The 1959 film, Gangster Story, holds the distinction of being the only film ever directed by the Oscar-winning actor, Walter Matthau.
That’s right, this low-budget film about a bank robber and the people who want to kill him was directed by TCM’s favorite curmudgeon. The man who would later be nominated for multiple Oscars and who would star in numerous Neil Simon adaptations only directed one film and that movie was a low-budget, 68-minute, black-and-white movie about cops and robbers.
(And no, Jack Lemmon is nowhere to be found.)
Walter Matthau not only directed this film but he starred in it as well. He plays Jack Martin, a career criminal who pulls off a daring bank robbery. How does he do it? Well, first, he rents an office in the same building as the bank. He gets to know everyone at the bank. He wins their trust. No one can resist the charms of Jack Martin, which I guess is the advantage of getting to direct yourself.
On the day of the robbery, Jack approaches the cops who are hanging around outside the bank. He tells them that he’s from Hollywood and he’s going to be shooting a scene in which he pretends to rob the bank. He assures them that it will look realistic. They might even see a rather flustered bank manager leading him into the vault. But it’s just a movie and therefore, it’s very important that the cops not rush into the bank with their guns drawn or anything silly like that.
Of course, the cops fall for it. While Jack is busy robbing the bank, the cops are just hanging around and shooting the breeze outside. When Jack walks out of the bank, he thanks the cops for not ruining the scene and then promptly leaves. Needless to say, the cops are humiliated when they realize how they’ve been tricked. For them, tracking down Jack isn’t just about upholding the law. It’s about vengeance.
Meanwhile, the local mob boss is upset because not only did Jack rob the bank without permission but he also failed to shared any of the stolen money. Not only does Jack have the cops after him but he also has all the local gangsters!
What a mess!
However, Jack isn’t worried. He’s happy because he’s met and fallen in with a local librarian, Carol (played by Carol Grace). Will Jack find love or will his criminal past find him?
It’s always a bit strange to watch a film that’s been directed by an actor with a firmly entrenched persona. Matthau was famous for playing urban misanthropes and, when watching Gangster Story, your natural instinct is to look for signs of that curmudgeonly worldview. There are hints of it in the scene where Jack tricks the cops outside the bank but, for the most part, there’s really not much personality to be found in any of the film’s scenes. Matthau’s direction is workmanlike but never particularly memorable. For reasons that will soon become clear, as a director, Matthau seems far more interested in the unlikely love story between Jack and Carol than in the film’s criminal-on-the-run storyline. After making this film together, Walter Matthau and Carol Grace married. It was her third marriage and Matthau’s second and it lasted for 41 years, ending only with Walter Matthau’s death in 2000.
Not surprisingly, the scenes between Jack and Carol are the best in the film. As for the rest of it, it’s pretty much a standard crime film. As a director, Matthau struggles to keep the story moving at a steady pace and the film’s low-budget certainly doesn’t help. Watching the film, you can tell why Walter Matthau devoted the rest of his career to acting as opposed to directing. It’s hard not to feel that he made the right choice.