Murder, Inc. April 1, 2021
urder, Inc. (1960) wants you to have faith in it. “This happened in Brooklyn, the city of churches,” an introductory title card tells us. “The time was the mid-30s. The story is factual. The people are real.” This pithy statement is as to the point as it is incidentally indicative of the movie-to-come’s general form: conceptually straightforward but also clunkily plain. This
speculative drama is about the titular real-life organized crime unit that, from 1929 to 1941, functioned as the enforcement branch for several other criminal organizations in New York City, from the Jewish Mob to the Italian-American Mafia. Murder, Inc. itself “folded” when one of its leading hitmen, 35-year-old Abe Reles, turned to informing to avoid execution. (Reles’ exposé proved lethal: his death in 1941 from a fall was a rumored revenge killing. This is something which Murder, Inc. — whose fealty to truth, standard for the biopic, comes with a wink — offers as fact.)
In Murder, Inc., two conduits lead us into its underworld. One is its version of Reles, played with a flashy demonicness by the then-up-and-coming Peter Falk. (His Reles gets a by-the-numbers “rising in the ranks”-style dramatic arc.) The other is a young, wide-eyed singer named Joey (Stuart Whitman) who, along with his dancer wife Eadie (May Britt), gets entangled in Murder, Inc.’s crosshairs to repay a debt. Law and order will inexorably prevail; Joey's absolution, and Reles' damnation, are inevitable. Not without senseless tragedy, though: the Eadie character is made a sacrificial lamb by the film's end to prove how one cannot cleanly break free of mob life.
Although narratively busy — soon enough a police investigation subplot arrives — Murder, Inc. is inanimate from the beginning. The choice to shoot it as if it were a documentary — which entails the cameras sit so still they may as well drool — italicizes the movie’s low budget and dramatic limpness. You become more aware of its construction when the intention was to give the film a textural "realness." When the movie’s punchy, very-loud orchestral score pops up to remind us that something thrilling or intense is happening, we're jarred. Nothing changes visually to complement a sudden tonal transition, and so momentarily you think the score's placement is accidental. Murder, Inc. loses more of its non-life the more it wears on — like a corpse finding new ways to die. It’s a copy-paste of a gangster movie from the 1930s that while getting from point A to B saw any redeeming qualities filtered out.
The movie’s thin quality can partially be blamed on its categorically rushed production. Original director Stuart Rosenberg, making his feature debut after years directing television, was fired partway through filming. He was replaced by the similarly inexperienced Burt Balaban, who was ostensibly so submissive on set that his influence on the movie amounted to stepping out of an actor’s way. Because the film was shot right before an actor’s strike, scheduling had an unusual urgency — no time to make sure a scene was right and not merely without technical flaw. (Originally 20 days were allotted for shooting; those were pruned to nine.) What could Murder, Inc. have become had Rosenberg — who would later show directorial competence with Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Voyage of the Damned (1976) — stayed, and if the atmosphere weren’t guided by noisy red marks on a calendar?
Murder, Inc. plays like a progression of reenactments from a cable-TV true-crime show. None of its drama has a meaningful center. (It’s almost a joke that after 50 minutes the movie introduces a voiceover narrator that sounds like a newscaster — suddenly the drama isn’t playing like a progression of reenactments but is pretty much taking on the form.) The performances don’t have any electricity — the actors playing villains especially aren’t doing the embodiment-style acting required to sell operatically power-hungry characters like these. Even Falk, faring comparatively well as a neo-James Cagney type, makes you think that’s Peter Falk playing a hitman and not this hitman is really scary. Fortunately watching Falk play a hired gun can be fun; it’s pleasant whiplash going from watching him play on TV the scruffy, congenial Lt. Columbo to this. The actor seems most alive in the movie when he’s stabbing people: he’s so unhesitant and fast with a knife you think for a split-second that the actor across from him had no idea what was coming. (These moments give the movie some needed jolts of life, too.) That Falk received Murder, Inc.’s sole Oscar nomination becomes more telling once you’ve seen the movie. He's the only thing in the film that kills. D