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Richard Conte is topnotch here as a young assassin named Nick Magellan who is pulled from his Chicago post to work for Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford), head of the New York division of "the syndicate." The syndicate is a national crime organization that operates almost as a shadow government, with its own hierarchy and business operations; if a member of this mob causes trouble or threatens to blow the whistle, he is swiftly murdered by enforcers like Magellan. At the time, this was new, fascinating stuff to movie audiences, and it still draws one in compellingly.
The film also makes much of depicting the gangsters as normal businessmen and family men. An early scene with Broderick Crawford in his office, for instance, has him not only taking a phone call from the mob boss in Italy and arranging a contract killing, but also looking at a partner's baby pictures, talking about wives and kids, and yearning comedically for "a salami on rye with a kosher pickle" -- just a normal day at the office, in other words. It's a bit labored and obvious, but the point is still effective. The film will further this idea by ratcheting up both the violence and the family melodrama to extreme levels, and this is what puts New York Confidential above the norm for such films and marks it as an obvious influence on Francis Coppola and the Godfather films.
In the cast, Broderick Crawford operates on all cylinders; he's just on fire in every scene, barking about the "pigs" who get in his way and trying to control his daughter (Anne Bancroft) by sheer vocal volume. In another movie, the performance would be over the top, but here it works to build intensity of the drama overall.
It also makes for a compelling contrast with Richard Conte, whose soft-spoken politeness belies not only Crawford's tirades but Conte's own murderous professionalism. Conte is so very good here, whether he's calmly walking out of a restaurant after cold-bloodedly gunning down three men inside (a simple-yet-stunning scene which surely influenced Coppola and Scorsese); learning the word "penchant" and then using it right away to impress his new boss; bursting dramatically into a hoodlum's office to rough him up; or flirting with Lupo's secretary like James Bond soon will with Miss Moneypenny. When Conte is on screen, you can't take your eyes off the guy, and that's always true of Conte. He embodies a mixture of calm and menace, courtesy and cruelty, that is quite mesmerizing.
Anne Bancroft had appeared in various noirs and westerns at this point in her young career, and her role here is substantial. She is petulant and sensual (and fetching) as the mobster's daughter whose boyfriends get roughed up for no reason when she brings them home, and who understandably struggles to escape this sordid world, crying out tragically that "decent people don't want me around. It's as if I had a disease."
With all the violence and family gravitas, New York Confidential also works in a fair amount of humor. Crawford finally gets his salami sandwich, for instance, but in the next scene asks for a bicarbonate of soda. It's a smart use of comedy, for it subtly helps to humanize these malicious characters and make us feel something for them, or at least care about what happens to them. Crawford's Charlie Lupo may be an unlikable, vicious fellow, but when the mob places a hit on him, the film has made us want him to escape.
In the end, New York Confidential stays true to itself and the grim world it inhabits. For one character, suicide is the only escape. For others, it's death by murder, which is shown to be necessary for the syndicate -- the source of all this evil -- to continue unchallenged. There will always be new young killers, new hoods, new "businessmen" ready to take over. The power of the mob is relentless, and the feeling of being trapped in its grasp lends a fatalism that ultimately reaches existential proportions and lands New York Confidential firmly in film noir territory. It's a powerful ride.
VCI Entertainment's DVD of New York Confidential is enhanced for 1.85 widescreen and comes with some extras, which are welcome in this era of barebones catalogue releases. There's an advertising gallery and a restoration comparison, but most notably, film historians Alan K. Rode and Kim Morgan team to provide a commentary track rich in historical context. They know this movie, and they're especially thorough on the backgrounds of the actors, right down to the bit players.
For more information about New York Confidential, visit VCI Entertainment. To order New York Confidential, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold