Minor League Noir

The minors have their moments. If not for the fabled Pacific Coast League (and Lefty O’Doul’s San Francisco Seals), the Yankees would never have had DiMaggio, one of the classiest men in baseball.

Now, Chicago Syndicate (1955) is not the B-movie equivalent to Joltin’ Joe — unlike the Yankee Clipper, it clearly belongs in the minor leagues, not in the same class as Out of the Past or Double Indemnity. It’s a sometimes cheesy little noir, a police procedural enlivened by some terrific on-location cinematography in Chicago, good performances by Dennis O’Keefe and Paul Stewart, and some maraca shaking moments with Xavier Cugat and his then-wife, sultry singer Abbe Lane. But, like any good minor league game, you can glean some gold among the dropped balls and wild pitching.

The Windy City makes a grittily glamorous backdrop for any crime drama … Al Capone cut his teeth here, after all, and Chicago Syndicate–while hardly a minor classic of Chicagoland setting like City That Never Sleeps (1953)–nevertheless manages some location shots that rank with the best.

The story revolves around the city’s effort to stamp out “The Syndicate” — a mob controlled to cool villainous perfection by character actor Paul Stewart. As Arnie Valent, one of the legions of gangsters who love good ol’ Ma (Jimmy Cagney took this part to the next level in White Heat), he rubs out his accountant–a man named Kern–because Kern was about to turn over his books to the authorities … reasonable procedure when you’re a gangster.

Since it’s 1955, and law and order, emphasis on order, was in vogue, the police department and IRS get together with Chicago’s millionaire hotel-owners and hit them up for financing. Who knows? Maybe that scene was a coded protest against the military-industrial complex, but I kinda doubt it. Anyway, the boys with the dough come through, and the boys with the plan decide to find Dennis O’Keefe, because by this time they need some noir street cred to keep the movie going.

O’Keefe supplies it, with his two-fisted portrayal of an accountant and war hero who wants to make a lot of money — another virtue in the ’50s that strangely enough is still around today. So the authorities promise O’Keefe–as Barry Amsterdam (don’t confuse him with Morey)–$60,000 smackers if he infiltrates Valent’s gang, becomes his accountant, and gets the goods on him.

I guess $60,000 used to go a lot further.

Along the way, Barry gets involved with Kern’s daughter (Allison Hayes), who is calling herself Sue Morton and apparently trying to sleep her way to the top of the gangster chain (in order to get revenge for her murdered father … you figure it out). We also get treated to some sensationally fun Cugat material, particularly “One at a Time,” the number sung by bad girl (and Valent’s girlfriend) Connie Peters, played by Cugat’s fourth wife (the one before Charo), Abbe Lane.

The best cinematography and direction is saved for the end: Valent chasing Barry through one of those gorgeously industrial noir landscapes of machinery and equipment, this time underground in Chicago. Director Fred Sears normally handled B-westerns, as did his cinematographer, Henry Freulich [though Freulich was Director of Photography of the gorgeously filmed Lost Horizon (1937)], and they reached a highpoint with this sequence. Reminiscent of similar locations in He Walked By Night (1948) and D.O.A. (1950)–the film is well-worth watching, if only for the climax.

But other pleasures abound, too … lines like Allison Hayes snarling “All right. Let’s stop playing footsie” to Dennis O’Keefe; Abbe Lane’s drunken, histrionic bad girl (Valent: “You’re drunk.” Connie: “What have I got to be sober about?”); Paul Stewart’s elegant bad guy/girlfriend-beater with the mama complex . Early on, he delivers a line with chilling misogyny: “Everything improves with age. Except women.”

Stewart outclasses O’Keefe here; Dennis seemed to phone in the role, though he’s able to tap some of that dual charisma that enabled him to play both heroes and villains so effectively, and makes him effective as a spy. But Stewart was a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater–he’s featured in the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and Welles’ magnum opus, Citizen Kane (1941). He also sports great noir credentials: one of the murderers in the now-restored (thanks to the Film Noir Foundation) The Window (1949) and one of the villains in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

And let’s not forget Cugat. He entertainingly mopes around as Benny Chico while carrying a torch for Connie (played by Mrs. Cugat).

So this is a sample of minor league noir … despite some errors and fumbled plays, a solid game of entertainment. You won’t find it in books on the best — you won’t even find it on DVD! But if you can catch it on TCM or at a film festival, look out for Chicago Syndicate … an honest little noir with not a steroid in sight.

And Happy Birthday to Orson Welles! Today is the Great Man’s birthday … celebrate and eat a ham. 🙂

Next week … more Top Ten Noir, and some history thrown in …