On January 5, 1950, Estes Kefauver introduced a Senate resolution calling for an investigation of organized crime—in particular, interstate gambling—in the United States. On May 10, 1950, the freshman senator from Tennessee became chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, and the “crime committee was in business.” Jack Anderson and Fred Blumenthal’s brisk, reportorial description in “Birth of a Crime Buster” is apt because, as they remark in the following chapter, “The Limelight,” “By the time the probe was completed America knew that organized crime had become Big Business.” According to Kefauver, the annual revenues of organized crime circa 1950 were estimated to be “$17 to 25 billion, almost as large as the annual appropriation for defense.” The reference to the US government is also apt because the precedent for the crime committee was the House Judiciary subcommittee that Kefauver had chaired in 1945 as a congressman and that had discovered “links between the underworld and the judiciary.”
The crime committee set itself three tasks: (1) “to determine whether organized crime utilizes the facilities of interstate commerce . . . to promote any transactions” that violated either state or federal law; (2) to investigate the “manner and extent of such criminal operations . . . with the identification of the persons, firms, or corporations involved”; and (3) to determine “whether such interstate criminal operations were developing corrupting influences in violation of Federal law or the laws of any state.” Though the hearings were initially held behind closed doors, the committee “gained more and more publicity and stirred more and more interest” as it opened its doors to the public and moved from city to city—from Miami to Kansas City, Chicago to Los Angeles, New Orleans to San Francisco.
Still, the Kefauver Committee would not be remembered today to the extent that it is were it not for television. Originally, television coverage of the committee’s activities was typically confined, as in previous congressional hearings, “to short takes for use on regularly scheduled news programs.” In January 1951, however, a local television station in New Orleans began to televise the proceedings. The climax of the investigation was the coverage of the New York City hearings in March 1951, which was carried by the national networks. These hearings represented a watershed moment in the history of American broadcasting: “The twelve months preceding the Kefauver Committee’s hearings in New York City had seen the percentage of homes in the New York metropolitan area with TV sets rise sharply, from 29 to 51 per cent. It was estimated that an average of 86.2 per cent of those viewing television watched the hearings.” Overnight, Americans “became glued to their television screens to hear talk of ‘bagmen’ and ‘ice’ and ‘the fix’.” They watched spellbound as Kefauver, he of the “Southern drawl” and “jack-o’-lantern smile,”10 interrogated such characters as “The Camel,” “The Enforcer,” and “Jimmy Blue Eyes’.”
The undisputed star of the investigation was Frank Costello, at the time the “most influential underworld leader in America,” who “appeared before the committee impeccably and conservatively dressed, looking like an absorbed and worried business executive, his name embroidered in red on his white breast-pocket handkerchief.” Costello, a former bootlegger, slot machine operator, and gambling casino partner, was an investor in legitimate interests such as Texas oil and Wall Street real estate, not to mention, to the immense amusement of the press, the manufacture of punchboard Kewpie dolls and chocolate-covered ice-cream cakes. When what Time called the “man in the cathode mask” complained about being televised, the committee ordered the cameras to refrain from showing his face, and as in a classic Hollywood close-up, only his nervously twitching hands—or as the pundits put it, his “hand ballet”—were visible on screen.
From the Syndicate to the Classic Heist Picture
As if typecast, “Costello and other underworld figures reacted so predictably to the committee’s questions that it was almost as if they had learned their lines by watching old gangster movies of the 1930s.” But outside the courtroom, on the streets, these newfangled gangsters did not act anything like their old-fashioned predecessors. While the “willingness to bomb and kill without scruple remains an indispensable business accessory of the mobs,” Kefauver wrote in Crime in America (1951), a New York Times best seller ghostwritten by Sidney Shalett that was serialized in over a hundred newspapers, “brain has supplanted muscle as the dominant factor in mob leadership.” The “new aristocrats of the criminal world” such as Costello couldn’t have been more different than the Al Capones, Dutch Schultzes, and “Big Bill” Dwyers of the earlier, more violent era of hijacking and rum-running. For example, in 1946, “Costello became so distraught and sleepless” over the rumors swirling around him that he saw a Park Avenue psychiatrist, who suggested that he meet more “nice people.” In the United States of America in the early 1950s, though, it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the nice and not-so-nice people—between, that is to say, Madison Avenue “mad men” and executive-level mobsters.
The Syndicate Picture: Bright City Confidential
In Underworld U.S.A. Colin McArthur submits that the “gangster film that forms the watershed between the Forties and Fifties is Murder, Inc.” (The working American and eventual British title for The Enforcer was Murder, Inc., not to be confused with the 1960 Twentieth Century Fox film of the same title.) In Murder, Inc.: The Story of the “Syndicate” (1951), which appeared the same year as The Enforcer, Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder reported that “early in 1940 . . . the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn ran head-on into an unbelievable industry. This organization was doing business in assassination and general crime across the entire nation, along the same corporate lines as a chain of grocery stores.”18 Turkus and Feder’s exposé was published in the immediate wake of the Kefauver Crime Committee hearings and roundly criticized the Tennessee senator for not emphasizing the national, integrated character of the syndicate: “The Committee report . . . pins the classification of ‘syndicate’ on almost any local mob at all, loosely as Hollywood bestows ‘glamor’.”19 The reality, according to the authors, was that the “single national syndicate is bound by a government of its own, just as tightly as General Motors.”
