What did you watch: the 1955 crime movie Chicago Syndicate.
Who’s in it? Allison Hayes and some other people.
Well who are the other people? The two actors on the poster seem to have had long careers- ALLISON HAYES AND NO ONE ELSE AND LET’S MOVE ON.
Allison Hayes was a 50’s Hollywood bombshell whose biggest movie (HA) was probably Attack of The 50 Foot Woman. She’s the title character attacking her philandering husband and his bland blond mistress and I wonder if the cheating husband is blind or visually impaired and it’s a character trait that the film forgot to address. She was smoking hot back in the day, is what I’m saying. She was in a lot of B crime movies and I saw titles I had seen her in after looking up her career – a couple of monster movies and a Roger Corman western where she was the bad guy, and I witnessed theses on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I love MST3K but the copies of the films they used were not in good shape by the time they were circulated to their office. Of course most of these movies’ motivation to be made was “I’m capable of making a movie” without factoring in competence, budget, and in some cases literal clarity. In either case, it’s hard to make out recognizable characters in The Unearthly beyond lumbering Tor Johnson and remember what their washed-out-film faces look like later.
So after seeing Attack… I thought I’d check out one of her earlier movies with a larger (not literally) role, Chicago Syndicate. A crime movie set in my hometown? Or stock footage of my hometown followed by gangsters talking about crime in movie sets of apartments? Either way, CS is a passable crime adventure movie that is watchable but also you won’t miss much if you pass on it. I’ll tell you about it anyway after gushing about Ms. Hayes:
Dennis O’Keefe (long career in film & theater until the lat 60’s) is accountant Barry, who is approached by a group of prominent businessmen including a newspaper editor to infiltrate the mob after another prominent businessguy is killed and his distraught wife commits suicide. The dominos keep falling because their debutante daughter was gallivanting in Europe and was engaged to Old Money and broke it off and checked herself in an insane asylum. Okay. that’s motivation for Barry, I guess. He weasels his way into the crime boss’ club and impresses someone into letting him try his hand at being their mob accountant. Follow me? The hows and whys involve a beautiful woman Sue who is also trying to work her way up the mob ladder, a tough detective who helps Barry by publicly getting in his face and Barry pushing back against the law, and a club band leader and the band’s singer (who is also the mob boss’ girlfriend).
There’s intrigue and envy and comradere – what does Barry learn, how can he get that info to the police (or to the prominent businessmen, who I guess are Chicago’s true moral and judicial center of this film), what does the bombshell singer think of Sue trying to move in on her mob boss man, the band leader who is in love with the singer (more on that soon), can Barry impress the mob boss (he does). It’s not entirely exciting – they’re interesting characters, I definitely am there for Sue’s (Hayes) passive aggressive and downright mean digs at the singer.
However, the denouement is how can Barry find evidence if all the rotten biz info is just stuff he’s memorized on behalf of the mob boss? Well, he tries using jealousy, helping Sue to the top and in the mob boss’ view and the latter falls for her, enraging the singer, who promises to get physical evidence. The mob boss finds out, and in a scene that grinds the movie to a halt, takes her into another room and beats her. We get to watch the rest of the cast sit around uncomfortably as this happens in the other room.
So, this is where your movie stenographer (me) kinda loses interest because what the hell, movie. Lots of the attitudes of these movies are “of their time,” and I get that the mob boss is a bad guy – he’s a mob boss, but c’mon. Then again, I laughed when Sue poured coffee on the singer’s dress during a dinner scene, presumably hot coffee and presumably it burned her, so what the hell, me. But, somehow the singer gives Barry the evidence and he escapes and survives a gunshot and the mob boss is gunned down by the police in front of his own mother, which I guess was foreshadowed but I’m remember the wrong scenes. It also turns out that Sue is not really her real name, she’s actually the daughter of the prominent businessguy who was killed at the beginning, and she was doing her own undercover work.
For me, the payoff was seeing Allison Hayes in a lead role (despite not being top-billed) and hold her own as her character is irritated by Barry infiltrating his way up the crime latter faster than a knockout every mobster would knock each other for. I don’t know why her career didn’t grow from there, this is an early film showing potential for a lead starlet. She found herself in terrible Roger Corman movies (they are mostly terrible, don’t care whose careers were launched), one of which she broke her arm during filming, and maybe not coincidentally had some health setbacks after. Despite more film & TV appearances, she was treated for leukemia and she may have contracted severe lead poisoning from unregulated health supplements – the point where the FDA got involved in regulating.
The other stars, the band leader and singer, were already established entertainers. Not entirely like Mick Jagger being cast in Freejack. Wait, NOTHING like that. Xavier Cugat and Abbie Lane (who had top billing, for a reason) were an actual married couple (AT THE TIME!) and huge in the big band scene (also, Cugat was a syndicated cartoonist? Ugh, the talent here, not fair.). Abbie Lane appeared in films and tv all over the world and was very talented with looks to match, so, you know, good for Cugat, who was 30 years older than her. She was his fourth wife of five (“you keep getting married,” in my best disappointed Jeff Winger voice). I didn’t look this up until after the movie, so the in-film Cugat’s declaration of love to Abbie as she’s being beaten by the mob boss comes off even more awkward. Abbie had a pretty amazing career it looks like, so even though she’s not one of the two main character, her name back then was probably the draw for this film. The mob boss is Paul Stewart, another guy with such a long career and helped launch and support Orson Welles’ career, behind and in front of the camera.
You can watch this movie (currently) here – there’s a few versions out there but they all look pretty clean/clear, so unlike other movies of the time, you can fully enjoy the snazzy 50’s club ambiance.