Hoodlum Empire Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 14, 2013
The general consensus might be that so-called "reality television" is a relatively recent phenomenon (leaving aside for a
moment just how real
some of these shows actually are), but the earliest days of television were rife with all
sorts of "reality" programming, efforts that were often easier to produce and much less costly to broadcast than actual
scripted fare. At around the same time that audiences were just beginning to tune in in droves to the likes of Uncle
Miltie and I Love Lucy
, the United States Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce (which
became known more colloquially as the Kefauver Hearings, after their chairman Senator Estes Kefauver) started
captivating civic minded Americans when the hearings were broadcast in something akin to the sensation that was
caused by the Watergate Hearings some two decades later. The Kefauver Hearings were such a "hit" with the
audience that it didn't take the bean counters in Hollywood long to figure out there were opportunities for feature films
at least tangently tied to them, and several films that bear some imprint of the Senate's look into organize crime
appeared over the next couple of years. Some of these, like Robert Wise's The Captive City
, were quasi-
documentaries (which in this particular case featured Senator Kefauver himself), while others, like this little remembered
1952 outing, take a highly fictionalized approach to the same subject matter. While the storylines are markedly
different, there is a certain similarity to another recent Olive Blu-ray release, the 1951 Humphrey Bogart film The Enforcer
, another outing which
posits a crusading fighter for justice out to reign in the nefarious activities of a major mobster.
attempts right off the bat to gain a "ripped from the headlines" imprimatur by advertising itself
"A Bob Considine Story". Considine was a well respected and at that time rather famous writer who had written
extensively about World War II (including from the battlefront) and who later hit the bestseller lists as co-writer of
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
and The Babe Ruth Story
. Considine was also one of the first print media
reporters to matriculate to a lucrative and long lasting radio career, though in whatever medium he worked, Considine
was often accused of having a right leaning bias, something that might be evident in at least some of Hoodlum
, a film that is almost laughably gung ho about "truth, justice and The American Way" at times, at least as
filtered through an early fifties' prism of overt religiosity and conformity.
The major problem with Hoodlum Empire
is that it attempts to personalize its story, something that might
like a good idea but which in this case is pumped full of jingoistic undercurrents and a slew of flashbacks
which interrupt the narrative flow of the main "gangster chronicle". Our hero is Joe Gray (John Russell), a onetime crook
who began to see the light of a more moral way of life during World War II. In post-War America, hearings are
underway to ferret out organized criminal activity, an inquiry led by Senator Bill Stephens (Brian Donlevy), a man who (in
just one of way too many coincidences lining this film) was Gray's commanding officer in the war. Stephens had had his
suspicions about Gray's background, especially after Gray babbles semi-incoherently after having been wounded in a
battle, but things come to a head in "contemporary" times when Gray, who has supposedly gone straight, might have
to spill the beans about his former way of life and, perhaps more to the point, "name names" in terms of who is calling
the shots in the world of organized crime.
As turgid as Hoodlum Empire
is on a dramatic front, it's yet another fascinating little film for its diverse casting.
Russell never really hit the big time, despite having a long career that tended to veer mostly toward Westerns for one
reason or another, but Hoodlum Empire
perhaps points out why that brass ring always seemed to elude him.
For all his stalwart good looks, he's a surprisingly uncharismatic star, one who kind of goes through the motions without
ever generating much interest, let alone electricity. The supporting cast here is aces, however. Claire Trevor plays
Connie, Gray's jilted girlfriend, who has gone on to shack up with Gray's uncle Nick Mancani (Luther Adler), the crime
boss that Stephens is trying to bring down. Gray has discarded Connie in favor of Marte (Vera Ralston, who became
the wife of
Republic's head honcho Herbert J. Yates at around the time Hoodlum Empire
was being filmed), a French lass
who had dispatched a Nazi who was about to take Gray's life
during a fierce battle. Forrest Tucker is also on hand as Mancani's vicious right hand man.
It's the supporting cast that gives Hoodlum Empire
whatever minimal color it has. Adler is actually a hoot as a
tough Italian mob boss, dancing through the role like a boxer hopped up on speed. Adler, one of the driving forces
behind The Group Theatre and heir to one of the theater's most prestigious acting families (his sister was the noted
teacher Stella Adler), had a kind of odd film career. Adler was a pugnacious looking individual and never was able to
really find roles that suited his unusual temperament, but in Hoodlum Empire
he chews the scenery with
appropriate Úlan and is a lot of fun to watch. Trevor of course built most of her career on playing floozies and molls
(always with the requisite heart of gold). Her somewhat more duplicitous character here gives the actress at least a
little room to stretch her wings. Tucker, whom Baby Boomers will remember from F Troop
, is surprisingly
as a pretty nasty guy who wants to make sure that Gray can't divulge any damaging information. Ralston had a fairly
inconsequential film career, despite Yates' attempts to make her
into a star (something that actually led to lawsuits from Republic's shareholders), and it's easy to see why in this film.
Like putative star Russell, Ralston has little charisma and kind of coasts through her role, doing okay but never really
touching the audience the way an overly sympathetic character like this really should.
With a leading character who fails to connect, and an overly convoluted structure which keeps pausing every few
minutes to give us yet another flashback, Hoodlum Empire
is never really able to work up much momentum.
There's also a frankly cheap look to some of the film, especially in the protracted battle sequence, where it's only all too
obvious we're inside a studio (you can almost make out the back wall in a couple of shots that are supposed to be
With some questionable (if understandable given the historical context of the film) elements like soldiers breaking into
the Christian hymn "Faith Of Our Fathers" at one point, Hoodlum Empire
is a little time capsule of an era that
was perhaps too insistent on what constituted "true" Americanism. It's easy to "hiss" villains, but when the good guys
are as bland as they are in this movie, it's pretty hard to really root for them.