The Enforcer was released on February 21, 1951, and played in New York City during the Kefauver hearings on a double bill with Operation X (1951) at the Beacon and Yorktown theaters. Although Turkus and Feder’s book appeared after principal photography had been completed on The Enforcer, the picture can profitably be read as a film à clef about the earlier, Turkus-led investigation that occurred on the heels of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles’s revelations about Murder, Inc. The central narrator of The Enforcer is Joseph Rico (Ted de Corsia), who’s based on Reles and who’s a lieutenant for Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane), who, as we learn from Rico in the film’s final flashback, invented a corporation whose sole and singular service is “murder for hire.” (Rico is based, in turn, on Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, who operated Murder, Inc. with the able assistance of Albert “High Lord Executioner” Anastasia.) The crusading prosecutor, modeled on special investigator Thomas E. Dewey and Assistant District Attorney Turkus, is DA Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart), who eventually manages to assemble the pieces of a graphically violent picture-puzzle that is reflected in the film’s intricate “Chinese-box structure.”
Unlike The Enforcer, which is set in New York City and is stylistically dark, so much so that it appears to belong to the previous, expressionist period of film noir, 711 Ocean Drive is a paradigmatic West Coast gangster noir. Like other LA noirs from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Crimson Kimono (1959), 711 Ocean Drive exploits—to change up Mike Davis—the sunshine and noir of the “city of quartz,” reveling in the golden light for which Southern California is famous. (The film was shot by Austrian expatriate Franz “Frank” Planer, who had photographed Criss Cross  the previous year.)
The Malibu location of the title—711 Ocean Drive—is illustrative. While film noir, according to Davis, shifted after James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler from the “bungalows and suburbs to the epic dereliction of Downtown’s Bunker Hill,”25 711 Ocean Drive constitutes a countermovement signaled by pictures such as White Heat (1949) and Thieves’ Highway (1949) away from the heart of the metropolis to, in Joseph F. Newman’s film, Malibu, Palm Springs, and beyond—that is to say, Las Vegas. Thus, if Mal Granger’s execution of Larry Mason (Donald Porter) in 711 Ocean Drive recalls the gangland slaying of the man who first imagined Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel, the location of Granger’s own bullet-riddled death at Boulder Dam documents not only the increasing recourse to location shooting in ’50s noir but also the ex-urbanization of American culture in the same period, a centrifugal line of flight occasioned by, among other things, cars and commuter trains, freeways and the interstate highway system.
The Brothers Rico, appearing as it does in 1957, effects a “stylistic and thematic consolidation of the dominant trend in film noir in the 1950s.” Stylistically speaking, The Brothers Rico mirrors the emerging impact of television on the classic noir series registered most dramatically in Jack Arnold’s 3-D noir, The Glass Web (1953). However, if the camera setups in Karlson’s film appear more functional than not relative to ’40s classic noir, Geoff Mayer’s claim that The Brothers Rico “differs little from the average late 1950s television series” minimizes the film’s painstaking mise-en-scène and innovative use of high-key, day-for-day lighting. In fact, Bernard Guffey’s cinematography is inseparable from the film’s conceit: that organized crime is indistinguishable from corporate America personified in the film by Sid Kubik, a mobster who rules his criminal empire from a regal suite in the Excelsior Hotel in Miami.
The South Floridian setting of The Brothers Rico is central to its sun-drenched, coruscating vision of late ’50s America. Unlike The Enforcer and The Captive City (1952), which are set in the East and Midwest, respectively, Karlson’s film is set in the South, the West, and the Southwest (Florida, California, and Arizona, respectively). The last Sunbelt locations may seem antithetical to the inky-black look of classic noir, but, as Jack Shadoian writes, “Karlson records the American landscape with a diabolical equanimity . . . that makes [it] more sinister than any diagonalized dark alley.” The reason is as simple as it is profound: crime is not just here or there—say, New York or Miami, Phoenix or Los Angeles—it’s everywhere. Hence Karlson’s unwavering gaze, “which is as clear and unmistakable as daylight.”
The Brothers Rico is, as I argue in chapter 3, an extraordinary film, but it’s only one in a series of ’50s crime pictures whose focus, whether deep or shallow, is on organized crime in the octopus-like guise of the syndicate. In his entry on The Captive City in Film Noir, Robert Porfirio writes that the “exposé film represents one of a handful of film genres, such as the police documentary, . . . that grew out of the film noir tradition as it fragmented . . . in the 1950s.” The documentary-like slant of The Captive City is manifest in the reel-to-reel tape recording—“a sort of verbal and visual affidavit”—that protagonist Jim Austin ( John Forsythe) makes in a police station before he’s escorted to Washington, DC, to testify before the Kefauver Crime Committee about organized crime in Kennington, a Midwestern city where he’s the editor of the local newspaper.
