The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
I’ve covered four of the five films featured in the box set Columbia Film Noir Collection: Volume 1 previously in this column: Criminal Lawyer (1951), The Crooked Web (1955), Escape from San Quentin (1957), and The Shadow on the Wall (1957)—so it’s only fitting that I finally get around to taking a look at the last movie in the set, The Case Against Brooklyn (1958). My initial reaction to the title of the film was that Brooklyn shouldn’t have relied on a public defender. (I make leetle joke.)
Okay, the levity is a little uncalled for because Brooklyn is the best of the five features in the set…though whether or not it qualifies as “noir” is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always subscribed to a “Potter Stewart” definition of the film style: I know it when I see it.
What The Case Against Brooklyn does qualify as is as a solid police procedural, in which the titular borough is beset with various illegal bookmaking operations that continue to maneuver one step ahead of the law. (As District Attorney Michael W. Norris [Tol Avery] jokes: “Sometimes I think the bookies run faster than the horses.”) It’s not that the guys running the bookie joints are particularly clever individuals…it’s that the police force is rife with officers on the take, and the downside to this is that the bookmakers are allowed to function without fear of retribution thanks to the amount of protection cash that’s funneled into the “Widows and Orphans” account.
A garage/truck transport owner, Gus Polombo (Joe De Santis), is into mobster Finelli (Nestor Paiva) for close to two grand…and is told that he needs to settle his account or it’ll be turned over to collections. The tragic thing is: The Syndicate eschews the usual collections practice of harassing phone calls in lieu of sending a couple of goons to work you over should you be delinquent in your payments. Which is pretty much what happens to Gus; an enforcer named Rudi Franklin (Warren Stevens) and another nameless henchie are giving him a going-over in his garage when Lil Polombo (Gus’ missus, played by Margaret Hayes) happens along (Rudi is able to concoct a cover story that he just found Gus beaten up). Gus then retreats to his office, stares at an insurance policy that’s clearly stamped “Double Indemnity” so that we don’t miss the point, and then commits suicide by driving a fruit truck off the road thanks to some stock footage from Thieves’ Highway (1949).
In order to learn just which cops have sticky fingers, Norris gets an idea: he’ll assign forty graduates from the Police Academy to work an undercover assignment to reveal the location of the betting parlors and the identity of the crooked cops involved. One of these graduates is Pete Harris (Darren McGavin), who looks a bit too old to be a fresh-faced rookie…but this is explained by letting us know that Pete has recently completed a ten-year hitch in the service. Harris gets chummy with Lil (something that doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Harris, played by Peggy McCay) in an effort to track down Finelli’s House of Horse Racing, and with partner Jess Johnson (future Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton) wires the joint for sound.
Complications set in when Finelli spots Jess running away after planting a listening device, and the next night, as Pete and Jess return to exchange the recording tape, Johnson is shot and killed by a cop named Bonney (Robert Osterloh). Grilled by the D.A., who has recorded evidence of Bonney’s involvement with the mob, the cop takes a header out a window in an unsupervised moment.
With the death of his partner, Pete is just more determined to bring down the crooked cops providing protection to the bookies. He purposely gives Finelli a bad check, prompting a visit from two of the gangster’s goons…and when they work him over, Pete is stunned when he’s picked up by the police instead of the thugs responsible. (The commanding officer, a real piece of work named Willis [Emile Meyer], is on the bookies’ payroll, which explains the treatment given to Pete at the police station.) It’s a tough slough for Pete to mete out justice…and his pursuit of same comes with a terrible price.
The strengths of The Case Against Brooklyn begin with its superb casting, notably character great Darren McGavin in the starring role of Pete Harris. McGavin was already getting noticed in movies such as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), and The Delicate Delinquent (1957), and his turn in Brooklyn was a springboard for his being cast as Mickey Spillane’s detective creation Mike Hammer in a syndicated TV series (not to mention the short-lived TV oater Riverboat). The actor later landed the title role in the cult television classic The Night Stalker, and appeared in what is inarguably his finest onscreen moment as The Old Man in the holiday favorite A Christmas Story (1983).
Pete Harris may be the nominal hero of Brooklyn but the screenwriters have interestingly created a character with more than his share of flaws, chiefly his impatient desire to attain the same tributes he achieved during his military career. His naked ambition results in carelessness, and gets partner Jess (who wanted to exercise caution after being spotted by Finelli) killed as a result. Pete also wrestles with the moral issue of “romancing” the Widow Polombo for the access he needs as part of his assignment; all’s fair in love and war in the line of duty, he rationalizes—but he’s still bothered by what he’s required to do (even wife Jane suggests that he come clean with Mrs. P). (For the convenience of a later plot point, Pete relies on his actual handle rather than an alias for his undercover assignment…a particularly sloppy bit of police work that would never have passed muster outside this film.)
Margaret (Maggie) Hayes, a veteran from such classics as The Glass Key (1942) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), does quite well as the sympathetic Lil Polombo, and Warren Stevens of The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and Forbidden Planet (1956) fame provides the right touch of screen menace as the ice-water-in-his-veins Rudi Franklin. (Rudi doubles as the mob’s delivery man, doling out payments to corrupt cops via his laundry truck—a nice visual pun on “laundering money.”) Ubiquitous character favorites like Tol Avery, Emile Meyer, Robert Osterloh, and Joe Turkel provide solid support, though seeing Herb Vigran as a cop who constantly seems to be getting a steam and massage as Rudi makes his deliveries is what really made me chuckle. Brooklyn also takes special pains to “introduce” Bobby Helms, a country singer who achieved some pop crossover success (My Special Angel) but is best known for the Christmas standard Jingle Bell Rock; Bobby sings Jacqueline in a dive frequented by McGavin, Hayes, and Stevens (nice little triangle there), a ditty that reached the Top Five of the country music charts.
Based on a True magazine expose entitled “I Broke the Brooklyn Graft Scandal” by author Ed Reid (who appears in the film as a guest on a TV interview program), The Case Against Brooklyn was scripted by Raymond T. Marcus…who in later years was revealed to be blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, assisted (at that time) by an uncredited Julian Zimet (the two men would receive their proper due in the credits of later Brooklyn prints). Like his fellow Columbia producer “Jungle” Sam Katzman, Charles H. Schneer wasn’t so much concerned about the politics of his writers as much as whether they could turn in pages on time. Brooklyn was the second feature directed by Paul Wendkos (his debut was 1957’s The Burglar), who later became a prolific TV-movie director when not supervising the studio’s “Gidget” franchise (Gidget, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Gidget Goes to Rome). Wendkos does splendid work despite this programmer assignment, and The Case Against Brooklyn is a sleeper most worthy of rediscovery.