An Offer You Can’t Refuse #3: The Purple Gang (dir by Frank McDonald)


The 1960 gangster film, The Purple Gang, really took me by surprise.

The film opens with U.S. Rep. James Roosevelt standing in front of his desk.  James Roosevelt was the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He was a notoriously shady businessman who, before entering politics, dabbled a bit in Hollywood.  That probably explains how he eventually came to be standing in his congressional office, filming the introduction for a low-budget B-movie about Detroit gangsters.  Roosevelt tells us that he’s already watched the movie that we’re about to see and that he can assure us that it is an accurate portrayal of not just the history of The Purple Gang but also of how 1920s bootlegging led to a host of other crimes.  Roosevelt goes on to compare bootleggers to modern day drug pushers.  The most interesting thing about the speech is that it almost sounds like a defense of prohibition, the law that FDR famously opposed.

To use a term from the film’s era, it’s kind of a square opening.  James Roosevelt comes across as being so vacuously earnest that it’s almost as if Beto O’Rourke got his hands on a time machine and went back to 1960.  At the same time, there’s something oddly charming about how awkward it is.  One can only imagine how audiences would react if a film today opened with a speech from a congressperson.  I guess some parts of the country would love it.  Down here in Texas, the theater would probably get set on fire.

Now, based on that less than edgy opening, you might be justified in expecting that The Purple Gang will just be your standard 1960s crime thriller but it most definitely is not.  The Purple Gang is a tough and violet movie, one that is full of shadowy and sometimes disturbing imagery.  A very young Robert Blake plays Honeyboy Willard, a teenage hoodlum who, through pure sociopathic ruthlessness, takes over the rackets in Detroit.  Barry Sullivan is Lt. Harley, the police detective whose quest to bring down the Purple Gang leads to him losing almost everything that was important to him.

Our first impression of Lt. Harley comes when he skeptically listens to a liberal social worker, Joan McNamara (Jody Lawrance), explain that criminals are not born but are instead made by their circumstances.  Harley obviously doesn’t agree.  Later, while Joan is walking around Detroit at night, she is attacked, rape,d and then murdered by the same criminals that she was earlier defending.  With the city outraged over Joan’s murder, Lt. Harley steps up his efforts to bring down the gang so Honeyboy murders Harley’s pregnant wife.

While Harley seeks revenge, Honeyboy is busy making deals with Canadian liquor distributors and building the Purple Gang into the biggest criminal enterprise in the northern midwest.  When a group of distraught businessmen, upset at being extorted by the Purple Gang, turns to the Mafia for help, Honeyboy declares war….

Of course, despite James Roosevelt’s assurance at the start of the film and the semi-documentary approach that director Frank McDonald takes to the material, the truth is far different from the movie.   In real life, The Purple Gang was predominantly made up of the children of recent immigrants from Russia and Poland.  It was run not by Honeyboy Willard but by the four Bernstein brothers.  The Purple Gang did not go to war with the Mafia but instead, they were allied with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in their attempts to create a national crime syndicate.  They were also closely allied with Al Capone, to the extent that it’s been suggested that Capone used Purple Gang gunmen to carry out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  The Purple Gang eventually fell apart due to infighting and the end of prohibition, with the majority of the members who weren’t in jail simply joining other gangs.

So, no, The Purple Gang is not historically accurate but it’s still an effective and surprisingly brutal gangster film.  The noirish photography makes certain scenes seem almost as if they’ve been lifted straight out of a nightmare and, historically accurate or not, the film does do a good job of showing how organized crime came to exist in the United States.  It’s a quick-paced and energetic film and it features a great performance from Robert Blake as the chillingly sociopathic Honeyboy.  The Purple Gang is a low-budget B-movie that packs a punch.

Plus, James Roosevelt did ask you to watch.  Are you going to say no to James Roosevelt?

James Roosevelt, film critic

Previous Offers You Can’t Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface

Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969, directed by Abraham Polonsky)


In 1908, a Paiute Indian named Willie (Robert Blake) has fallen in love with a white woman named Lola (Katharine Ross).  After Lola’s father discovers Willie and Lola together, Willie shoots him.  Willie claims that the shooting was in self-defense while the white citizens of California insist that it was cold-blooded murder, motivated by a tribal custom that would allow Willie to claim Lola as his wife upon the death of her father.  Willie and Lola go on the run, trying to escape through the Morongo Valley.

