New York Confidential (1955)

The Kefauver Committee
Frank Castello appearing before the Kefauver Committee
In the wake of the televised Kefauver hearings which revealed the extent of organised crime in the USA to a fascinated public, Broderick Crawford stepped up to camera to play a leading member of a syndicate, in its Manhattan headquarters, in the movie New York Confidential.

The television broadcast of the Kefauver committee's hearings had attracted huge public interest and informed the public about issues of municipal corruption and organized crime.

An estimated 30 million Americans tuned in to watch the live proceedings in March 1951, and so it was no surprise that the popularity of these broadcasts would lead to a brief rash of exposé crime films.  It might have seemed like life was imitating the movies, but film noir fans will know that during the 1940s and 1950s, film noir had been prodding away at America's underbelly, and exposing a world of crime, deceit and greed.

The first one of these films was probably The Captive City (1952), which was produced with the blessing of senator Kefauver himself, who appears in the prologue and epilogue, informing viewers about the evils of organized crime.  Other notable examples of exposé films include Hoodlum Empire (1952) and The Turning Point (1952), but the best of them by far is New York Confidential (1955)

There were a few things different about Crawford Broderick's villain in New York Confidential, because he isn't the usual gangland kingpin.  Yes, he is an important guy, but it's clear that he is only one aspect of what is a huge apparatus of unstoppable machinery.

Gone is the typical gang-leader whom everyone is afraid of, who smokes behind a desk, ordering hits and spreading fear. What in fact we have in New York Confidential is an early presentation of the so-called corporate criminal. Charlie Lupo has power yes, but he is answerable to much larger forces, both economic and political.

Broderick Crawford in New York Confidential
Broderick Crawford as the Manhattan Syndicate Boss Charlie Lupo

In this way, New York Confidential presents as part documentary, part gangster thriller, and despite the best efforts of the strong cast, it's an uneasy mixture.  This was when J. Edgar Hoover was doing his best to convince the public that there was no such thing as a Mafia, so instead we have a group called only the organization or the syndicate, and Charlie Lupo aside, nobody has an Italian name. In fact the charcaters have pretty traditional gangster names, like Nick Magellan and Johnny Achilles and Whitey.

We're much more used to seeing the corporate gangster these days, but in the mid 50s, at the tail end of film noir, it was a far harder pitch. And the film noir credentials aren't great either, with most of the action being traditionally lit during daylight, with very little decent street footage, and nothing in the way of expressionitsic lighting effects.

New York Confidential (1955)
Corporate Crooks
Perhaps this is because just as the noir cycle reached its natural conclusion, many of the shadows melted away, leaving the cold light of day.  In this bright light, directors and thrill-seeking audiences sometimes favoured brutal beat downs and a morbid reality to the action, instead of what was the norm, which was violence off screen ... that is to say that violence back then was usually suggested as opposed to shown.   After Kefauver, Hoover, who was obsessed with ‘subversives’, had no option but to admit that America had a problem with organised crime, and the FBI was obliged to stop chasing communists but instead catch criminals ... and around this time, at the tail end of the 1950s, more graphic violence began to creep into certain films.

You may expect New York Confidential to deliver more than it does — you may even expect more noir because the movie usually shows up on film noir lists and on film noir sites ... er, like this one.

But I like to think of noir as a checklist.  You take each film as it comes and score it against the checklist.  Some films, like Double Indemnity and Detour score hella high — they are noir.  Others are mere black and white crime thrillers.

Richard Conte in New York Confidential (1955)
Richard Conte
This checklist notion speaks volumes about what we think of film and noir in general — we are always looking backward.  So it’s hard not to think of The Godfather or Goodfellas when you consider New York Confidential, because what we have in essence is one of these rise-of-the-foot soldier gangster stories, told from the heart of the syndicate, with virtually no citizen or police characters, just a drama unfolding in the criminal world.

Richard Conte is great here, he really makes the film.  He plays a polite and loyal, cold-blooded hit-man turned consigliere.  It’s a high period mob picture from the same source as 711 Ocean Drive (1950), and The Brothers Rico (1957) (also starring Conte).  In these movies, crime is corporate, with formal hierarchies, wide-ranging interests, and strict rules for doing business.  In New York Confidential, as in The Godfather, these interests extend into government, although the theme in New York Confidential is that no individual is indispensable, and the survival of the organisation is what remains paramount.

Marylin Maxwell in New York Confidential (1955)
Marylin Maxwell in New York Confidential (1955)
New York Confidential is however pretty uneven.  The leading members of the cast peddle some pretty weighty dialogue, while the supporting cast flounders in various cul-de-sacs lined with pedestrian clichés.  The design of New York Confidential is static and lacks life, and there aren’t any of the expressive shadows which the dedicated noir fans require, for that extra depth of character, and that comforting feeling of doom that we crave.

There wasn’t a lot of corporate gangsterism portrayed in 1940s cinema, but it was certainly a trend to watch out for in the 1950s.  In the 1940s, the FBI spent its time hunting communists, and formulating the dirty tricks program known as COINTELPRO, in order to catch Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Daltom Trumbo and other fearsome enemies of the state.

