Monday, April 23, 2007

Black Hand (1950)

1 comment:

  1. While we know Gene Kelly for his dancing and singing, he was also a highly competent actor in dramatic roles as well. In Black Hand, Kelly takes a so-so part and elevates sheerly on the merits of his acting skills.

    The movie is about a kid that loses his father to mob violence. His mother takes him back to Italy, but little Giovanni Columbo (Kelly) vows revenge. As a young man, he returns to the States to take on the Black Hand.

    Coming across Isabella Gomboli (Teresa Celli), a girl from his youth, as well as honest cop Louis Lorelli (J. Carrol Naish), the man that also loved his mother, Columbo puts aside his bloodlust and tries to defeat the mafia by rallying the scared citizens into a community action group. That fails horribly, and when Gomboli's little brother is kidnapped, Columbo goes into action (Gene Kelly, not Peter Falk).

    As an action film, there's not a lot of violence. People die, people get the crap beaten out of them, but much of it is off-screen. There are some fists thrown and knives shown, but most of the tension in the movie is supposed to come from the situations of the characters, which would work if that was done right.

    Black Hand has the ability to be a great drama, with apt performances by Kelly and Naish, who really pulls of being a Italian despite his Irish heritage. However, too often the film falls into melodrama, Celli's performance is wasted by "Oh Johnny!" moments. People are always telling Johnny to give up his vendetta and go study law or work an honest job. To be fair, the film never completely gives way to blind optimism, as the climactic ending and Johnny's choices attest to, there is a bit of naivete at times that suggests if people simply want the mob to go away, it will.

    The film also painstakingly takes the time to pander to "the good Italians," model citizens like LaGuardia and DiMaggio fulfilling important roles in society, like mayors and baseball players. The creative people behind the movie were either worried about portraying all Italians as bad or insulting Italians in general, but either way there are many solid Italian characters and scenes of authentic Italian culture in the film, and the pandering was unnecessary.

    The highlight of this movie is the chiaroscuro, i.e. the superb use of shadows and lighting. Black Hand came on the tail end of the golden age of Film Noir, and although it didn't reach the same levels of popularity of Paramount's Sunset Boulevard (released a few months after Black Hand with a more interesting script), it did display some stunning visuals. One scene in particular stands out to me even now, wherein Gene Kelly is following a mobster and melts in and out of the shadows of the alley. It's the kind of masterful effect that explains why films like Black Hand and Sunset Boulevard stuck with black and white when color was readily available, especially for MGM, Black Hand's company; you just can't create such stark, contrasting imagery outside of the grays and darkness of black and white reels.

    Black Hand is not a great film and it's not Gene Kelly's best work, but Kelly is phenomenal and the rest of the cast outshines the shaky film. If you happen to watch this movie, you will be treated to the stunning scenes and visuals crafted by director Richard Thorpe and Cinematographer Paul Vogel. Black Hand is worth watching if it's available, if you're a fan of Kelly, or you're a big Film Noir buff, but for the rest, it's not not worth going out of your way to find.

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