THE MOB (1951)

How much off for the police force?
Why should I knock off anything just because you’re a policeman?
Thought you might want to try and bribe me, I’m always readin’ about cops being bribed.
I’ve got more influential friends than you in the boy scouts.


It’s Broderick Crawford versus the waterfront and the world in 1951’s The Mob, a just-okay noirish cop picture from Columbia. The effective opening sequence is the most visually striking of the entire film, and does much to establish the cynical attitudes portrayed throughout. It’s late night on the rain-soaked streets of New York City, where we find detective John Damico (Crawford) in a pawnshop haggling (the exchange highlighted above) over the price of a piece of jewelry — a potential gift for his girl. Walking home he hears gunfire, and spots a shadowy figure with a gun hunched over a crumpled body in the middle of the deserted street. Crawford shouts his policeman’s warning but is placated when the shooter produces a badge and claims to be on the job — which he most certainly isn’t. Crawford is taken in by a shiny Lieutenant’s shield and police-issue .38 super chief. He only gets wise after the killer heads for a lunch counter to supposedly call in the report and instead vanishes through the back door. By the time a prowl car makes the scene Crawford is beset by visions of his career and his pension running into the gutter, awash with the dead man’s blood and the foulness of the street.

In 1951 New York, the blame-game is the only game in town, and the news-hungry public likes to play. A convenient schmuck if ever there was one, Crawford is rewarded with a sixty-day vacation — at least as far as the papers are concerned. Privately the police commission charges the cop with getting to the bottom of the waterfront rackets, the ultimate source of the predicament our Damico finds himself in. In order to infiltrate the mob, Crawford is given a new name, Tim Flynn, and a made-up rap sheet courtesy of the New Orleans P.D.

The opening ten minutes of The Mob are emblematic of one of the best qualities of the movie business: a film can throw subtle jabs about public attitudes directly at the masses without overtly preaching — camouflaging its message within the entertaining slickness of the medium itself. By situating Crawford in a pawn shop late at night tells us many things about his role as a police officer: he works terribly long hours (it’s night), in terrible conditions (it’s pouring), he’s underpaid (he frequents pawnshops), and even in his off hours he remains a vigilant public servant (he responds to the gunfire) — yet for all of his risks and sacrifices his grasp on his job and his pension are tenuous at best (he falls for a ruse that would have fooled any of us.) Furthermore, his masters are quick to make him the scapegoat, a fact he understands so well that he makes no protest. Finally, they place him in greater danger by wooing him undercover with a carrot of redemption — that he dutifully chases due to an ingrained desire to uphold public order and protect his own place in the world.

Any effort to suggest The Mob as a precursor to later films such as On the Waterfront or even Edge of the City is misspent. The film only pays lip service to the notion of exposing corruption, and instead the exposition is concerned primarily with uncovering the identity of some mysterious criminal mastermind behind the corruption. As for the corruption itself, there’s little evidence of it. In one scene (where we get a great early look at Charles Bronson) longshoremen are obliged to pony up four bucks before they can work for the day, but one of them smiles it off as mere “cigarette money.” As the sequence unfolds Crawford namedrops his way into a cushy job running a forklift, while the previous driver, a much more experienced man, is forced to sling crates. Along the way a few men get killed, all resulting from a desire to inform on the mob to the police, but there’s nothing about the killings that’s particularly germane to the waterfront rackets — after all, this is what the movies had been teaching audiences about gangsters since the twenties — they kill informants. The notion is as stale in 1951 as it ever was, and handled with somewhat less panache in The Mob.

Crawford is the whole show, and it’s almost impossible to imagine another actor fronting The Mob. Crawford was similar to Edward G. Robinson in that he possessed two distinctly different screen personas. Unlike Robinson however, who projected either a meek bookishness or a swaggering violence, Crawford’s two screen faces were less far apart, more subtlety differentiated because both were characterized by something simmering just beneath the surface — something quite dangerous. In his most famous roles he’s at his most outrageous: playing politician Willie Stark in 1949’s All the King’s Men and as Harry Brock in Born Yesterday. As a racketeer in New York Confidential, or just pretending to be one in The Mob, Crawford shows his range — creating characters that can make a pretense at class but still scare the pants off you. In The Mob gives him the chance to be both: the moral and upright policeman and the New Orleans thug.

Crawford’s John Damico has much in common with the filmic cops and detectives of a generation before — he navigates the squarejohn world and the underworld with the same ease. He’s a creature of the city who knows how to use the urban landscape to his advantage. Women can’t seem to help themselves around him. Yet it’s hard to imagine Sam Spade falling for the ruse that burns Damico — the forties private detective seemed more superman than man. Maybe that's because Damico’s post-war world is far more complex: corrupt, amoral, pessimistic, neurotic…political. Throughout the film Damico is hounded — even tortured — by Bennion (Walter Klavun), a sleazy cop-on-the-take from another precinct. Despite the this corrosive presence, Damico’s changing world still demands that his faith in the righteousness and authority of the system be absolute, so the idea of working undercover doesn’t faze him. The dramatic tension to be found in unglued cop films such as Serpico and Prince of the City were still a lifetime away. The Mob is forced to rely on shoot-em-up theatrics and a damsel in distress to get the job done.

The Mob (1951)

Director: Robert Parrish
Produced: Jerry Bresler
Cinematographer: Joseph Walker
Screenplay: William Bowers, based on a story by Ferguson Findley
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Richard Kiley, Ernest Borgnine, Neville Brand.
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 87 minutes

1 comment:

  1. Interesting comments above - have read a few reviews where this movie is put on a pedestal with 'Waterfront' - kind of academic really, since I don't think it is available to buy in the UK.