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Prohibition-era tabloids started the mythologizing of gangsters. Movies finished the job. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) lofted the genre into an orbit that reached its apogee with Godfather I and II (1972, 1974). Bank robbers - John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde -- weren't nearly as pervasive, imposing or ambitious as organized crime kingpins Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and Louis Lepke Buchalter. The caprices of celebrity being what they are, some of these bloodstained predators have fared better than others onscreen. Edward G. Robinson and Robert De Niro left imprints as Capone. Dustin Hoffman did the same for Dutch Schultz, Warren Beatty polished Siegel's image, and Lee Strasberg was a definitive Lansky figure.
Which brings us to Lepke Buchalter, the Prohibition-era gangster who worked his way from extortion to labor racketeering to narcotics trafficking to running Murder, Inc., with Albert Anastasia after Luciano lieutenants Siegel and Lansky, who founded the organization of contract killers, and went on to pursue wider nationwide ambitions. Lepke retains a dubious distinction. When he was strapped into the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1944, he became and remains the only mob boss to receive the death penalty at the hands of the justice system (as opposed to fellow mobsters). Portrayed several times in movies and on TV, his best shot, so to speak, is to be found in Lepke (1975), with a 50-year-old Tony Curtis bringing to the role exactly what he had to in order to credibly embody the type-A mob boss and organized crime pioneer when the organization consisted of him, Luciano and John Torrio of Chicago, Capone's mentor.
We forgive Curtis his '70s-style sideburns and the fact that while those around him turn grey over the story's 20-year span, he does not. He more than compensates with his way of convincing us he knows the territory, walks the walk, talks the talk, and had for years. Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, literally walked many of the same streets Lepke had. It can't be said that Menahem Golan, despite his obvious enthusiasm for film and an earnest desire to do his subject -- you should pardon the expression -- justice, is anything but a prosaic director. But time and again Curtis saves him and the film simply by his body language, mannerisms and speech patterns. Keen-eyed, with long antennae (except when he flies into this or that psychotic rage), he's very much in the here and now, quick, responsive, able to make hairpin turns if the situation demands it. And yet there's a physical solidity in the aging Curtis. His feet seem firmly planted on the ground. More about focus than swagger, he's comfortable in Lepke's skin.
Lepke - an abbreviated version of the Yiddish diminutive, Lepkeleh, attached to young Buchalter in his youth by a mother who had moved out West for her failing health before he finished his second stretch in Sing Sing in 1922 - is relatively free of the sentimental pieties that so often undermine the genre in its rush to humanize its vicious protagonists. A sort of generic Lower East Side opening (streets teeming with people and pushcarts, to the tune of hurdy-gurdy music) gives way to Lepke the boy (Barry Miller), smashing the window of a shoe store, being nabbed by a cop, and sent to a reformatory in stolen shoes that don't match. Years pass, he's out, the film turns to color and Curtis, having talked his family's old landlady into a room in a tenement, is hitting up his old street pal, Warren Berlinger's Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro, for criminal employment. In no time, they're working for Jack Ackerman's Little Augie Orgen, Lepke guns down Legs Diamond, then Orgen, and he's soaring up the ladder, rung by bloody rung.
The film knows better than to succumb to sentimentality. The closest it comes is in crediting a loyalty Lepke feels to the old friends who knew him way back when, and to the widow and single mother he marries. As his wife, Anjanette Comer is an asset by virtue of the dignity she projects. She's honest and clear-eyed about what's she's doing, realizing she's running out of options -- as she makes clear to her respectable Jewish father, played with surprising restraint but stucco-like makeup by Milton Berle! Lepke's own personal gunman, J.S. Johnson's roly-poly Emmanuel "Mendy" Weiss, is a presence, too, especially when, at Lepke's command, he machine-guns Dutch Schultz (John Durren) and three associates in a restaurant because the Dutchman is bringing too much heat on the organization.
Ironies abound, although Lepke, vivid enough in its death-dealing but otherwise often curiously muted, minimizes them. The big one, given voice by Lepke, is Lepke's objecting to putting a gang hit on then special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, only to later find Dewey pulling out all the stops to nail Lepke and riding a gangbuster reputation to the New York governor's mansion and a couple of Republican presidential bids. By the time Lepke actually was prosecuted, it was by Dewey's successor, William O'Dwyer, who rode his prosecutorial efforts into the New York City mayoral office. Richard C. Adams is a bit of a blank as Dewey, and O'Dwyer never appears. Nor does J. Edgar Hoover, who made a deal to send Lepke to Leavenworth on a federal charge of narcotics trafficking, only to subsequently hand Lepke over to New York, where a successfully prosecuted murder charge landed Lepke on Death Row. The film may blur the small details - Lepke didn't pull the trigger in the gangland execution that cut down Legs Diamond, Gurrah Shapiro died in prison two years before Lepke, not defending him from an ambush in Coney Island, as in the film. But some of the most outlandish stuff - gossip columnist and radio star Walter Winchell brokering Lepke's "surrender" to Hoover, thus bringing the media into the symbiosis between mob enforcers and legal enforcers - is factual.
Perhaps Lepke would have been a more compelling film if it had been more outlandish, or at least been inscribed in higher relief. It's amusing to see Vaughn Meader, whose big career hit was a JFK impersonation in the early '60s, turn up as Winchell. But sometimes the performances frankly can't keep up with the name-dropping. Vic Tayback's Luciano convinces us he's the biggest gorilla in the jungle, but projects little of the organizational savvy that set Luciano apart from most of the other crime bosses. Ditto for Gianni Russo's pallid Albert Anastasia and Zitto Kazann's Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, the Murder, Inc., minion whose testimony helped nail Lepke. In the end, the hit-and-miss Lepke seems a film made with some care and thought, but unable to escape that luckless region of films that aren't really bad, yet aren't good enough.
Producer: Yoram Globus
Director: Menahem Golan
Screenplay: Tamar Simon Hoffs, Wesley Lau (writer)
Cinematography: Andrew Davis
Music: Kenneth Wannberg
Film Editing: Dov Hoenig, Aaron Stell
Cast: Tony Curtis (Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter), Anjanette Comer (Bernice Meyer), Michael Callan (Robert Kane), Warren Berlinger (Gurrah Shapiro), Gianni Russo (Albert Anastasia), Vic Tayback (Lucky Luciano), Mary Charlotte Wilcox (Marion), Milton Berle (Mr. Meyer), Jack Ackerman (Little Augie), Louis Guss (Max Rubin).
by Jay Carr
American Prince: A Memoir, by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, Harmony Books, 2008
Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate, by Burton B. Turkis and Sid Feder, Farrar, Strauss & Young, 1952
Interview with Menahem Golan by Oren Shai, Films in Review, August 20, 2008
"The Last Days of Lepke Buchalter," article by Allan May, Crime Magazine, August, 2000