Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Classic Movie Blog Association Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon: Black Hand (1950)

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. The decade begins with Gene top-billed 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 offbeat 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 comes 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 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.


  1. "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'."

    Good point, and nice post. Since Kelly was such a fine craftsman in his dancing and choreography, one wonders if not being considered a "serious" actor really bothered him. I've never seen this film (thanks for the clip), and I suppose I always just assumed he turned to more dramatic, straight roles as a way to keep his career going when musicals were on the wane (and Father Time was messing with his customary athletic abilities to dance).

  2. Thanks, JTL.

    I can recommend "Black Hand". It made a great impression on me when I was a kid and viewings in recent years have impressed me. It's not a great movie, but very entertaining and emotional.

    Gene Kelly did so many things so very well.

  3. I find this film to be decent but lacking in energy. I prefer PAY OR DIE, a low budget film made about ten years after this one, dealing with basically the same story, that of real life police officer Richard Petrosino. Part of it is I think Kelly is miscast (Ernest Borgnine was in PAY OR DIE), even with curly hair he does not look remotely Italian. J. Carroll Nash, another Irishman, good at playing ethnic parts is more convincing. I just didn't buy him as Italian. Kelly did prove he had dramatic chops in films like CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY and INTERIT THE WIND.

  4. Wow - I have never even heard of this movie. Great film review. I've got to watch it now.

  5. John, "Pay or Die" sounds like something I would very much like to see. I am intrigued that it is based on the career of a real officer. Oh, that pesky must-see list. It keeps getting longer.

  6. DL, it shows up on TCM every once in a while. I think they should have a J. Carroll Naish day!

  7. I've never heard of this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Kelly was fairly versatile. I like his performance in Inherit the Wind.

  8. Nice post, CW. Sometimes critics forget smaller earlier roles for actors who make it big--I expect this was the same with Kelly and this film. He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, but often he got caught up in the notion that he wasn't as good as those who were considered such (Tracy, Peck, etc.).

  9. Readerman, I'd say "Black Hand" is a fairly obscure little picture. I only saw it once on TV in my youth and then it disappeared until I caught it again on TCM a couple of years ago.

  10. Kim, with powerhouses like Tracy on the lot it must have been too easy for the studio to overlook Gene's versatility. Although his value as a musical performer/creator certainly wasn't taken for granted.

  11. "...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'."

    Which is why it's sometimes frustrating when actors - fellow professionals - rarely give comedic or musical actors their due come Oscar time. I recently saw the Judy Garland version of 'A Star is Born' for the first time, and I still can't understand how she lost Best Actress, given the wide range of things she had to do in that remarkable movie.

    I think I could buy Gene Kelly as a gangster, but as a psychopath? I'd have to see it to believe it.

  12. Narrow views on acting make for some very heated internet discussions and some very iffy award recipients.

    I think you'll be suitably impressed with psycho Gene when you see "Christmas Holiday". It's a real downer. http://caftanwoman.blogspot.ca/2010/11/tis-season-part-i.html

    Actually, it would make a decent double bill with "Black Hand". Two very different crime pictures and characters, but a nice evening on the dark side.

  13. Because I had a mad crush on Gene Kelly, I had to see everything he appeared in. I saw this as a kid and it doesn't rank among my favorites, but it sure proves that Kelly was a good dramatic actor, especially when he let his dark side shine.

  14. Wow, I'd never even heard of this one and you've definitely intrigued me. From your description it sounds like it's caught somewhere between film noir and sober family drama. And I sort of find it funny that Kelly once again pops up in a courtroom drama, considering he once used to study law.

  15. Caftan Woman, I haven't seen "Black Hand" but you have piqued my interest. You make many fine points (and eloquently) - but I couldn't help laughing about the studio PR you mention that touted this as Gene Kelly's first dramatic role despite earlier roles that would indicate otherwise.

  16. Ladies, thanks for taking the time to read about "Black Hand", an unusual film for Gene coming as it did at that point in his career. The movie features two of my favourite character actors in J. Carroll Naish and Frank Puglia. I think Gene was every inch their equal.

  17. Enjoyed your post, particularly your excellent point about the dramatic abilities inherent in singing and dancing. Kelly was a great dramatic dancer, so it's no surprise he could bring the same qualities to a 'straight' role. An actor's instrument is his total body.

  18. Thanks so much for your kind words. Gene Kelly's versatility is certainly on display throughout the blogathon this week.

  19. Caftan Woman, you're absolutely right about comic and musical actors not being recognized for their thespian abilities. It seems that to get serious recognition and Oscars/Oscar nominations, such actors have to do some heavy emoting before people recognize what talented actors they are. I haven't seen this film but will try to catch it of TCM this week. I haven't seen many of Kelly's non-musical performances, but I did see him in "The Three Muskateers" a few weeks ago and was might impressed with his non-musical acting skills, particularly the way he was able to build a convincing character who didn't sing and dance. It made me realize he'd been doing this all along in his musical pictures!

  20. Please add me to the list of classic movie fans, who has not yet seen the film, "Black Hand". I can actually see Gene Kelly, perform in a drama.

    He had the talent and face for it.

    Thank you, for your wonderful review introducing me to another, Gene Kelly film.

  21. RDF, what do you think the chances are of someday seeing an entire Oscar slate made up of comedy and/or musical performances? An impossible dream, but wouldn't it be grand?

  22. Dawn, I hope TCM comes up with a chance for you to take a peek at "Black Hand" soon.

  23. I haven't seen this film but now want to. I really enjoyed your review and agree with your opening paragraphs. Kelly was as brilliant in musicals as any actor in a drama.

  24. It's always bothered me how some can dismiss the acting skills of musical performers so once I took on "Black Hand", it was my opportunity to vent. A lot of fans have pent up frustration.

  25. Fine review of one of the lesser-known (and best) Gene Kelly movies. Personally, I favor his dramatic films over his musical ones (yes, it's true!).

  26. CW.
    First off! I'm so sorry it took so long to get over here.

    Now! Your first line and the studio talking about his first dramatic role. Upon reading that I was like Huh? Then you listed his other serious roles. Not sure what the studio was thinking.

    I liked the Dark Hand but I like all of the serious roles you've listed. Of course you know how I feel about musicals and there's the fact that I appreciate Gene's dedication to his craft regardless of the genre.

    I guess it's fun to see actors who are known for one genre. get to translate their talents to something new. It's kind of like loving Bogie in his darker roles.

    But back to your review. I really. really enjoyed it! So informative and your research. knowledge of the film and it's backstory shines through.

    The perfect contribution to the Blogathon. So glad to see that you took on one of his rare. serious roles. I just wish he had been offered more during his career.

    Do you think maybe his strong desire to start directing inhibited him from trying to get more parts like this? I think he made a pretty darn good gangster. Okay. not Muni or Raft good but enjoyable.


  27. Rick, I imagine Gene would be surprised and pleased to hear you prefer his dramatic work to his musical.

    Thanks a lot, Page. If Warner's had snapped Gene up from Broadway, he might indeed have been a movie gangster instead of a movie hoofer. Ha! "Movie hoofer" hardly covers Gene's talents, does it?



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