Limitations of budget and social conventions of the time prevent Murder, Inc. from being all it can be – still, the performances, and the captivating dynamic between hero (Stuart Whitman) and villain (Peter Falk) result in entertaining fare, so long as this film is allowed to be a movie and not a documentary. Whitman leads a fine cast as the mob lackey, who is constantly manipulated by a tough-talking contract killer. Part of the real life syndicate of hit-men “Murder, Inc.,” Falk’s baddie steals every …cene he’s in throughout this early career-making performance. He smacks of a young Brando, and comes across as just the type of ice-blooded villain, which gave the 1930’s Brownsville mob its infamy. He’ll lie, cheat, and steal, to get what he wants – whether it be conning Whitman’s assistance to off a stale nightclub comedian (Morey Amsterdam), or brutally raping Whitman’s wife (May Britt). And by “brutally,” I mean “brutally for the times.” The word “rape” is never used, and the explicit nature never goes beyond an aftermath scene, where a disheveled Britt anguishes, “Those filthy hands. Those dirty fingers.”
A film like this could be revisited to great effect by a capable director like Scorcese. In fact, stylistically, Murder, Inc. shares many attributes with Scorcese’s superior mob epics. It’s the kind of film that influences better filmmakers to make better pictures – but I would only use the word “classic” to describe its age, and not its quality. For one, the narration is totally out of place, and – quite obviously – the result of a receding budget. The first bit of narration doesn’t come into play until we’re past the first act. And when it does finally appear, all we hear is a droll voice with zero personality. We only learn later the narrator is a character in the film – the heroic cop (Henry Morgan), who takes on the entire mob organization. Rather than give the film a documentary effect, the narration serves only to clumsily fill in cracks, where story should be. “Show, don’t tell,” this isn’t. Another weak point is how the best element is often neglected – the Whitman-versus-Falk conflict with Britt caught in between. It seems like every time this story element gets rolling, we cut away to a less interesting sidebar. And when the angle is finally resolved, it happens with such anti-climax that we wonder why we even cared at all.
Presented in a sometimes stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, Murder, Inc. frequently overcomes its age to deliver a fine picture. It’s apparent Fox took great care, but the shaky lighting during darker scenes can occasionally detract from the otherwise crisp picture. Grain is also visible in the darker scenes, but lighter moments play very well with a Raging Bull-like finesse. The black-and-white actually plays to directors Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg’s advantage, creating a stark, moody frame, which holds up surprisingly well. If not for the lines films in 1960 were prevented from crossing, Murder, Inc. could very well look like a modern film feeding off black-and-white as a form of expression – rather than coming across as antiquated.
No liberties were taken with the 2.0 track, and while that contributes to the dating of this picture, it’s a good rendering with the right amount of balance between dialogue and bass. The musical score and the girly numbers in seedy nightclubs also add some spice to this track. One of my only complaints comes early with the opening hit. The gunshots sound too muffled for realism, but this is probably more the fault of the original sound mixers than the current troupe over at Fox DVD. My other complaint encompasses the entirety of the track, and centers on the somewhat low level of the volume. While everything is quite balanced, you need to crank it up a bit for a comfortable experience.
Only three theatrical trailers accompany the disc, and they are for the following movies: Murder, Inc., Compulsion, and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. All three films are mob “classics,” though Murder, Inc. is dated and Compulsion looks unintentionally funny. However, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre shows promise, though I’ll never figure out the casting decision of Jason Robards as Al Capone.
If you’re used to great mob epics like the Godfather films, Goodfellas, or Casino, then you’ll probably be disappointed by what Murder, Inc. has to offer. It’s too tame for its own good, but I understand it’s a victim of its time. Still, fans of older movies may very well prefer this to the other F-word-riddled masterpieces. The package boasts an admirable A/V presentation, though the bonus materials leave much to be desired. What about some documentaries on the real “Murder, Inc.”? Perhaps interviews with film historians and any surviving members of the cast? Full text to the novel on which this was based? Guess not. This release will probably be as good as it gets – and for some, that may be enough. If looking to purchase, make sure you don’t pay S.R.P. It’s certainly not worth it.
Special Features List