Thursday, June 7, 2012
DVR Diary: INSIDE THE MAFIA (1959)
A dramatic sequence of events in the fall of 1957 made the existence of a national Mafia more difficult for public officials to deny. Reports of the barbershop assassination of Albert Anastasia and the police raid on an apparent crime conclave in Apalachin, NY, whetted appetites for more information about the shadowy crime organization. But before Joe Valachi's 1963 testimony before a congressional committee very little was known about the institutions and inner workings of the Mafia. Into the breach stepped the Premium Pictures company, screenwriter Orville H. Hampton and director Edward L. Cahn, who released Inside the Mafia in 1959. Cahn was a Poverty Row visionary with a vast filmography of hackwork and a handful of primitively prescient pictures. His sci-fi film It! The Terror From Beyond Space has been recognized as a precursor of Ridley Scott's Alien, while the mindless marching masses Cahn directed in Creature With the Atom Brain and Invisible Invaders anticipate the zombie attacks of George A. Romero's films. Does Inside the Mafia similarly anticipate The Godfather and the mafia genre that followed Francis Coppola's film? The answer is a flat no. Working apparently from utter ignorance of the actual Mafia, Cahn and Hampton can't hope to approximate the ritual dynamics and familiar intimacy of post-Valachi movies. Instead, Inside is strange not in any premonitory way but as a work of crass naivete, and insulting in its pretense of telling the true story of the events leading to the Apalachin conference. The tone is set from the start when Apalachin is redubbed "Apple Lake," while Anastasia is replaced in the fatal barber chair by one Augie Martello (Ted de Corsia), who does not die, at least not right away. Secreted from an insecure hospital to a safe house, Augie lives to give his blessing to a plan of his lieutenant Tony Ledo (Cameron Mitchell) to take over the entire national crime organization. Ledo's idea is a decapitation strike against the long-exiled mastermind Johnny Lucero (Grant Richards) -- whacking him when his plane lands at the Apple Lake airport. Lucero is an amalgam of real-life boss Vito Genovese and the already-legendary Lucky Luciano, whose stature as an exile longing to return to America haunts a number of postwar crime films. For Ledo's plan to work, he must take control of the little airport. That means taking the man who runs the place and his family hostage, making them operate as if nothing is wrong so as not to alarm Lucero or anyone else. Instead of a Mafia expose, the picture becomes a rip-off of Suddenly, the picture in which Frank Sinatra takes a household hostage so he can shoot the President from their window. The imperiled family and their unlucky friends are a dull lot, but the gangsters are hardly less dull. The often manic Mitchell, here at the tale end of his peak period of Hollywood stardom and on the verge of a more productive sojourn in Europe, brings little to his role, while Robert Strauss (best known as Animal from Stalag 17) contributes most of the violence, including a few karate chops. The plot twists when Ledo learns from the TV that Augie has finally succumbed to his wounds. His plan takes a 180 degree turn; he now intends to convince Lucero that he's the man best qualified to run the organization in Lucero's name. His ploy seems to work, but there are a few twists left in the tale, while the hostages strive to free themselves, knowing that they must die otherwise. Everything ends in an Apple Lake bloodbath that the film claims "actually happened." Don't you believe them. Their claim is as viable as Criswell's at the end of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and their film is far less entertaining from that one. Inside the Mafia is exploitation of the worst time, completely lacking in inspiration and seemingly guided by the assumption that once their title had you hooked, they owed you nothing more. That kind of filmmaking ought to be a crime.