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.