Peter Falk was looking for his big break. Typically relegated to supporting parts in both movies and on TV shows, Falk got it in 1960. Chosen from a casting call of off-Broadway actors, Falk was given a key role in the 1960 crime drama Murder, Inc. based on a true story. His career was off and running and Lt. Columbo never looked back.
It's the 1930s, and the United States is reeling from the Great Depression. In New York City, a low-level but rising hired killer, Abe Reles (Falk), is summoned to meet Lepke (David J. Stewart), a well-connected mobster who has an idea for the thuggish Reles and his crew. Mobsters are organizing, working together, and they need a brutal enforcer....Reles. The Brooklyn thug will work with his own men, carrying out hits as ordered from Lepke and his superiors. No one is safe as Reles rises to power, dispatching everyone as ordered. Intimidation, bribes, out and out murder, nothing is too much for him. Caught up in the vicious rise to power is Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman), a down on his luck lounge singer, who Reles enlists in pulling off a hit. It doesn't seem anything can stop this fast-rising criminal organization, but a new district attorney, Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan), is attempting to do just that.
From directors Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg, this 1960 crime drama is based on the true story of an organization of mob killers who started working in the 1930s, dubbed Murder Inc. by the press. Give the Wikipedia link a read. It is a doozy. Burton Turkus' 1951 book provided much of the background for this film that plays more like a fly on the wall documentary than a hard-edged crime drama/thriller. Playing Turkus, Morgan even provides the off-screen narration to explain all the criminal and mob developments. Still years before The Godfather and the wave of Mafia/mob movie that followed, 'Murder' is ahead of its time in that sense. It's hard to believe the responses characters give when they find out that criminal organizations have done just that, organized. Somewhere along the way, it gets a little too pulpy, like it's trying too hard. It's good, but it could have been better.
The style here is of a made-for-TV movie, maybe even an extended TV episode. It was filmed in black and white -- a nice touch for sure -- that helps it play more like a film noir than a quasi-documentary. 'Murder' was filmed on location in and around New York City, adding another layer of realism to the story. There's something missing though, and all I can come up with is that it is on such a small scale. The movie feels very penned in, very set-based, echoing some sort of TV roots. There's also two different musical numbers that feel jammed into the story unnecessarily, slowing down a story that's already a little sluggish.
What helps 'Murder' rise above its problems is the casting of then relative unknown Peter Falk as mob enforcer and hit man Abe 'Kid Twist' Reles. Just 33 years old, Falk was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for his performance, and it is a scene-stealing part. His intensity, his emotion, it all feels real. His Reles is a brutish thug who does one thing well...killing. He doesn't have much in the way of actual skills, but he's a tried and true killer. The movie is that much better when he's around, but unfortunately, the part doesn't get as much attention as it should with the ensemble cast around him. As the sinister Lepke, Stewart is a good villain in a different vein; more intelligent and thoughtful in his brutality. In the bad guy department, also look for Joseph Bernard as Mendy, Lepke's personal assistant and killer, Warren Finnerty as Bug, Reles' killing partner, and Vincent Gardenia as Lazlo, the criminally smooth mob lawyer, always ready to tangle with authorities.
For a mob, Mafia and hired killer movie, far too much time is spent between Whitman's Joey and his wife Eadie (May Britt), obnoxious with her dead stare and general whiny-ness (and in an Eastern European accent too!). Joey does something stupid Mob-related, unwillingly gets involved and keeps on going, digging deeper and deeper. Yes, there's a payoff coming down the road, but getting there courtesy of Whitman and Britt is painfully slow at times. The movie is far better when it focuses on the mobsters going up against Turkus and Detective Tobin (Simon Oakland), a veteran police officer who's grown wary of "how effective" the D.A. can be. Also look for a pre-Dick Van Dyke show Morey Amsterdam as Walter Sage, a club owner and comedian who becomes a target of Murder Inc. It's an okay movie, but I came away disappointed as it is missing that one special ingredient.
Murder Inc. (1960): ** 1/2 /****