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After Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the American government grew increasingly uneasy over the margin for sabotage along New York City's unprotected waterfront. On February 9, 1942, the French ocean liner Normandie, seized after the fall of France and rechristened the USS Lafayette for service as an Allied troop ship, caught fire at Pier 88 and capsized. Although the culprit was an errant spark from a welder's torch, Alfred Hitchcock used newsreel footage of the calamity in Saboteur (1942), fanning the flames of domestic paranoia. In an unprecedented move, the Office of Naval Intelligence launched "Operation Underworld," brokering a limited truce with American Mafia ringleaders to ensure close surveillance of Manhattan's perimeter. During the invasion of Sicily the following year, the United States Army partnered with the Sicilian Mafia to assure swift and unopposed troop movement toward the continent. By the end of the war, however, the gloves were off and Washington went after organized crime with renewed vigor. In 1950, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce was founded. Chaired by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, the five-man Kefauver Committee held hearings in fourteen cities. Among the 600 witnesses called to testify were gangland figures Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia and "Mistress to the Mob" Virginia Hill. Broadcast live for television, the hearings made for must-see TV... and Hollywood was watching.
Hollywood crime films had long been tailored to their times, the formulae renewing themselves every decade or so. Between world wars, The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) chronicled the rise and fall of charismatic criminal anti-heroes ultimately crushed under the dead weight of their ambitions, while postwar film noir offered world weary protagonists snared in webs of corruption that they were powerless to overcome. Before the Kefauver hearings concluded in July of 1951, a wave of new crime films hit the screens telling of vast underworld "syndicates," a veritable "Murder, Inc." whose "hitmen" accepted "contracts" to assassinate "squealers," rivals and meddlesome members of law enforcement. The titles were punchy and vivid: The Enforcer (1951), The Racket (1951), Hoodlum Empire (1952), Chicago Syndicate (1955), The System (1955) and Underworld USA (1961). Early out of the pipe was Columbia's The Mob (1951), released between the conclusion of the Kefauver hearings in July and publication of its official report that fall. The script, by reporter-turned-scenarist William Bowers, was based on Waterfront by Charles Weiser Frey (aka "Ferguson Findley"), which had been serialized in Colliers for five weeks in the summer of 1950. The filmmakers were also surely familiar with the "Crime on the Waterfront" articles Malcolm Johnson had written for The New York Sun in 1949; the 24-part series won the Pulitzer Price for journalism and inspired Arthur Miller's original screenplay The Hook, which Budd Schulberg rewrote as On the Waterfront (1954).
The Mob went before the cameras in April of 1951 as Remember That Face, a shooting title retained for the British market (where the word "mob" evokes images of a torch-bearing throng). The production was entrusted to former editor Robert Parrish, making his sophomore stand as a director-for-hire. Born in Georgia in 1916, Parrish had come to Hollywood upon the transfer of his father, a salesman for the Coca-Cola Company. Squeezing their family of six into one room of an Alvarado Street boarding house, the Parrishes made do on Robert Sr.'s meager salary until wife Laura (called "Reesie") learned that the studios were paying $5 a day for child extras. All of the Parrish "picture kids" got work in John Ford and Hal Roach projects and Bob had prominent bits in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and City Lights (1931). Sadly, both of Bob Parrish's sisters died young Beverly from the effects of diabetes at age 11 within days of completing the 1930 Our Gang short A Tough Winter and Helen of cancer at age 37 in 1959. As he matured, Bob Parrish slipped behind the camera, becoming a valued member of John Ford's team. On his own, he shared an Academy Award for editing Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (1947) with Francis Lyon and was nominated (with Al Clark) for editing All the King's Men (1949). When Parrish told John Ford that he wanted to direct pictures, his mentor cracked him across the skull with the viewfinder of his Mitchell camera, drawing blood. The gesture was not meant to be discouraging.
Robert Parrish's first films as a director are marked by technical proficiency in defiance of obviously limited budgets. Dick Powell was the star of the Los Angeles-set Cry Danger (1951) and served the production both as an unbilled executive producer and as a sub-director. In an interview published in 2002, supporting actress Jean Porter told film historian Tom Weaver that Powell directed her exclusively, letting Parrish take full credit. If it was Powell's intention to help Parrish get a leg up as a director, the tactic worked; Variety praised Parrish's "strong directorial bow." That same year, Parrish flew solo with The Mob, a classic "man undercover" drama in the tradition of White Heat (1949) and Reservoir Dogs (1992). Critics were generally enthusiastic. Variety recommended The Mob as "solid corner of the mouth stuff for the leather jacket and bluejeans trade." The New York Times was less condescending, with Hollywood correspondent Oscar Godbout allowing that the film "makes no attempt to be pretty, and its violence is as exciting and fast-paced as you could ask for...what it offers, precisely, is an hour and a half of physical mayhem, served up hot with pistols and blackjacks."
At the time of its release, The Mob's only "name" was star Broderick Crawford, fresh from his Academy Award win in All the King's Men. In very short order, however, many of the film's supporting players would distinguish themselves and even eclipse Crawford's fame. For his Hollywood screen test, Ernest Borgnine had punctuated an improvised interrogation scene with a burst of physical violence that assured him steady income playing tough guys up to and after his award-winning leading man performance in Marty (1955). Chicago-born radio actor Richard Kiley's patrician bearing doomed him to egghead roles in Pickup on South Street (1953) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) until his Broadway success as Man of La Mancha in 1965 gave him a low key gravitas and a wider variety of roles. Neville Brand would go on to tenured villainy in Hollywood and foreign films of wildly fluctuating quality over the next thirty years but sadly ended his career in bottom barrel exploitation pictures.
Rounding out The Mob in lesser roles are a young Charles Bronson (then studying diction at The Pasadena Playhouse), The Godfather's John Marley, Frank DeKova (later a regular on F-Troop) and big Don Megowan, destined to inhabit the monster suit in Universal-International's The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), second sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The Mob was the penultimate credit for cinematographer Joseph Walker. DP of choice for Frank Capra, Walker was also an early pioneer of the zoom lens, developing a prototype as early as 1917.
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Director: Robert Parrish
Screenplay: William Bowers, Ferguson Findley (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: George Duning
Cast: Broderick Crawford (Johnny Damico), Betty Buehler (Mary Kiernan), Richard Kiley (Thomas Clancy), Otto Hulett (Police Lt. Banks), Matt Crowley (Smoothie), Neville Brand (Gunner).
by Richard Harland Smith