While the film’s flashback structure, which also informs The Enforcer and 711 Ocean Drive, is complemented by Lee Garmes’s deep-focus, high-contrast cinematography, the investigative angle, as in Citizen Kane (which The Captive City explicitly references), is transferred from the private detective to the intrepid reporter. In this, The Captive City can be interpreted as part of a national trend in which the “initiative in the campaign against organized crime had clearly passed from the crime-committee movement to the press.” (Witness, for instance, the series of “confidential” books authored by Lee Mortimer and Jack Lait: New York Confidential , Chicago Confidential , and Washington Confidential .) At the very same time, in its “resistance to an exploitational logic,” The Captive City may well be the “most earnestly reformist and respectable of those films with direct links to the Kefauver Committee.”
This reformist, anti-exploitational agenda notwithstanding, The Captive City anticipates a cycle of rather less earnest and respectable exposés that emerged in the middle to late 1950s in the aftermath of the Kefauver hearings, such as The Miami Story (1954), Chicago Syndicate (1955), New Orleans Uncensored (1955), New York Confidential (1955), The Houston Story (1956), Miami Exposé (1956), Chicago Confidential (1957), Portland Exposé (1957), and New Orleans after Dark (1958). A representative, national sample of this series—Miami Exposé, Chicago Syndicate, and Portland Exposé—reflects something of the flavor of these sometimes flamboyantly B pictures. (Both Chicago Syndicate and Miami Exposé were produced by “discount,” “get it done” mogul Sam Katzman and directed by the redoubtable Fred Sears.) Each of these three films demonstrates a specific sub-genre of the syndicate film: the “undercover man,” “female witness,” and “one man against the mob” picture, respectively. Moreover, all three pictures exhibit the sort of location photography and stentorian, voice-over narration popularized by classic semi-documentary noirs such as The Naked City (1945).
For instance, Miami Exposé was not only photographed in Miami and the Florida Everglades, but it also capitalizes on the link between the mob and Havana, Cuba. As with a number of other syndicate films such as 711 Ocean Drive, Miami Exposé commences with a prologue—in this case, by then Miami mayor Randy Christmas: “The film you are about to see is a stunning exposé based on fact. It concerns a vicious attempt by organized crime to take over the entire state of Florida.” The mayor’s second-person address—“it could happen in your state”—is succeeded by the voice-over narration that initiates the body of the film: “You’re in a transport plane flying over the state of Florida. You are too high to see what has happened to Florida, to see that it has become the fastest-growing state in the nation, that its population is more than five million during tourist season. Perhaps you don’t care about statistics.” Suddenly the plane explodes, killing all forty-one people on board, including the intended victim, Georgie Evans, a hood who has been singled out by a rival syndicate. The film’s narrator, though, is not about to let “you,” the escape-minded tourist-viewer, off the hook: “Yes, you should have thought about those statistics; they might have saved your life.” This address, which appears right before the credits, is uniquely perverse in its simultaneous desire to chastise and titillate the viewer. (One can only imagine what it would be like to watch the film today while flying to Miami for, as the narrator puts it, “fun, romance, adventure, and excitement.”)
Portland Exposé takes a slightly different, albeit equally in-your-face tack.
True to the exploitational rhetoric of the exposé, it parades a story line about narcotics and prostitution even as it broaches a subplot about a pedophilic hood (Frank Gorshin) who tries to rape the daughter of tavern-owning, anti-pinball protagonist George Madison (Edward Binns). When mobster Philip Jackman (Russ Conway) discovers that George is wearing a wire—labor leader Alfred Grey (Francis De Sales) and reporters Speed Bromley (Kort Falkenberg) and Ted Carl ( Joe Flynn) are investigating the pinball racket—Jackman’s thugs abduct George’s daughter and hustle her to a warehouse where they’ve already beaten her father and where they threaten to throw acid in her face while George, bound and bloodied, helplessly watches. George’s surname, Madison, and the concluding shot of the state capitol proffer a positive spin on the preceding, otherwise “pity and terror”–inducing events.
Still, the paradigmatic ’50s exposé is, as I’ve already intimated, The Phenix City Story. Phil Karlson’s film, which is set in Phenix City, Alabama, “The Wickedest City in America,” possesses voice-over narration and location photography like the above exposés, but it emits a verité vibe that’s unmatched in the ’50s crime canon. Though Shadoian describes The Phenix City Story as a “generic dramatization of the actual events leading up to [Albert L.] Patterson’s murder”—Patterson was the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Alabama before his untimely death at the hands of the Phenix City syndicate36—Shadoian’s use of the word “generic” is not pejorative but literal. Which is to say that the events of The Phenix City Story are anything but generic. What separates Karlson’s film from every other “city confidential,” not to mention syndicate picture, is its deep racial-political subtext, which in the martyred figure of “Pat” Patterson evokes the pacifist civil rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. Accordingly, if a “significant and important group of anti-communist films of [the 1950s] collectively make up a kind of ‘national confidential’,” The Phenix City Story exposes the raced political unconscious of the syndicate picture even as it foregrounds its status as both a local and national confidential.
From I Died a Million Times: Gangster Noir in Midcentury America by Robert Miklitsch. Copyright 2021 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.