Because President Taft is scheduled to make a trip to the area, the locals are eager for Willie Boy to either be captured or killed.  Several posses form, all intent on tracking Willie down.  A humane deputy sheriff named Cooper (Robert Redford) reluctantly leads the search for Willie.  Cooper’s occasional lover is a school teacher named Elizabeth (Susan Clark) who insists that Cooper rescue Lola from Willie.  The only problem is that Lola doesn’t want to be rescued and Willie would rather die than surrender to the white men.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is one of those revisionist westerns that were all the rage in the late 60s and the early 70s.  (The same year that he led a posse in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, Robert Redford also tried to outrun a posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.Willie Boy gets off to a good start, showing how Willie has to spend almost every hour of the day dealing with prejudice and racism.  The film does a good job of showing that even “liberal” whites, like Elizabeth, are capable of being prejudiced.  There are hints that Cooper and Willie share a mutual respect and both Blake and Redford do a good job portraying the weary respect that the lawman and the outlaw have for each other.

Things start to fall apart when Willie shoots Lola’s father.  The scene is shot so confusingly that it’s hard to know what exactly happened and it feels like a cop out.  Rather than definitely saying whether Willie had no choice but to shoot Lola’s father or that Willie intentionally committed murder, the scene tries to have it both ways and it doesn’t work.  Once the chase begins, the movie is equally split between Cooper and the posse and Willie and Lola and the end result is that the two main characters end up getting short changed.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was directed by Abraham Polonsky, a screenwriter who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  While this is definitely a film made from a left-wing perspective, its actual message still feels muddled.  Willie is the driving force behind the plot but the film seems to be more interested in the less intriguing Cooper.  The film ends on a note of ambiguity, which perhaps felt daring in 1969 but today, just feels like another cop out.  Despite a great performance from Blake and a better-than-usual one from Redford, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is an unfortunate misfire.

Lisa Marie Does 6 Trailers In The Snow


I was so happy today and it didn’t  even have anything to do with the movies, either!  Early this afternoon, I was watching my cat twitch in his sleep (he has very violent dreams, apparently) when I happened to look out my bedroom window and you know what I saw?  Snow!  “Yay!” I yelled, waking up the cat. 

Now, I know that everyone else in the country gets a blizzard every other month but I live in Texas so snow is kind of a big deal to me.  I jumped off my bed, threw my Hello Kitty robe on, and went running down stairs.  I threw open the door, ran out to the front porch, and then slipped and fell right on my backside. 

My neighbor stared at me from his yard.  “Are you okay?” he asked. 

“Yay!”  I replied, “it’s snowing!”

He nodded and then went, “Better hope those power lines don’t ice over or we might be without electricity.”

At that point, I resolved to never speak to my neighbor again.

So, I was very, very happy but now, the snow’s gone.  It’s moved along to Arkansas and Mississippi.  Now, the only thing falling rom the sky is freezing rain and the roads will probably be really icy and scary when I’m going to work tomorrow.  So, as I sit here all kinds of pantsless with a big purple bruise on my ass, I’m cheering myself up by putting together the latest installment of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers.

1) The Dunwich Horror

From 1970: Dean Stockwell kidnaps and brainwashes Sandra Dee and he’s doing it all in the name of all mighty Cthulhu.  This is actually kind of a fun film as long as you can get the image of H.P. Lovecraft spinning in his grave out of your mind.

2) Curtains

I’ve never seen this 80s slasher film but I’ve read about its troubled production on various web sites.  I’m kinda embarrassed to admit it but I actually get scared when I see this trailer.  First off, that mask is disturbing.  And secondly, that doll…

3) Black Belt Jones

Fortunately, even if this world does occasionally give us a demon doll, it can also give us a Black Belt Jones.  I loved the trailer as soon as I saw Gloria Hendry shooting the dishes…

4) Frightmare

From Peter Walker, comes one of the greatest British horror films ever made.  It’s all about cannibalism, psychology, and fire place pokers.

5) Faceless

Jess Franco has directed close to a thousand films and approximately 12 of them are worth watching.  This is one of the lucky dozen, a remake of Eyes Without A Face.  The film gave Brigitte LaHaie her best role outside of the films of Jean Rollin and it also co-stars the great Caroline Munro.  And since it’s a Franco film, Howard Vernon plays a character named Dr. Orloff.  Plus, its got that cute little panther animation at the start of the trailer.

6) Electra Glide In Blue

Finally, it’s up to Robert Blake to restore some order.  This is actually a fairly interesting little movie as long as you realize that it’s such a 70s film, it might as well be wearing a suit with lapels stretching all the way to the end of the shoulders.