In The Gangster (1947), minor crime lord Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) rules Brooklyn’s Neptune Beach, noir setting of sketchy beachfront boardwalk area near subway tracks. It may be a Coney Island for bottom feeders, but he’s its master. Then another gangster (Sheldon Leonard) tries to move in on his territory…
Shubunka has two weaknesses. First, he is distracted – so hung up on his night club singer girlfriend (Belita) that he stalks her, insecure. Anyone can see that she is playing him and that his over possessiveness would creep out any gal. Second, he underestimates his opponent (and, in noir, anyone who underestimates Sheldon Leonard does so at his peril).
Much like Marshall Will Kane in High Noon, Shubunka finds out how few will help him in a crunch. Barry Sullivan is excellent as a guy who is at first blind to his vulnerabilities, and then increasingly desperate. It’s difficult to be a tough guy when you’re wearing your romantic obsession like a ball and chain. His empire crumbles as a thunderstorm hits the seedy neighborhood.
The Gangster’s Neptune Beach is filled with colorful denizens brought to life by our favorite noir character actors. Harry Morgan is a cynical would-be lady’s man – a legend in his own mind who puts the jerk in soda jerk. Akim Tamiroff, without his usual menace, is nervous Nelly business owner. John Ireland is a disgraced CPA with a gambling addiction. Charles McGraw, always a tough guy even by noir standards, is one of the invading hoods who works for the menacing Sheldon Leonard. Plus there’s Leif Erickson and Elisha Cook, Jr. Watch for an uncredited Shelly Winters as Hazel, the cashier.
There are plenty of wonderfully noir moments in The gangster, such as the shot of the CPA and his wife sitting at neighboring tables, both disconsolate as lights are turned off in the soda joint. One character delivers a monologue while framed against a checkerboard ceiling, and then walks out over checkerboard floor tiles. And there are shadows, shadows and more shadows.
Unfortunately, The Gangster was clearly shot on a studio back lot instead of on location. And the British figure skater Belita is unremarkable as the lovelorn Shubunka’s chanteuse.
Nonetheless, The Gangster is a fine character-driven noir, a portrait of a tragic flaw. Fortunately, The Gangster plays every so often on Turner Classic Movies, because it is very hard to find on DVD.