Gangsters rule the streets of 1930s Brooklyn in "Murder, Inc.," a gritty crime drama from 1960. Taken from the real-life history of the notorious titular gang, the film mixes hard facts and Hollywood romanticism to create an entertaining, if somewhat trifling, piece of violent fluff. Released through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment as part of a new box set, "Murder, Inc." is probably best purchased as part of the collection than on its own.
As Prohibition laws give spark to increasing violence, a Brooklyn gang rises from the ghettos of Brownsville to become a national terror. Under the command of crime boss Louis Lepke (David J. Stewart), who soothes his stomach ulcer with milk and cookies, Murder Incorporated builds a growing reputation as the slickest and most dangerous gang of contract killers in New York. Their prize member is Abe Reles (Peter Falk), a tough mug with a fowl mouth and lascivious views of women, who can hit and run with the best of them. Dragged into these underworld dealings are Joey and Eadie Collins (Stuart Whitman and May Britt), a young couple who loathe the criminal life but can find no other way to get out of their deepening debt.
Naturally, the police are hot on the trail, but Lt. Detective William Tobin (Simon Oakland) finds keeping up with the efficient criminals a job easier said than done. Things pick up, however, when Assistant District Attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) joins the force. His no-nonsense demeanor and calm determination are just what they need to bring down the mob, but the story takes a strange turn when a mystery killer begins offing the major gang members.
Directed by Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg, "Murder, Inc." gets off to an action-packed start, but as it progresses, it curiously degenerates into a decidedly stilted police docudrama, complete with intrusive voice-over narration that dates the movie more than anything else. We are introduced to several minor characters with their own subplots, but these are left largely unresolved and superfluous to the main storyline. Going from gangster picture to whodunit, the film maddeningly peters out in the end with no climax and only a closing narration to sum up the proceedings.
The movie's cast is adequate for the most part, but few add anything worth celebrating. Stuart Whitman makes for a rather bland leading man, but that doesn't really matter as Peter Falk walks away with the movie anyway. Falk was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for this film, and it is easy to see why. He imbues his role with the sleazy charisma and rugged charm that would later become his trademark on the long-running "Columbo." Unfortunately, his best scenes are relegated to the first half of the movie before Whitman and Henry Morgan take over.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks reasonably good, but not flawless. The print is slightly grainy, and many speckles and damage marks are visible, but they appear mostly in the first 20 minutes (the opening shot is especially dirty). Contrast is excellent, showcasing the black and white cinematography with fine gray levels. Oddly enough, the image appears to have been horizontally stretched, making everything look short and fat. This is most evident in close-up head shots. Also, there appears to be a good amount of edge enhancement. Overall, this is a fairly disappointing transfer from 20th Century Fox, who are usually up to standards.
The audio presentation is not much of an improvement, coming in a Dolby Digital English stereo track and mono tracks in English and Spanish. Dialogue is not very clear, and the music is sometimes harsh to the point of drowning out ambience. The soundtrack could definitely use some cleaning up.
The only special features are a theatrical trailer and, as usual, additional trailers for similarly themed movies (Fox calls this feature Fox Flix).
"Murder, Inc." is currently available in 20th Century Fox's "Classic Crime Collection – Street Justice," along with "The French Connection" (1971), "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre," (1967) and "The Seven-Ups" (1973). If these films interest you, I would highly recommend purchasing them in the collection rather than individually, as the price is most reasonable. Further more, "Murder, Inc." is no masterpiece, and the DVD is pretty much a letdown, but the film does have its merits and a particularly strong performance by Peter Falk. While it may not be the standout of this collection, it is nonetheless a nice inclusion.