This week’s mystery movie was the 1950 MGM picture “Black Hand,” with Gene Kelly, J. Carrol Naish, Teresa Celli, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Frank Puglia and Mario Siletti.
Screenplay by Luther Davis from a story by Leo Townsend.
Photography by Paul C. Vogel, art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Gabriel Scognamillo, edited by Irving Warburton, musical score by Alberto Colombo, recording by Douglas Shearer, set decorations by Edwin B. Willis and Charles de Crof, special effects by Warren Newcombe, costumes by Walter Plunkett, hairstyles by Sydney Guilaroff and makeup by Jack Dawn.
Produced by William H. Wright. Directed by Richard Thorpe.
“Black Hand” is available on DVD from Warner Archive. I try to avoid movies that have just aired on TCM, but I see that it was on TCM last month.
This is week No. 2 of my experiment in going through the trade papers to pick mystery movies, figuring that a film that got decent reviews at the time will hold up or at least seem interesting. “A Child Is Born” failed that test and proved to be a creaky old chestnut. In contrast, “Black Hand” holds up quite well. The lighting, photography and sets are remarkable. The casting is unusual, not only because of its a non-musical role for Gene Kelly, but several actors had very few film credits and in two cases no other films. The “Godfather” fanboys bash it on IMDB because it’s not “The Godfather,” but that was never its intent. “Black Hand” was meant to show organized crime as pure evil. In fact, the movie opened with an important disclaimer, that there are many fine Italians, and the Black Hand, from the perspective of 1950, was nearly a half-century before. (And, OK, Kelly does sing a tiny bit).
Gene Kelly is always likable and he’s good as the aggrieved son seeking vengeance for his father’s murder. Teresa Celli, as the leading lady and Kelly’s love interest, isn’t asked to do much more than be beautiful and supportive, and does well with what little is demanded of her. J. Carrol Naish gets a larger role than usual and he’s good in what is a major character part. But the truly remarkable performances come from the smaller parts: Peter Brocco as Kelly’s father, an attorney informing police about the Black Hand. Marc Lawrence as the mob boss who is pure, calculating evil. Mario Siletti and Grazia Narcisco as the Danettas, as Celli’s parents. Eleonora von Mendelssohn in an uncredited role as Kelly’s distraught mother is good in her brief scenes. Even Phyllis Morris as the disheveled Mary the Shamrock is worth watching.
“Black Hand” was apparently one of several mob-related pictures in the works in early 1950. The New York Times reported that Monogram was planning, from a script by Burnet Hershey, “The Giant Killer,” the story of New York Police Lt. Joseph Petrosino. Lux Films had made “Mafia” (released as “In the Name of the Law,”) starring Massimo Girotti and Jone Salinas. Producer Milton Sperling was working on “Stiletto,” also based on the life of Petrosino. As far as I can tell, neither “The Giant Killer” nor “Stiletto” ever got to the screen.
A strikingly dramatic film, based on the terrorist activities of the notorious Black Hand society, which flourished in New York’s “Little Italy” in the early 1920s, preying on frightened immigrants of Italian extraction. Its mixture of extortion, bombings and killings does not make for a cheerful entertainment, but owing to the expert direction and the fine acting, it grips one’s attention from start to finish.
Outstanding performances are contributed by Gene Kelly, as a young Italian who vows vengeance on the Black Hand for the murder of his father, and by J. Carrol Naish, as an Italian American detective, who sacrifices his life while aiding Kelly to bring the criminal society to justice.
The action is charged with suspense and excitement throughout, building up to an explosive climax that will that the picture-goers holding on to their seats. The story, though fictional, is in many respects historically accurate. the production values are excellent, with the settings and backgrounds conveying a ring of authenticity to the proceedings.
Writing in the New York Times (March 13, 1950: Bosley Crowther said:
Even though MGM’s “Black Hand,” which came to the Capitol on Saturday, might cynically be designated as just a period gangster film, it has more to recommend it than a good, adventurous gangster plot. It has, in its picturization of New York’s “Little Italy” back in the unrestricted period of this century’s first decade, some rather affecting indications of the crowded and troubled world, novel and mystifying, in which this city’s Italian immigrants lived. And it has some quite colorful acting by a generally well directed cast, of which the best — and the most — is contributed by Gene Kelly and J. Carrol Naish.
In his first “straight” role in a picture — away from dancing and singing, that is — Mr. Kelly is eminently forceful as a young Italian American who aspired to help his neighbors rid themselves of the bands of terrorists and extortionists which are fearfully known as “the Black Hand.” And Mr. Naish is equally impressive as an Italian detective on the New York police force who joins in the youthful zealot’s campaign to wipe out this terrifying scourge.
Note to the late Mr. Crowther: Kelly had several non-musical roles by this time, including “The Cross of Loraine.”
For Monday, we have a mystery youth. He does not approve of such goings-on. In fact, most of this week’s mystery movie involves people disapproving of such goings-on.
Update: This is Raymond Malkin in his only film role.
For Tuesday, we have a mystery woman and, you guessed it, she does not approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is Phyllis Morris as Mary the Shamrock.
We also have this mystery woman and, would you believe it? She does not approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is Eleonora von Mendelssohn as Maria Columbo, Gene Kelly’s mother, in her only film. The great-granddaughter of Felix Mendelssohn, she was a prominent actress in prewar Germany, and committed suicide in New York the year after the film was released. The New York Times reported that she was distraught over the condition of her husband, actor Martin Kosleck, who fractured his spine several weeks earlier when he fell out the window of their third-floor apartment.
Finally, we have a mysterious gent and, yes, he doesn’t approve either. Virtually no one in this week’s mystery movie approves of such goings-on.
Update: This is Maurice Samuels as bar operator Mr. Moriani.
For Wednesday, we have this mystery gent. And, that’s right, he does not approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is Peter Brocco. Notice the great lighting.
And this mystery couple? What do you think? They don’t approve of such goings-on either. Nobody in this movie approves of such goings-on.
Update: This is Mario Siletti and Grazia Narciso as the Danettas.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery youth and Tuesday’s first two mystery guests).
For “Aha Thursday,” we have this mysterious gent.
Update: This is Carl Milletaire.
And also this mysterious gent.
Update: This is Marc Lawrence in a great performance. More great lighting.
And a less-mysterious mystery gent.
Update: This is J. Carrol Naish.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery youth, Tuesday’s mystery women and Wednesday’s mystery gents), Howard Mandelbaum (Wednesday’s mystery guests), Sue Slutzky (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery youth, Tuesday’s mystery woman No. 2, and Wednesday’s mystery guests) and Patrick (Wednesday’s mystery gent No. 1).
Here’s Thursday’s mystery guest No. 2 in an excellent example of disapproved goings-on.
Update: This is Marc Lawrence. The set design of Cedric Gibbons and Gabriel Scognamillo captures the squalor of early 20th century “Little Italy.”
For Friday, this is our mysterious leading lady….
Update: This is Teresa Celli.
and our totally unmysterious leading man.
Update: And Gene Kelly.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (Wednesday’s mystery woman and Thursday’s mystery guests Nos. 2 and 3), Tucson Barbara (mystery movie and Monday’s mystery youth, Wednesday’s mystery couple and Thursday’s mystery gents Nos. 2 and 3), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s mystery guests), Michael Ryerson (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery gents Nos. 2 and 3), Benito (Thursday’s mystery gent No. 2), B.J. Merholz (mystery movie and Wednesday’s mystery gent No. 2), Patrick (mystery movie) and Thom and Megan (mystery movie, Wednesday’s mystery couple and Thursday’s mystery gents Nos. 2 and 3).