The idea of organised crime back then was newsworthy and shocking — the very notion that alongside the legitimate capitalist outfits running everybody’s lives, there were also illegitimate ones, with just as much power in government.  Gangster protagonists are common in film noir, and some movies like this one, are just about entirely populated with them.

By the time of New York Confidential though, the idea of the anti-social hero as typified in The Public Enemy (1930), Scarface (1932) had blurred entirely.  The single-minded pursuit of money by an overachieving aggressive male really took off again in the 1950s, after a break in the 1940s, the period when film noir blossomed and developed.  In film noir, the hero is often there by accident — a real 1940s trope.  And in film noir, the crimes are in classic 1940s mode, usually sexually or psychologically motivated.

The New York Times gave a mixed review of Confidential, which is perhaps fair as the film’s a little mixed up too.  At one moment the reviewer from February 19, 1955 seems to like it, but winds up saying that it isn’t memorable in the slightest.  To the great credit of the movie however, there is this from the same review:
Credibility and drive it has, in spades, frankly contending that a diabolically efficient network of blood and terror invariably dissembles within.  Such, at any rate, is the case with Mr. Crawford's underworld czardom, seemingly a composite of three notorious mobsters of the last decade, especially one far luckier deportee.  The New York City Anti-Crime Committee has publicly vouched for the picture's over-all authenticity.

Maybe authenticity isn’t that useful, or perhaps it’s something that’s only going to drag a film noir to a halt.  Noir, after all, has to be about darkness and psychological failure, and enemies that are not always going to be obvious, because sometimes they are within.  You know: you are your own worst enemy, and so forth.

At a time when the FBI and Hoover were looking for Communists everywhere, they were actually ignoring the actual crime syndicates that are in discussion in New York Confidential.  In a way, the imaginary criminals of the HUAC era are much easier to capture in the shadowy, paranoid world of noir.  Although the word mafia isn’t mentioned in New York Confidential, you can tell from all the phone calls to and from Italy that there may be a connection between the Syndicate and ‘the old country’.

I also wonder in fact if it is authentic at all.  Broderick Crawford is the head of the New York branch of the Syndicate, but the suggestion is that no on person is bigger than the organisation.  Fair enough.  Then also there are intriguing suggestions about links to crime in all walks of life, including in the field of oil distribution.

Mike Mazurki
The relibale acting skills of Mike Mazurki
In fact whenever something goes wrong, the Broderick Crawford character calls in a hit man.  He has a delicate stomach that can’t take any sort of pastrami-based abuse, and he hangs around with his mama, especially when the going gets really tough.  All nice stuff.

Richard Conte and Anne Bancroft
Richard Conte and Anne Bancroft

Lupo’s daughter is played by Anne Bancroft, and she’s a little more than the average noir heroine.  Seething with self-loathing, anger for her father, and an independent spirit that is criminal in itself, she is one of the best characters, and is as smart as she is irate.  There is the suggestion at one stage that a romance is about to break out between herself and Richard Conte's hitman character, but that comes to very little, and so we have to be content with her teenage angst as she tries to free herself from her daddy's clutches.

    … the performances are generally vigorous and believable, especially Mr. Crawford and Miss Bancroft.  The others, among them J. Carrol Naish, Onslow Stevens, Barry Kelly and Mike Mazurki, do well on the sidelines.  All told, they make a stinging, unsavory eyeful.  How they got that way might have made them, and "'New York Confidential," even memorable.

New York Confidential
A Lot of Reading in this Poster ...
Reviews are funny.  We lap them up in the newspapers when they are appropriate for a product that’s in the market on that day — but afterwards and with a little historical insight, they seem irrelevant, and generally miss the point. 

New York Confidential makes it on to list of film noir for these reasons.  It’s at the tail end of the cycle, but it’s noir in many resepcts, despite not cutting it in terms of the shadowy mis-en-scene.  You might call it film noir, and you might call it a crime thriller, but either way you probably need to see it, because it is one important piece in the story of 1950s American storytelling.

Because in New York Confeidntial, we do at least have a decent gander into the criminal world and with its fatal females and misguided males, it makes the cut.  The idea that you're left with in New York Confidential, is that this level of organised crime is a vicious circle of self-destructive criminal violence that will go on forever. The gangsters are trapped into a life of violence and betrayals and that’s a fairly simple message that almost anyone could get. 

Anne Bancroft is the one that wants out, and the one that tries the hardest, but there’s a strange and remarkably cold impression given, that most of the players in the drama have a reason not to be there, whether its health, moral or otherwise.  There is something intrinscially different in the villain portrayed by Broderick Crawford, who carries out his murderous plans in the plain light of day, and in the corporate boardroom, as opposed to the back rooms and basements more familiar from most of the film noir of the time.

The leading image shows Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime. This image is found at

The poster image is locatedat Wikimedia Commons here and is used on for identification in the context of critical commentary of the work

No comments:

Post a Comment