Thursday 21 January 2021

Gang War (1958)

Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Writer: Louis Vittes, from the novel The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stars: Charles Bronson, Kent Taylor, Jennifer Holden and John Doucette

Index: 2021 Centennials.

21st January marks the centennial of character actor John Doucette and it took me a long while to figure out what I could review in his memory. The problem is that he was such an effective character actor, stealing moments and scenes out from under the leads, often as a tough guy, whether sheriff or villain, that he was rarely given a lead of his own, even with credits in a hundred and forty films and even more TV shows. Eventually, I tracked down this picture, a relatively straightforward gangster flick released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. He’s not the lead here, either, that honour going to a young Charles Bronson, who was newly ascended to top billing himself. Doucette is fourth billed, after Kent Taylor and Jennifer Holden, but he dominates the entire film, because he’s the gangster that it’s all about, Maxie Meadows. This is his story just as much as it’s Bronson’s, even if his character has less depth and substance, and it’s easier for him to make his presence known in emphatic fashion.

We’re in Los Angeles and, to highlight what the City of Angels was like at this point, we’re treated to a montage of mayhem right at the start. Machine guns unloading their rounds directly at the audience! Cars screaming round corners at high speed! Barber shops exploding in the night! Even the title explodes onto the screen at us in military capitals: “GANG WAR”. And when our story begins, Louis Vittes’s script, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s novel, The Hoods Take Over, gets right down to business. Slick Connors slaps down his girl, Marsha, because she doesn’t like him becoming a stool pigeon. He’s turning state’s evidence against Joe Reno so that, when the syndicate moves in, he’ll become Mr. Big. “Glad to know you while you’re still alive,” she tells him, with prescience, because he leaves her apartment to find Joe and Bernard “The Axe” Duncan outside, waiting to murder him in cold blood. Which they do. Slick betrays himself to be a coward, but Joe isn’t. He takes care of business and that’s Leonard P. Geer’s uncredited performance over.

And that’s because this isn’t about Slick Connors, who’s frankly too stupid to become Mr. Big. It’s not even about Joe Reno, as coldly efficient as he is, because he’s just a henchman, even if he’s an important and trusted one. It’s about Alan Avery, a mild-mannered maths teacher, who happened to witness Slick’s demise from the parking lot. His wife Edie, eight months pregnant, was having one of her migraines, so he popped out to get some medicine for her, and stumbled into a murder in progress. He calls the cops, from a nearby public phone, without leaving his name, but accidentally leaves the medicine behind in the booth. He doesn’t realise it until he’s back home and he’s about to head back out to get it when the cops show up to deliver it. So much for anonymity! He’s a decent and upstanding citizen, though, and helps the investigation in every way he can, which is a great deal. He recites the license plate number, which leads the cops to Reno and the Axe. He identifies them in a line-up, which puts them in jail. And he’ll testify too.

From that point, you can pretty much write the rest of the script yourself, because it unfolds exactly as you expect. Yes, that means that poor Edie with her migraines is going to get hers, just so the boss can send a message to Avery. Gloria Henry leaves the film as a corpse on the floor of her ridiculously large kitchen with its four ovens, the discovery of which takes Avery into a story arc you’ll have figured out even before you realise that Mr. Mild-Mannered is played by Charles Bronson. Given that this is 1958, in the heart of the Production Code era, you’ll know how far he gets and how far he won’t go too. For all that he’s known for violent films of the seventies, like the Death Wish saga, he’s really good at being an everyday Joe who does the right thing at the right time and doesn’t seem overly heroic for doing so. Bronson’s debut was in 1951 and he knocked out a lot of movies either without credit or as Charles Buchinsky, including House of Wax. This was only his third lead, after Showdown at Boot Hill and Machine-Gun Kelly, both also in 1958.

Beyond Bronson playing a very different role to that of George R. “Machine-Gun” Kelly, there are hardly any surprises here. Surely the biggest is the fact that this 75 minute black and white B-movie from 1958 unfolds in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is because Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, was countering the rise of television in the fifties by introducing CinemaScope. Some theatre owners were skeptical, given that they’d recently converted to 3D, a format in which Hollywood was no longer making product, so he explained that he’d ensure a large amount of content by making CinemaScope lenses available to other companies. One of those was Regal Pictures, set up in 1956 under a contract to provide Fox with twenty pictures a year for seven years, each shot in a week with a budget cap of $100,000. Of course, as only 20th Century Fox films were officially dubbed CinemaScope, Regal’s films, such as this one, ended with the equivalent term of Regalscope in their end credits.

Certainly, there’s no surprise in finding that Joe Reno works for Maxie Meadows and Maxie Meadows is played by John Doucette. It has to be said that he has an absolute blast here. He had already firmly established himself as a notable bad guy on television, with a string of villainous appearances on The Lone Ranger, beginning in 1949, and in film, especially in westerns, where his skill with guns was put to good use—he was regarded by many to be one of the fastest draws in Hollywood. However, these roles were often short and insubstantial, because he didn’t even need to act to get them over, having a natural look to him that told a story all on its own. I don’t know if he ever had another role as dominant as this one, either before or after Gang War, but he certainly made the most of a strong opportunity. He makes Maxie a lively gangster, cheap and common but also aching for acceptance by his new neighbours in the posh part of town, whatever it costs him. He throws himself into the role and he’s a joy to watch.

