Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)

Director: Arnold Laven

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Over the past week, Chicago cinephiles have been treated yet again to another installment of Noir City, the celebration of film noir staged by the Film Noir Foundation each year. As a satellite festival of FNF’s 10-year-old main event in San Francisco, Noir City Chicago has brought film fans out to the historic Music Box Theatre for only four years, but presenter Alan K. Rode, a good friend made during our fundraising blogathon for FNF, has assured us that the festival in Chicago will continue as long as the current level of enthusiasm and support remains. That’s good news for film buffs in search of the rarities regularly presented at the festival alongside the more famous fare that forms essential viewing for film neophytes.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is just such a rarity. While not completely unknown or forgotten, the film has never been officially released on VHS or DVD. Most people who have seen it remember it from commercial television in the 60s or 70s, or misremember seeing it because it shares the same title as the famous ballet set to Richard Rodgers’ music and committed to film twice, first, with the original Balanchine choreography in On Your Toes (1939) and then in 1948’s Words and Music, with new choreography by Gene Kelly. While Laven’s Slaughter includes the Rodgers music, rendered in a tasteful, effective score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, the film bears no resemblance to the ballet’s story of a love triangle that ends in murder.

Instead, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue has been hung with the unfortunate label of stepson to  On the Waterfront (1954). While both films focus on mob corruption in New York’s longshoremen’s union, each deals with it in its own way and from different angles. Elia Kazan’s masterwork, told from the point of view of the longshoremen, is greatly elevated by the towering performances of Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and Karl Malden, whereas Slaughter’s cast, though fine, is packed with yeoman actors like Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw, and Sam Levene, and anchored by a much weaker leading man, Richard Egan. Slaughter has one virtue On the Waterfront lacks: based on the nonfiction book The Man Who Rocked the Boat cowritten by former New York district attorney William J. Keating, it tells in compelling fashion the true story of the only murder conviction achieved against a mobbed-up union official from the prosecutor’s point of view.

In a very suspenseful opening sequence, we watch three men arrive at an apartment building on 10th Avenue and spread out to cover all exit routes, climbing on the roof and entering the stairway from the top and stationing themselves in blind spots from below. A car pulls up in front of the building—it is Benjy Karp (Harry Bellaver), who always gives his friend Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) a ride to work. Solly’s wife Madge (Jan Sterling) yells down that Solly will be right there. After some affectionate banter, Madge hands Solly his metal lunch box and sends him off with a kiss. Moments later, Solly is cornered and gunned down. As the gunmen flee, Madge runs to her husband who says, “‘Cockeye’ Cook (Joe Downing) and two of his gorillas did it.” He is taken to the hospital, gravely injured.

DA Howard Rysdale (Levene) sees the Pitts shooting as an impossible nut to crack, another of the 150 waterfront murders unsolved because of witness fear and payoffs. ADA Keating (Egan), two months on the job, steps forward to take the case: “I have to catch one of those sooner or later.” Rysdale, his resources spread thin, reluctantly agrees. Keating works with police lieutenant Anthony Vosnick (McGraw) to locate witnesses and build a case.

Slaughter is a police procedural in The Naked City mold that has more in common with the politically conscious films of the 1930s than with the postwar fatalism that informs the thoroughly pessimistic outlook of many classic noir films. Keating, the son of a union coal miner, is a crusader for justice for a man who dared to stand up to the mob and paid the ultimate price, but he’s strictly by the book, not shadowed by a painfully guilty past. Vosnick, a trusted member of the waterfront community, is more the pragmatic veteran who convinces a reluctant Benjy and Madge to testify and gets Solly to change his “I didn’t see them” statement on first being shot to repeating what he told to Madge. But because he does it “off the record,” he jeopardizes Keating’s case when extremely crafty mob attorney John Jacob Masters (Duryea) casts reasonable doubt on the defendants’ guilt by highlighting the flip-flop statements (even calling into question Solly’s deathbed testimony) as evidence of police coercion. The fragility of truth and justice does get a slightly noirish sort of airing, but this film doesn’t admit those noir shades of gray in depicting its battle between good and evil.

Nonetheless, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is extremely satisfying. Sterling’s performance as a tough-minded widow is beyond good, showing the various emotions of a worried wife tending to her dying husband and a strategic witness who avoids taking the stand until after Christmas to ensure that the killers will be convicted and get the electric chair. Duryea, not at his most evil but certainly at his most articulate, has a field day with the excellent dialogue and legal logic screenwriter Lawrence Roman provided to him; Duryea certainly is one of the best actors to emerge from mid-century American cinema. A wonderful turn comes from diminutive Nick Dennis, who plays a longshoreman nicknamed Midget who goes ballistic the day after the attack on Solly, drinking and cursing the union bosses who had him hit. As the goons who shot Solly chase him around and through the dock machinery, we see how vulnerable a single man is, with only his speed to keep him ahead of deadly force, as his coworkers opt to keep their mouths shut to live to see another day. Mickey Shaughnessy spits his contempt for the men who attacked him during his deathbed deposition, lifting his hospital gown to show “Cockeye” exactly what his guns did; while we see only blood-stained gauze, the gesture is still shocking. Julie Adams plays Keating’s fiancée and wife with more presence and authority than her “little woman” role normally would have afforded her.

Egan is a bit pallid as our central character—Laven reportedly wanted Robert Mitchum in the role—but he is believable as a straight arrow dedicated to upholding the law. When he gets involved in a wildcat strike on the docks, he forgets himself and behaves as he did when at his father’s side on the picket lines, slugging it out with the hired muscle trucked in to quell the protest. It would have been nice to see more of that side of Keating from a dramatic point of view, though I imagine this fight was a script embellishment, not reality.

