“When he gets nervous, he develops bad tendencies.”
Hoodlum Empire is a mediocre crime drama that centres on the idea that once you’re involved with organized crime, it’s not that easy to escape. When the film begins, a Senate committee is investigating the criminal underworld with a focus on the bribes made towards public officials. According to the committee–led by Senator Stephens (Brian Donlevy), Joe Gray (John Russell) is a major kingpin of crime running gambling houses, rackets and slot machines all over the country. But Joe Gray tells a different story. He’s the nephew of gangster Nick Mansani (Luther Adler), and he swears the only business he runs is a small petrol station.
Just who is telling the truth and who is lying is gradually revealed through the flashbacks of those at the committee hearings. Flashbacks reveal that Gray is a WWII veteran who was once part of the mob. Claire Trevor plays the role of wisecracking moll, Connie Williams, a woman who remains devoted to Gray even while she tries to play both sides of the game.
Directed by Joseph Kane, Hoodlum Empire carries the label of film noir and tries to cash in on this genre’s growing popularity. Unfortunately, Hoodlum Empire just doesn’t make the grade as a noir film. It’s not gritty enough, and it’s not dark enough. There are some terribly cheesy, cliched moments in the film. These are mainly the WWII flashbacks, although the domestic scenes between Gray and his French wife, Marte Dufour (Vera Ralston) and his friend the blind preacher Rev. Simon Andrews are also cliched and sentimental. The character of Andrews seems created just to absorb all the tragedy engineered by the plot, but then none of the characters are particularly well developed. The best part of the film remains the senators grandstanding and making pompous speeches that go nowhere. In one great line, one senator complains that “children lost their lunch money” to the illegal slots, and while he states this with a straight face, it produced a few laughs from me. A great deal of the action takes place inside Mansani’s high-rise New York apartment, and the skyline visible from the large windows looks like it’s painted on plasterboard.