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Any talented and successful Hollywood actor probably harbors a desire to direct at some point in their career but how many of them actually attempt it? Some have gone on to triumphant second careers such as Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven , Million Dollar Baby ), Ron Howard (Apollo 13 [1995), A Beautiful Mind ), and Mel Gibson (Braveheart  The Passion of the Christ ) while others have been less fortunate and returned to the fold: John Wayne with The Alamo (1960), Marlon Brando with One-Eyed Jacks (1961). In the case of Walter Matthau, the directing bug struck early in his film career when he was still playing character parts. The year was 1960 and the film was Gangster Story (1960).
A straightforward crime drama, Gangster Story traces the rapid rise and fall of Jack Martin (played by Matthau), an escaped criminal who works alone masterminding bank robberies in small towns. His bank heists not only command the attention of the local police and FBI agents, but brings unwanted attention and harassment from law enforcement officials to the criminal gang that controls the territory. At first gangster boss Earl Dawson (Bruce McFarlan) attempts to have Martin killed but when he outwits his pursuers Dawson is sufficiently impressed and invites him to join his operation. Martin reluctantly agrees but is soon placated by huge financial gains and the benefit of Dawson's wide-ranging connections. After scoring a series of major bank robberies from San Diego to Seattle, Martin and Dawson set their sights on an exclusive country club which houses a safe containing a large sum of syndicate money. Martin plans to escape with his girlfriend Carol (Carol Grace) to Mexico after they pull off the heist but Dawson has something else up his sleeve.
Matthau reputedly agreed to direct and star in Gangster Story on a dare and was said to be so unhappy with the script by Paul Purcell that he rewrote scenes on a daily basis. The film was shot in and around Anaheim and other parts of Los Angeles, utilizing the homes of various crewmembers. Matthau also cast his wife Carol Grace opposite him as the small town librarian who becomes Jack's confidante and lover. Carol was previously married to the acclaimed American novelist William Saroyan and was said to be the inspiration for Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Gangster Story marked the only time Matthau and his wife appeared together in a film but Carol previously had a bit part in Stage Struck (1958) and later had a minor role in Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976). For Matthau, however, Gangster Story proved to be a one-shot attempt at directing even though the film is an efficient, tightly-paced B-movie thriller.
The Hollywood Reporter, in its review, even intimated that Gangster Story would do well at the box office: "Judging from past market reactions to Al Capone et al, it's apparent that Gangster Story will draw an encouraging quantity of patrons in the type of theatre for which it is destined. Paul Purcell's hard-ringing screenplay has stressed a minimum of characterization study and a maximum of fast-moving action, a combination that spells box-office." Unfortunately, Gangster Story received sporadic distribution at best across the country but with its modest $75,000 production costs, it managed to out-gross the big-budget Gary Cooper-Charlton Heston vehicle, The Wreck of the Mary Deare, at the box office.
Some additional trivia of note: The theme song, "The Itch for the Scratch", performed by Ted Stanford with lyrics by Ronald Bloomberg, was composed by Leonard Barr who is credited in some sources as a vaudeville comedian and cousin of Dean Martin (he appeared on the singer's television show and had a cameo in The Sting (1973). The film editor on Gangster Story was Radley Metzger who would soon move into directing with a particular talent for soft core erotica (Therese & Isabelle , The Lickerish Quartet ) and adapting racy European features for the American market (Soft Skin on Black Lace , Sexus ). In 1975, Metzger began directing hard-core adult features under the pseudonym Henry Paris beginning with The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann.
Producer: Jonathan Daniels
Director: Walter Matthau
Screenplay: Richard Grey (story), V.J. Rheims (story), Paul Purcell
Cinematography: Max Glenn
Film Editing: Radley Metzger
Music: Leonard Barr
Cast: Walter Matthau (Jack Martin), Carol Grace (Carol), Bruce McFarlan (Earl Dawson), Garry Walberg (Adolph), Raikin Ben-Ari (Hood).
by Jeff Stafford
Walter Matthau by Hunter