A surprise is seeing Walter Matthau in his fourth big-screen appearance as union boss Al Dahlke. His charisma is unmistakable, but his acting, sliced, would go well with cheese on rye. He is both too big with his sarcasm and oily “friendship” and too small with his menace. He comes off more as a skinny bully made bold by having big guys surrounding him than a genuine made man with the notches on his gun to prove his mettle.

DP Fred Jackman Jr. makes the most of the dockside settings (Long Beach, CA, doubling for New York) to lend a verité look to the film, and his lighting and camerawork in the stairwell where Solly is shot is appropriately ominous; kudos to film editor Russell Schoengarth for making that scene coil and pounce with thrilling menace.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue should have been a contender, because it’s got class written all over it. Here’s hoping more people will take the chance to enjoy the action and artistry of the talented cast and crew who made this fine mid-century movie.

You can view the entire film for free here on YouTube.

  • Laura spoke:
    25th/08/2012 to 4:23 pm

    So glad you got to enjoy this at Noir City Chicago! I saw it at Noir City Hollywood last spring and thoroughly enjoyed it. My own thoughts on the film were largely in sync with yours. Duryea and Sterling were especially fantastic, and I was glad that Julie Adams’ character wasn’t a simpering complainer type but instead encouraged Egan to continue.

    Julie Adams was there that night and hadn’t seen the film since it came out. She said she was very pleasantly surprised to realize what a good movie it was and was impressed with the depth of the cast.

    Enjoyed reading your take on the movie!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/08/2012 to 10:41 pm

    Laura, Alan Rode told me about Julie Adams’ appearance, and what a wonderful experience for her and the audience to have her there. I think we’re all in agreement that this film is solid work that deserves a wider audience. Maybe Universal will release it on DVD one of these days.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    26th/08/2012 to 1:18 am

    Egan was a strange combination of stolidity and repression balanced by some restrained menace he vary rarely seemed to get the chance to release on screen. Films like “The View From Pompey’s Head” seem to bring out his best. He was the intelligent gent in most of the films I’ve seen him in, and it barely works in this one – not enough fire for the plot, or to match much of the cast. Sterling was very underrated over the years, I thought. I actually look forward to her performances. The real performance here, tho, is, as you’ve mentioned, Duryea’s – I’ll watch him in anything, and I wish he’d gotten more parts like this, something to show off his depth, rather than flash. I’ll have to see this one again, it’s been a while. Nice review!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/08/2012 to 8:33 am

    Van – Egan is an actor whose body of work is almost unknown to me. I looked up his filmography and see less than a handful of films I recognize. However, he and I have one thing in common: we both played King Ahasuerus, he in Esther and the King and I in my school Purim pageant.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/08/2012 to 1:35 pm

    “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue should have been a contender, because it’s got class written all over it. Here’s hoping more people will take the chance to enjoy the action and artistry of the talented cast and crew who made this fine mid-century movie.”

    Love that wind-up Marilyn, and definitely am stoked to watch the film for at least five reasons:

    1. Superlative engaging review, with the usual great writing.
    2. Fascinating reference point to one of my favorites, ON THE WATERFRONT
    3. Seen recently by you at the landmark Music Box Theatre
    4. Considers an ultra rarity.
    5. The persuasive cinema verite look to the film

    Looks like Fred Jackman Jr. is indebted to Boris Kaufman based on your vivid screen caps and prose testimony! I am also much excited to hear Ms. Sterling gives a boffo turn, even if Egan is weaker! As you know I was in attendance at the hallowed halls of the Music Box this past week, and exhaustion compromised my “viewing” of SHAKEDOWN! Splendid place, incomparable host, and what I wouldn’t have done to see ON DANGEROUS GROUND and SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE! In any case I can’t see Walter Matthau as a crime boss at all.

    I’m not sure if Vanwall will be coming back to this thread, but if so, I want to let him know that I discovered THE VIEW FROM POMPEY’S HEAD three months ago -it is not on legit DVD or VHS, nor has it ever been- but an ebay bootleg on the film on VHS is available. I came upon the film because Elmer Bernstein’s ravishing score is one of the greatest I have ever heard (people who know me have been duly tortured by me playing the Film Score Monthly CD in my car endlessly!) and I must concur with Vanwall that POMPEY’S HEAD absolutely brings out the best in Egan!! I also though Marjorie Rambeau was superb (I understand she won the National Board of Review’s Best Supporting Actress prize for that year) and the film was lovingly mounted. I am seriously tempted to read Hamilton Basso’s longtime best-selling novel, which the film is purportedly quite faithful to.

    Marilyn, thanks again for all and everything, and for the priceless look at the Music Box!

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    29th/08/2012 to 5:46 am

    A little bit of love of for Arnold Laven, not the most consistent filmmaker. The Monster that Challenged the World came out the same year as Slaughter on 10th Avenue. But he also has Anna Lucasta the following year, with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ertha Kitt. Laven also deserves credit for the still eminently watchable TV series, “The Rifleman”.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/08/2012 to 9:19 am

    Sam – My pleasure. I knew you’d love the Music Box, and I hope you like Slaughter.

    Peter – Alan Rode certainly did express his love for Laven, mentioning The Rifleman. I’m not familiar with his body of work and wasn’t a big westerns fan, but I know many people hold that series in high esteem.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    31st/08/2012 to 10:34 pm

    Sam – Thanks for seconding my view of “The View From Pompey’s Head” – Egan is excellent in that one. I’m glad you got to see it, and yes, my most recent viewing was on a gray-market VHS, although I saw it three or four times in the late sixties-early seventies on TV. The film is full of excellent performances. Love that film for its literariness , too, it has an intelligent view of people. I hope it gets a real release.

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