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Black Hand

Black Hand(1950)

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teaser Black Hand (1950)

Set in New York's "Little Italy," The Black Hand was one of the first crime thrillers to explore the terrorist tactics of the Mafia at a time when the criminal organization still had a low profile. Although the film begins at the turn of the century, it paints an accurate portrait of how the "Black Hand" organization preyed on immigrants and extorted money from them by threats of violence. Gene Kelly, in one of his rare non-musical roles, plays Johnny Columbo, a man determined to avenge the death of his father by the Mafia. By working with police inspector Louis Lorelli (J. Carrol Naish), Johnny attempts to bring crime boss Caesar Xavier Serpi (Marc Lawrence) to justice despite constant life-threatening situations.

The Black Hand was modeled on the real-life story of Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police lieutenant who traveled to Palermo, Italy, to investigate the Mafia. He was shot and killed by snipers on the evening of March 12, 1909 while waiting for an informant at the Garibaldi statue in downtown Palermo at Piazza Marina. The Louis Lorelli character is a stand-in for the real Petrosino in the film, but some aspects of the case are fictionalized. Regardless, the result is a taut suspense thriller that is greatly enhanced by Paul C. Vogel's cinematography, which captures the appropriate "film noir" look, and Albert Colombo's atmospheric music score.

Gene Kelly and J. Carrol Naish were so convincing at playing men of Italian descent in this film that audiences were fooled over their true ancestry. Kelly came from a line of Celts, and Naish was Irish despite the fact that he played Italians often and had a long-running radio series called "Life with Luigi." The majority of the other cast members in The Black Hand were Italian; foremost among them was Teresa Celli in the role of Isabella Gomboli. Despite her impressive performance, Celi's Hollywood career was brief and she would only make three more films before fading into obscurity.

Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenplay: Luther Davis, Leo Townsend
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editor: Irvine Warburton
Music: Alberto Colombo
Cast: Gene Kelly (Johnny Columbo), J. Carrol Naish (Louis Lorelli), Teresa Celli (Isabella Gomboli), Frank Puglia (Carlo Saballera), Marc Lawrence (Caesar Xavier Serpi).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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teaser Black Hand (1950)

Gene Kelly was born to sing and dance, but like other Hollywood stars, he sometimes stretched his talents into new territory. One such time was in 1950: just after On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (both 1949) and just before An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952) he played a vengeful Italian immigrant named Giovanni Columbo in Black Hand, an MGM noir that ranks with the gloomiest-looking productions of its day. It's the last place you'd expect to find Kelly, whose ancestry was as Irish as his name, but pluck and agility pull him through. You could almost say he dances through the role.

Black Hand begins in New York around the turn of the twentieth century, when an Italian immigrant named Roberto Columbo (Peter Brocco) has a secret meeting with a cop to complain about Mafiosi running a Black Hand gang, so called because a scary black handprint is used to intimidate victims. Their racket is extortion, forcing small business owners to shell out for "protection" or have their stores destroyed, their relatives threatened, and their lives taken. But the meeting turns out to be not so secret - the cop and the gang are in cahoots, and Roberto is immediately rubbed out. Traumatized and terrified, his widow Maria (Eleonora Mendelssohn) takes their young son Giovanni back to Italy where he can grow up in safety.

The story then jumps to 1908, when grown-up Giovanni (Kelly), now called Johnny, comes back to New York with plans for a vendetta against his father's murderers. Fresh off the boat he runs into Isabella Gomboli (Teresa Celli), a childhood friend with whom he's happy to renew acquaintance, and soon afterward he meets Louis Lorelli (J. Carrol Naish), an Italian-American police officer who once wanted to marry Maria and therefore regards Johnny as the son he never had.

Persuaded by these friends that vengeance will only perpetuate a cycle of violence that has already taken too many lives, Johnny returns to his old plan of studying law, trusting that the immigrant community and the criminal-justice system will give his enemies the punishment they deserve. When he tries to organize his fellow immigrants into a community association, however, he succeeds only in getting beaten up; and when a mob leader finally goes on trial, the key witness freezes with fear, unable to testify after someone makes a hand-across-the-neck "death sign" in the courtroom. Realizing that records in the Old Country may hold evidence to incriminate the mobsters, Louis visits Naples to investigate. He's tracked down and murdered there, but not before he mails crucial documents to Johnny, who's then forced to reveal their whereabouts when Isabella's little brother Rudi (Jimmy Lagano) is kidnapped and threatened with torture. The finale is literally explosive.

Following the practice of many films with ethnically tagged villains, Black Hand precedes its story with a text acknowledging the towering Italian-American figures - baseball giant Joe DiMaggio, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and more - who have distinguished themselves since the time of this story, when New York had more Italian residents than Rome did. A towering figure not mentioned is the real-life model for the Louis Lorelli character: Giuseppe "Joseph" Petrosino, who came from Italy as a child, joined the New York Police Department in 1883, and eventually ran the department's Italian Squad until his death in 1909. Consisting entirely of Italian-Americans, the Italian Squad had great success battling Black Hand crooks. Like the character based on him, however, Petrosino was murdered during a trip to Italy in search of evidence against criminals who had emigrated to America under phony names and could be deported when their police records were revealed. Ernest Borgnine played Petrosino in the thriller Pay or Die in 1960, using Petrosino's real name.

It isn't clear why Black Hand turns Joseph Petrosino into Louis Lorelli, but names aside, Naish makes the benevolent cop into a warm and sympathetic character. He's an important character, too, rivaling Johnny for screen time even though Johnny is the film's nominal hero. Kelly plays Johnny with a fair degree of panache, and his customary persona as a musical star lends extra irony to certain scenes - when mobsters break his leg, for instance, and when he escapes from captivity by lighting a fuse with his nimble feet instead of his tied-up hands. In visual terms, Black Hand lives fully up to its title, thanks to the dark-toned cinematography by Paul C. Vogel and the light-deprived sets by Gabriel Scognamillo and the great Cedric Gibbons, which are almost too grungy for comfort.

There aren't many original touches in Richard Thorpe's directing, but an eye-catching exception comes when a thug knocks Johnny senseless by bashing his head with a water pail: the pail hits its mark, water flies out of the top, the screen fills with a hallucinatory cascade, and the picture dissolves to an out-of-focus face that Johnny sees while regaining consciousness, all in about three seconds. The final scene is also well handled, with Johnny disappearing into a crowd of immigrants who are, after all is said and done, the enduring heroes of the tale. The old studios had a flair for this kind of populist filmmaking, and Black Hand is an entertaining example.

Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenplay: Luther Davis, from a story by Leo Townsend
Cinematographer: Paul C. Vogel
Film Editing: Irvine Warburton
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Alberto Colombo
With: Gene Kelly (Johnny Columbo), J. Carrol Naish (Louis Lorelli), Teresa Celli (Isabella Gomboli), Marc Lawrence (Caesar Xavier Serpi), Barry Kelley (Captain Thompson), Frank Puglia (Carlo Sabballera), Mario Siletti (Benny Danetta), Carl Milletaire (George Allani), Peter Brocco (Roberto Columbo), Eleonora Mendelssohn (Maria Columbo), Grazia Narciso (Mrs. Danetta), Maurice Samuels (Moriani), Burk Symon (Judge), Bert Freed (Prosecutor), Mimi Aguglia (Mrs. Sabballera), Baldo Minuti (Bettini), Carlo Tricoli (Pietro Riago), Marc Krah (Lombardi), Jimmy Lagano (Rudi Gomboli), Phyllis Morris (Mary the Shamrock)
BW-92m.

by David Sterritt

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