TB: This week I am going to let Jlewis start, then I will provide some of my own comments at the end. I wanted to discuss this film, since I think it’s a very slick B-crime film and the acting is first-rate. Jlewis liked it, but not as much as I do.
JL: Directed by Robert Parrish with Columbia’s top star Broderick Crawford capitalizing on past hits like ALL THE KING’S MEN and BORN YESTERDAY, we get another of the all-familiar “Johnny” characters in crime dramas. For some reason, every detective writer resorts to that name, I guess because it suggests innocence in a way that Charlie or Roger does not? Broderick’s Johnny witnesses a murder and mistakes the killer as a fellow detective because he flaunts a badge like his. The victim is a testifying waterfront crime witness. When critiqued by his bosses at Hall of Justice headquarters, he gets to redeem himself by tracking down this mystery man.
Although he has very dangerous work to do infiltrating the underground by posing as an ex-criminal himself, we suspect right away that Johnny will survive in the end just eleven minutes into the film. Why? Because he is engaged to get married to Mary (Betty Buehler), presenting her a ring. We’ve discussed this set-up before with the war movies. Those who are married or engaged (with the added plus of a little one on the way) are the ones who survive and those who are either womanizing bachelors or potentially in-the-closet (or so we think with our 21st century eyes) are expendable. On the plus side, neither future groom and bride are glamorous young people (looking late thirties/forties-ish) and Mary is clearly not an accessory here like some other films profiled, but actually plays a key role in the final two climaxes when her life is in as much danger as Johnny’s.
I should add that Broderick’s shorter than usual haircut and mustache in the beginning makes him more accessible to viewers as an Average Joe than his earlier exaggerated roles. Once on the job as “Tim Flynn” of New Orleans, the mustache is shaved off and we get the Bronx tough guy accent so he feels more at home on the NYC waterfront.
The dock scenes themselves invite plenty of comparison to ON THE WATERFRONT, bankrolled by the same studio Columbia later to Oscar fame. The fact that this film features more rear-projection shots and studio mock-ups than the latter gives us an indication how much film-making changed at just one studio over two and a half years. (THE MOB was shot in early ’51 and the latter in late ’53.)
I am not sure if the dialogue here was all original or copy-catted from others, but so much of it sounded eerily familiar. I was thinking of James Dean in the later REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, when “Tim” is taken for a ride in the back seat of a sedan (again resembling ON THE WATERFRONT and a famous back seat scene there), when his sarcastic comment about why he wasn’t blindfolded results in a response of “you’ve been reading too many comic books.” When introduced to mob boss Joe Castro, a young Ernest Borgnine, who cracks “My name is Castro and I don’t have any boss”, the sarcastic “Tim” cracks the funny line “Not even a wife, Mister Castro?”
Another murder takes place involving a possible witness/stool pigeon, this time involving with “Tim” as the murdering suspect. Castro and his henchman Gunner (Neville Brand) have him set up here. A fist fight between Johnny/Tim and Gunner provides the bulk of the action in this otherwise more-talk-than-action gangster piece. Other characters of interest include a corrupt cop (Walter Klavum) and the bartender Smoothie (Matt Crowley) who gives him information on others for a price and is later revealed far more important than Johnny/Tim realizes.
On the other side of the law and ready to retrieve him from this dangerous pit full of mob crocodiles are the feds played by Otto Hulett as Lt. Banks, whom he reports back to in periodic private car discussions, and Richard Kiley (easily recognizable by his distinctive TV and radio voice) as Thomas Clancy infiltrating the scenery as a fellow dock worker and sporting a wife (Jean Alexander) involved as well. The final investigation of the “wrong side of the law” involves a car that Johnny/Tim and Smoothie use that drips “stuff” on the road so it can be tailed and is wire-tapped so the feds can listen in… which makes me wonder why both was necessary when the latter worked just as well in exposing.
Then Mary somehow gets involved and a rather un-climactic showdown takes place in a hospital, of all places. The ending involving another nurse of Mary’s profession also being tied to the feds is a trifle silly but it does lead us to the adequate happy ending we expect. I have a feeling most moviegoers at the time were not terribly “wowed” by the action here, but nonetheless left feeling good that romance prevailed in the end even if Johnny gets kissed by another man’s wife as a joke.
Going by the cars showcased early on, I initially thought the setting of this pic was the mid 1930s when the FBI was busy trackin’ ’em down, but later we see some 1951 models on the road so it is revealed all contemporary. Nonetheless comparisons can also be made to Warner’s G-MEN and the MGM “Crimes Does Not Pay” shorts with the good guys shown investigating step-by-step with maps, wire tappings and detail investigations. However the fact that Smoothie, Castro and Gunner don’t seem all that threatening makes this picture feel too easily resolved.
TB: It’s interesting how a film resonates (or doesn’t resonate) with two different viewers. On the IMDb rating system, I gave it a 9. Originally I had given it an 8 but increased my rating with subsequent viewings. I look at it as a very slick B-crime film. The acting puts it over, even if some of the plot devices are hackneyed.
The dialogue might seem familiar in THE MOB probably because it was copied later by other writers. I found a lot of the wisecracks to be expertly delivered, especially by Brod Crawford. I love the running joke of him playing a guy from New Orleans (while undercover) and having to continually order and drink beer and wine, something the real Johnny doesn’t like mixing.
The weakest part is them omitting how Mary got picked up by Smoothie’s gang. We should have seen how they nabbed her. But I guess we were supposed to be surprised, along with Johnny, when he went into the other room and saw her there. But I would like it to have been explained, how they kidnapped her.
I enjoyed the hospital sequence. I thought it was particularly suspenseful, notably the part where Smoothie entered the room and it looked like he was going to kill them both. The first time I watched it, I had no idea the nurse who came into the room was an undercover cop. I liked how Smoothie was gunned down by a cop shooting him from an upper window in a nearby building. It was definitely a tidy ending, but there really was no need to drag out Smoothie’s demise.
Jay Adler played the owner of the fleabag motel. Great character actor, brother of Stella and Luther. He has another memorable role in 99 RIVER STREET, a noir made shortly afterward.
The character of Mary was the only significant film role for actress Betty Buehler. She has just two credits on the IMDb, which leads me to believe she was either a stage actress or had acted under another name for other roles. I did find a nice write-up about her, after her death in 2012. It wasn’t an obituary really, more an appreciation by someone in her hometown who knew her family. According to that column, she appeared in some 50s TV anthology programs. But none of that is listed on the IMDb.
I thought Buehler had excellent chemistry with Crawford, and as Jlewis indicated, we didn’t need a glamorous young couple cast as the leads. This film has more true-to-life types of people, and I think that’s one reason why I like it so much. Even Kiley and his wife, despite their earlier deception, make a somewhat down-to-earth couple.
THE MOB may currently be viewed on YouTube.