We all know the famous line from The Godfather. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Of course, everyone also knows that “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” There’s another line that’s almost as famous: “One lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” That line comes from Mario Puzo’s novel. It’s never actually used in the film though it’s certainly present as a theme.
The idea of organized crime essentially being a huge corporation is hardly a new one. In fact, it’s become a bit of a cliche. Nearly every gangster film ever made has featured at least one scene where someone specifically compares their illegal activities to the day-to-day business of politicians and CEOs. However, just because it’s a familiar analogy, that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s hard not to think of organized crime as being big business when you consider that, in the 30s and the 40s, the mafia’s assassination squad was actually known as Murder, Inc.
Murder, Inc. was formed in Brooklyn, in the 30s. It was founded and initially led by a man named Lepke Buchalter. Lepke was a gangster but, because he was Jewish, he couldn’t actually become a made man. However, he used that to his advantage when he created Murder, Inc. The organization was largely made up of non-Italians who couldn’t actually become official members of the Mob. The major mafia families would hire Murder, Inc. to carry out hits because they knew that, since none of the members were made men, they wouldn’t be able to implicate any of the families if they were caught by the police.
It was a good idea and Lepke and his band of killers made a lot of money. Of course, eventually, the police did catch on. A member of the organization by the name Abe Reles was eventually arrested and agreed to be a rat. Lepke went to the electric chair. Reles ended up falling out of a window. Did he jump or was he thrown? It depends on who you ask.
19 years after Reles plunged from that window and 16 years after Lepke was executed, their story was told in the 1960 film, Murder, Inc. Lepke was played by David J. Stewart while Reles was played by Peter Falk. The film is told in a documentary style, complete with a narrator who delivers his lines in a rat-a-tat-tat style. We follow Reles as he goes to work with Lepke and as he harasses a singer (Stuart Whitman) and his wife (May Britt), forcing them help him carry out a murder and then allowing them to live in a luxury apartment on the condition that they also let Lepke hide out there. (It’s probably not a surprise that a professional killer wouldn’t turn out to be the best houseguest.) Eventually, a crusading DA (Henry Morgan) and an honest cop (Simon Oakland) take it upon themselves to take down Murder, Inc.
To be honest, there’s not a whole lot that’s surprising about this film but it’s still an entertaining B-movie. The black-and-white cinematography and the on-location filming give the film an authentically gritty feel. The action moves quickly and there’s enough tough talk and violent deaths to keep most gangster aficionados happy. The best thing about the film is, without a doubt, Peter Falk’s portrayal of Abe Reles. Falk is magnetically evil in the role, playing Reles as a man without a soul. Even when Reles finally cooperates with the police, the film leaves no doubt that he’s only doing it to try to save himself. Falk plays Reles like a tough guy who secretly knows that his days are numbered but who has convinced himself that, as long as he keeps sneering and threatening people, the rest of the world will never figure out that he’s been doomed all the time. The more people he kills, the higher Reles moves up in the corporation and the more he tries to take on the look of a respectable member of society. But, no mater how hard he tries, Reles always remains just another violent thug. Falk was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his performance in this film, though he ultimately lost the award to Spartacus‘s Peter Ustinov.
Murder, Inc. may be a low-budget, B-movie but it’s also a classic of gangster cinema. It’s an offer you can’t refuse.
Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:
- The Public Enemy
- The Purple Gang
- The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
- The Happening
- King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein
- The Roaring Twenties
- Force of Evil
- Rob the Mob
- Gambling House
- Race Street
- Racket Girls
- Bugsy Malone
- Love Me or Leave Me