bravo and Fort Maassacre. Surprisingly, after quite a number of roles, particularly westerns, his career never took off. I noted after Pale Rider, his career faded thereafter. Best regards.

    • I really hadn’t either aside from looking over a list of Donlevy films in the past. Sadly one of the final local video stores closed nearby and sure they were selling all the stock off cheap which was great for my budget but now it’s gone and that was the last store standing in my eyes for the driving range I’m willing to take. This is Russell’s film all the way.

  2. Watched this one for the first time last year and really liked it…I thought Russell did a great job, and director Kane came up with some really good shots. Especially that point-blank gunshot in the office, which was off-screen but implied something quite brutal.

  3. On checking imdb site, I found Kane directed mostly Roy Rodgers, Rod Cameron, Brian Donlevy and Forest Tucker westerns. Surprisingly, I failed to recall those that I have seen,particularly, San Antone the first western I saw starring Rod Cameron.

  4. A stellar choice and great write up as always.
    Joseph Kane moved up from Republic B Westerns to their A Pictures and was normally at the helm when they attracted A List stars
    Stanwyck:THE MAVERICK QUEEN MacMurray:FAIR WIND TO JAVA. The latter has been recently restored as has Kane’s Trucolor
    Naturama Noir ACCUSED OF MURDER but now Kino Lorber seem to have given up on Republic titles their release seems in doubt
    for now at least.
    Some of those Kane,Cameron,Tucker Westerns are pretty darn good especially SAN ANTONE and RIDE THE MAN DOWN-if more
    of Kane’s work was available on disc,his stock would surely rise.
    Regarding Russell/Eastwood-years back a pal who worked for the British Film Institute got involved in a late night drinking session
    with Russell. The actor explained that he had a sizeable role in HONKYTONK MAN which involved Russell and Eastwood getting
    involved in a punch up. The suits at Warners were having none of it saying “we cannot have Clint Eastwood beating up an old man”
    (Russell’s words) Russell’s role therefore ended up on the cutting room floor except a brief scene where he can be seen scowling
    at a bar. Russell was very pissed off about this but did admit that he considered Eastwood a total professional.

    • I spotted his credit for Honkytonk man but honestly couldn’t recall his appearance. Always liked that one. I’d be interested in Kino’s Fair Wind. Not a bad flick but I’ve only seen an on-line version which wasn’t in great condition. Thanks for stopping in as always.

  5. The re-mastering of various vintage Republic titles continues,through Paramount,with Mr.Scorsese’s involvement too,I believe
    but as of yet Kino have not re-newed their contract with Paramount/Republic so I guess unless someone else picks these titles
    up they will eventually be available to stream. Apart from the two new restorations I mentioned there is also HELLFIRE a Trucolor
    Western with William Elliott and Marie Windsor,and Joe Kane’s THE PLUNDERERS with Rod Cameron and Forrest Tucker.
    Also in the mix is THE OUTCAST an excellent William Witney Western headlining John Derek,who I always liked in Westerns.
    Regarding HONKYTONK MAN there is a “blink and you miss him” scene where John Russell is seen scowling standing at a bar.
    I’d love to see a “director’s cut” Blu Ray of HONKYTONK MAN with the Clint/Russell fight scene restored but I don’t think Clint is
    into the whole “director’s cut” thing.
    Re watched THE MULE the other day at a “golden oldies” screening free coffee & biscuits and all (what does that tell you
    about me?)-love that one IMHO Clint’s best since UNFORGIVEN;lovely soundtrack as well.

  6. John, I too am fond of a handful of westerns from John Derek, particularly The Outcast. His Rogues of Sherwood Forest is also fast paced and fun.

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