The promotional material for MGMs 1950 release Black Hand trumpeted Gene Kelly as “Sensational in his first great dramatic role”. The studio’s publicity department must have forgotten Gene as the determined POW in 1943s The Cross of Lorraine. Perhaps they overlooked his outstanding portrayal of a psychopath in the 1944 film-noir Christmas Holiday because that was for Universal, but once seen audiences could never forget the performance. MGM must also have forgotten that in his first film for the studio, 1942s For Me and My Gal, Gene’s character of Harry Palmer was more than a bit of a rat in the melancholy WWI era romance.
Of all of the crafts, acting is the easiest to critique and dismiss as both fans and people in the profession have their own expectations and prejudices. A comedic actor? Hey, he’s just being funny. A performance in a western? The cowboy hat does the acting. The musical performer? All they’re doing is singing and dancing. As if Jeanette MacDonald singing Lover, Come Back to Me in New Moon or Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz or Gene Kelly dancing with his alter ego in Cover Girl aren’t using all their skill to communicate to the audience as persuasively as Lord Olivier with a Shakespearean soliloquy. It must be a drama, dark and heavy, and preferably with ample opportunity to shed tears before some are convinced they are seeing “real acting”.
In 1950 Gene Kelly was beginning what was probably the most creatively satisfying time in his career. He had just completed his first credited co-directing assignment with the release of On the Town. Soon to come, with the resources of MGM behind him, are Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, It’s Always Fair Weather and Invitation to the Dance. For now Gene would be the billed lead and part of a fine ensemble of character actors in the offbeat crime drama Black Hand directed by the sturdy Richard Thorpe (The Thin Man Goes Home, The Crowd Roars, The Voice of Bugle Ann).
I call Black Hand off beat because, for a gangster picture, it does leave the well beaten path. By 1950 audiences could be forgiven for thinking that the gangster was solely the byproduct of the 18th Amendment giving way to the roaring twenties, the period having been glamorized in dozens of crime pictures (Scarface, The Public Enemy, etc.). Black Hand, however, deals with the turn of the 20th century when organized extortion or the protection racket made life unbearable for countless immigrants seeking a better life in America. Along with the time period, Black Hand is unique in that its focus is not on the life of an unfortunate sucked into a life of crime through poverty and neglect, but on the victims of the criminals. The story is by Leo Townsend (It Start with Eve, Port of New York) with a screenplay by Luther Davis (Across 110th Street, The Hucksters).
We are not in the turn of the century of Two Weeks With Love with its sunshine and wide verandas. In Black Hand we are in the claustrophobic city with narrow, dark streets and airless, crowded rooms courtesy of art director Gabriel Scognamillo (Mystery Street, Act of Violence, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and cinematographer Paul Vogel (Battleground, Lady in the Lake, Dial 1119). One of the crowded rooms houses the Columbo family. The father, a lawyer from Italy, Roberto Columbo played by Peter Brocco has had enough of the intimidation of the gangsters. Despite the pleading and prayers of his wife Maria played by Eleonora Mendelssohn, Roberto keeps a late night meeting with the police to inform against the Black Hand. Before the night is over both the police officer and Roberto Columbo will lose their lives to the vicious Serpi played by Marc Lawrence. The distraught Maria will return to Italy with her children, but her eldest son, Giovanni, vows to return someday and avenge his father’s death.
Gene Kelly as Giovanni "Johnny" Columbo
A few years pass and the grown Johnny Columbo played by Gene Kelly returns to the neighbourhood incognito hoping to find his father’s murderer. His anonymity is short-lived as frightened people who know too much put the pieces together. Johnny is befriended by police officer Louis Lorelli played by the incomparable J. Carroll Naish (Oscar nominated for A Medal for Benny and Sahara). Lorelli was a friend of the family’s in Italy and a long-time foe of the criminals who prey on his people. Johnny also rekindles a friendship/romance with childhood friend Isabella Gomboli played by Teresa Celli. She lost all in her family except a younger brother when the Black Hand bombed their tenement. Like Johnny, she seeks revenge, but in a civilized fashion. Isabella wants to organize the neighbourhood against the gangsters as such efforts have proved successful in other cities. Teresa has the backing of Lorelli and soon they sway Johnny to their efforts. Each small inroad against their tormentors is met with a setback in the form of beatings, kidnappings and destruction. Lorelli and Teresa are made of strong stuff and persevere, encouraging Johnny to study Law to further his cause.
J. Carroll Naish, Frank Puglia
The citizen’s committee takes a case to court when shopkeeper Sabballera played by Frank Puglia agrees to testify against the mob. Puglia is inspired as a man full of bravado and happy to be in the limelight. Slowly he is overcome by fear as nonverbal threats come from the spectators leaving the case and the man in tatters. Equally as impressive is Naish as Lorelli makes an impassioned plea to the judge to understand the pervasive fear experienced by the people in his district. Again, the committee is rebuffed in their attempt to fully prosecute the gloating gangsters. Another avenue of investigation does come their way and this one takes Lorelli back to Italy as he and Johnny devise a plan to exploit official records to name the gangsters before the courts. This time the gangsters are worried. This time Lorelli is in danger. This time Johnny faces a night of terror and desperation as he finally comes face to face with his father’s killer.
Black Hand is a well told tale of an under-explored area in crime pictures. The fine ensemble cast effortlessly convinces us with their sincere and energetic performances, including Gene Kelly “sensational in his first great dramatic role”.
Enjoy the brief clip from Black Hand as "Johnny" returns to the old neighbourhood and indulge yourself in All Things Gene Kelly as the Classic Movie Blog Association presents the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon to celebrate the centenary of his birth.