Saturday, July 23, 2016

GANGSTER STORY (1959)


This sixty-five minute film, released at the very end of 1959, appears to be the first leading role for Walter Matthau after nearly being invisible in various television episodes and supporting film roles. It is also his directorial debut and curtain call. A low budget cult wannabe film through which we begin to see the subtle Matthau humor that will define his career. The canned stock background music has no relationship with the scenes. Just awful. One element the director was oblivious to. As always, there are many unintentionally funny moments for today’s viewers.

The opening blues combo title song, “The Itch for Scratch,” (clever) is sung by a warbling Ted Stanford over shaky film of a bank vault and period typeface. It screams low budget. About 75 grand worth. Stanford was virtually unknown at the time and has remained so to this day. A guy who needed a gig. Any gig. His voice gets so quiet at times it is hard to understand the lyrics, in which every other verse rhymes. I think. The bank vault transitions to a wet night scene and then to a local policeman broadcasting an all-points bulletin for Matthau’s recent escape and subsequent murders. The officers at headquarters appear to be actual policemen judging by their acting. Like many early talking pictures, they act as “narrators” of the movie in the early going to keep the viewer abreast of Matthau’s latest entanglements.

In the apartment where Matthau is hiding, he calls the front desk asking for a plumber. His real objective is to steal a hammer from the plumber tool kit so he can knock off the remaining handcuff with the aid of his pocket knife. It is a crude way to get the job done and the grunts and grimaces on Matthau’s face indicates it is quite painful. A pretty effective scene.

Matthau pulls off a bank con by posing as a film director. It is a clever idea on paper but the filmed execution is too ludicrous to believe. He requests actual officer’s help in his “rehearsal” of a bank robbery scene. A rehearsal without any studio cameras. The police watch the robbery take place right under their noses, totally believing they are rehearsing. Matthau locks the bank manager in the vault and tells the officers he has to go back to the studio. The loot goes with him. The officers are beyond naive. What were their instructions from Matthau? Were they supposed to stand in front of the bank all day?

The local mob boss is upset that he is blamed for the bank job. He sets out to find Matthau at the horse race track. Matthau is quite animated when cheering for his horse to win. It all looks amateurish as if Matthau, while directing, suggested he pop in front of the camera as the real life crowd adds realism. Searching over the crowded grandstands, one mobster says astutely, “I can’t figure where he’d be in this crowd.” The segment’s edits are a nightmare, numerous and quick, in the attempt to make some sense of a difficult scene to film. Matthau escapes and tells a patron backing out of his parking space his rear tire is flat and when the driver gets out to inspect, Matthau karate chops him on the back of the neck. That was easy.

Stock library adventure music kicks in during the chase. Matthau keeps an eye on the car chasing him by looking over his shoulder. He later adjusts his rear view mirror to get a better view. What we see is a view of Matthau in the mirror looking at the camera. That seems an odd detail to include. He abandons the car in town and wanders into the local library where he meets the librarian, Carol Grace, the real life wife of Matthau. Grace, in the second of her three movie roles is somewhat comical in her big spectacles. Her soft-spoken, slightly raspy voice adds to the stereotypical librarian. She seems awkward yet cool. Matthau shows his flair for subtle humor as he asks if she has any books. He is looking for work and he is a bank robber. She never flinches. Their initial interaction is amusing when she answers all his questions with her own questions. The scene seems out of place in the film because it is quite charming.


She suggests working on her citrus farm as an extra hand. He appeared to be the only hand. The next scene he and she are a couple. First in the orchard then on the beach. Opposites do attract. Later, while running errands, she spots his wanted poster and she does not flinch. Mobster, Garry Walberg, searching for Matthau, tells his partner after spotting the library, “Let’s try this place” as if he does not recognize the singularity of a library. Matthau escapes by holding stacks of books in front of face as they pass each other coming and going. You would think that Matthau’s wrinkled overcoat might be a tip off.

Once located and apprehended, Matthau and the boss have a brief talk about big money. He joins the local mob chapter and Grace wants to go where he goes. Library work is so boring. The final big job is to hit the safe at a fancy golf resort. Matthau and pal sneak onto the course on the back nine, packing iron. Not 9 irons. The three guys in charge of the resort are none too bright and I lost all respect for the person who hired them. After knocking out a fellow golfer, Matthau tells the three stooges there is a guy on the green that is dead or something. All three rush out leaving the safe vulnerable. The crooks getaway truck does not get far as the police close in. Two things are noticeable, Matthau towers over his costars and a tall guy runs funny, stiffly, like in a comedy. And the closing shoot out is close to a comedy. Officers and crooks being shot from the oddest angles with bullets going around or over vehicles to hit their mark.

Madame Librarian has had enough of the gangster life and as quick as she fell for the gangster she just as quickly decides to leave him. He cannot figure the problem. Matthau tells her he needs her. He loves her. In a reply built for a comedy, she tells him in deadpan flair, “You never said that before and now you have.”

Matthau tells the mob boss he is through but the boss did not become the boss with benevolence. He informs the FBI of Matthau’s whereabouts but escapes to settle the score with the boss. Grace will meet Matthau in Mexico but when she hears the news report, turns the car around before the border. Still, she does not flinch. After being AWOL for who knows how long, I hope she got her librarian’s job back.

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