To be fair, he benefits from the presence of Jennifer Holden as his moll, Marie, because the pair of them bounce off each other with panache. I’m surprised to find that Holden had a very brief career, this being the middle of only three films, after Jailhouse Rock and before a Randolph Scott western called Buchanan Rides Alone. The Maxie and Marie double act begins with a glorious scene at home and only builds from there. Maxie is watching a dramatisation of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on television—is that Scarface?—and he’s pleased as punch that he was able to figure out that the cops ain’t cops. He stalks the room in his expensive and expansive padded smoking jacket, lording it over a small world. He’s even got Marie reading books because his lawyer says they’ll need to get culture before society will spend time with them. I love the moment when she tells him to stop shouting because it’ll hurt his vocal cords. “Besides,” she adds, “it ain’t cultured.” He shouts a lot anyway, because it’s simply who he is.

So, we’re watching Alan Avery do the right thing, without adequate protection from the corrupt police—Capt. Finch is on Maxie’s payroll—and struggle to continue to do the right thing after his wife and unborn child are murdered. He often fails in that struggle and it’s interesting to see how far the script will allow him to go before the inevitable Production Code ending. We’re watching an equally inevitable fall from grace for Maxie Meadows, who bluffs and blusters and does everything a gangster of his stature ought to do, but really doesn’t have a very large organisation because the budget won’t allow for it and so he does seem a lot fairer game for the syndicate than he should. We’re also watching another personal struggle, this time the conscience of Bryce Barker, Maxie’s lawyer, who’s done well out of the hundred grand a year he gets, but detests doing the work as much as his wife Diane resents him for doing it. Again, his story arc isn’t remotely surprising, but it’s still good fun to watch it unfold, Kent Taylor decent in the role.

It’s hard to spoil a film that betrays its every intention within the first ten minutes, so I’ll talk about the final scene, even if I avoid a lot of the details. It’s Christmas Eve and Maxie’s throwing a party at his mansion, but nobody shows up except the entertainment: a pianist and a singer. Yeah, that’s telling. Eventually, his few men arrive, having sold out to the syndicate, and we’re shown as close to a gang war as we get in this picture, shown in miniature as a fight between one loyal punch-drunk boxer and one disloyal thug. It works because, as soon as Maxie hears someone approaching the door, he has the performers start performing. They do so during a fight scene, clearly scared to carry on but just as clearly scared to stop, until they’re told to go home. It’s a fantastic B-movie way to show the impact of a scene and, indeed, the entire film, without having to spend much money. The director was Gene Fowler, Jr., a very capable man who did a lot with no budget in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Married a Monster from Outer Space and The Rebel Set.

He does a lot with his hundred grand in Gang War too, aided by a script that makes up in detail what it lacks in depth. When Avery is in need of a gun, he breaks the piggy bank reading “Bundles for Baby”. Maxie makes his property seem grander by eating outside in the garden (when it’s worth $50,000, it stops being a back yard and starts being a garden). And, when the gang war is between only two people, he has them act in completely different ways, Maxie an angry boor who believes being the loudest man in the room is a necessary statement but Mr. Tomkins a calm syndicate employee who refuses to let any of his feathers get ruffled. Of course, it also makes sense for a film with a mere $100,000 to spend—1958’s biggest box office hit, South Pacific, cost $5m and grossed seven times that—to promise a lot that it doesn’t deliver, including a gang war advertised in the film’s very title. I’d love to see more films from Regal Pictures. IMDb only lists 38 and I’ve already seen The Fly, Pitfall and The Unknown Terror, but the rest look wild too.

For now, though, I’m glad I found this one as it features what is a dominant performance by John Doucette, who would have been a hundred years old today. He’s one of those actors whose name you probably don’t know but whom you’ll instantly recognise, from his memorably beaten face to his memorably receding hairline. I could throw out a dozen films you probably know him in, whether they be High Noon and Winchester ’73, Strangers on a Train and Criss-Cross or Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. His highest rated movie is The Big Heat, while his most recognisable may be Patton. He made four pictures with John Wayne, including as the sheriff in True Grit. He performed in most genres, from films as likely for a perennial heavy as The Wild One and Fixed Bayonets! to ones as unlikely as 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and Peyton Place, even The Robe. He was so versatile that I personally even remember him from films he wasn’t in, because they had characters who did what he did so well and it’s hard not to remember them as John Doucette roles.

He was born in Brockton, Massachusetts and didn’t have the wild early career that makes biographies interesting. He did move a lot as a child, because it was the Great Depression and his father, a shoemaker, was constantly in search of work. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, serving in Europe as an infantryman. While he wasn’t the general he played in Patton, he did serve under him, at the Battle of the Bulge and other places depicted in that film. But he’d been bitten early by the acting bug. I’ve read that, by the time he graduated from high school, he’d appeared in a variety of plays, light operas and radio shows. Of course he would eventually find a way to get to Hollywood and, of course, he’d be quickly put to use as a heavy; his earliest role was as an uncredited Boat Henchman on the 1942 serial, King of the Mounties. He’d wrap up a long and memorable career as late as 1987, with a bit part in Off the Mark, “an old fashioned boy-jock-meets-girl-jock love story” starring Terry Farrell.

His career on television wasn’t much shorter, running from 1951 to 1983. While most TV viewers are likely to remember him from his guest appearance on their favourite show—for me, that’s two episodes of The Wild Wild West and one of Kolchak: The Night Stalker—he did have regular slots. That doesn’t mean The Lone Ranger, on which he played eleven different characters over seven years, or Wagon Train, on which he played eight over five, but a 1959 legal drama called Lock Up and a comedy detective show in 1971 called The Partners. He played a cop in both, his go to role when he wasn’t a heavy, but the two couldn’t be more different. In the former, he was a police lieutenant supporting Macdonald Carey’s capable lead defense attorney, while, in the latter, he was a captain over inept detectives Don Adams and Rupert Crosse. He died in 1994 at the age of 73, three years after his opera singer wife. While they had eight children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, none of them appear to have followed him into acting.

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