The Turning Point

Organized crime, corruption and graft became increasingly common features of film noir as it moved into the 1950s. Those unattractive yet perennial problems seemed even less savory in a world just beginning to find its equilibrium again after the trauma and devastation of the war years. The desire to root out such rottenness, particularly after so many had sacrificed so much in pursuit of something finer, had the potential to provide powerful drama. Still, alongside this, it has to be acknowledged that there was a correspondingly strong chance of any movie going down this route declining into a dry, or even pompous, affair. The surest way to combat that unwelcome effect was to ramp up the human interest, to emphasize the personal angle while holding the preaching in check as far as possible. The Turning Point (1952) represents a broadly successful attempt to ensure this balance is achieved.

There is an especially nasty flavor to organized crime. It dresses itself up in a sneer, celebrates its own conceit and smirks at its own soullessness. It’s a crime without passion, an offense keen to court glamor yet one which leaves behind huge numbers of victims as it swaggers nonchalantly towards the next big score.  The Turning Point clearly acknowledges this as it follows prosecutor John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) on his crusade against the mob in an unidentified Mid-West city (despite the fact the location work makes it abundantly clear the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Superficially, there’s nothing new here and one might be forgiven for expecting another straightforward racket-busters yarn. However, there are elements introduced that muddy the ethical waters somewhat and thus raise the bar a few notches. To begin, there’s Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), the newspaperman whose friendship with Conroy will be tested both by his own inherent cynicism and his growing attraction to his friend’s girl (Alexis Smith). There’s the makings of an interesting moral dilemma shaping up there, but all this is somewhat overshadowed (although one could argue it’s also complemented) by the fact Conroy’s policeman father (Tom Tully) has secretly been in the pocket of the mob boss for some time.

As I alluded to above, films based around the mob and/or those tasked with taking them down can become wearisome in their predictability. There’s a tendency perhaps to focus on the  tough cool of the knowing gangster, the high-living wiseguy who’s got society’s number and plays it mercilessly. Either that or the audience is placed in the shoes of the straight arrow agents of the law, and all the grey sanctimony that inevitably follows in the wake of that approach. There’s something refreshing about the way The Turning Point enthusiastically embraces the flaws in human nature – the use of the source material by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) can’t have hurt.  Nor can the smooth and sensitive direction of William Dieterle, yet another of those who brought their European filmmaking sensibility with them and thus enriched Hollywood in the studio era.

Good casting goes a long way, in my opinion. Both Holden and O’Brien play to their strengths, the latter projecting businesslike  solidity, while the former exudes worldly (indeed world-weary) charm. Crucially, neither one overcooks it or allows it to slide towards parody. Alexis Smith was both capable and beautiful, working on a number of good movies over the years but maybe too many middling ones kept her star from rising as high as it could have. Tom Tully had the pivotal of the compromised cop, one that needed to  be written and performed well if the story was to retain its credibility. Happily, both the actor and the writers seem to have grasped this fact and the emotional core holds up as a result. Good villains are also essential in such tales, and small but memorable appearances from Ted de Corsia, Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones help things along. Ed Begley, a champion of bluster and indignation, does well as the crime boss; the scene where he calmly orders the firebombing of an entire building just to protect his interests is chilling in its calculation, and also heartbreaking in the dispassionately filmed aftermath.

A fair bit time has been taken up on this site bemoaning the lack of attention given to certain Universal-International tiles. The same can certainly be said of Paramount material – while a fair bit has leaked out over the years, plenty more remains either unavailable for viewing or  only exists in inferior form. This is true of The Turning Point, a film which was once announced for release on Blu-ray but then pulled as the elements were said to be sub-standard. At present, there are DVDs to be had from Spain and Italy but the transfers are pretty weak by all accounts, and I have a hunch they may not advance much, if anything, on what can be found quite easily online. A pity really, and it would be great if a more visually appealing version could be found and put on the market.

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12 thoughts on “The Turning Point

  1. Another one to add to the list – as ever, can’t believe I haven’t seen it ( sorry to hear the Italian edition in not much cop). Great analysis of the gang-busting genre Colin. There is that weird inverted snobbery built in that is such a driving element. The problem for me is that I never think the baddies are really likely to get caught in a realistic scenario … which is so depressing. Why I love ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN 😎

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    • Admittedly, my reference to the Italian DVD is n’t based on first hand knowledge but I’ve not seen anything positive about written about it and I half expect it will be broadly similar to this Spanish disc the Beaver reviewed in the past.
      That’s a good point you make about mob/gang-buster movies and the feeling one does have at the back of the mind that the syndicates never really lose out in the long run.
      Classic era movie did have to follow the “crime never pays” line but it rings a bit hollow when we know how resilient the gangsters proved to be. Mind you, this particular film does end on a bit of a downbeat note, so it’s not a total whitewash either.

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  2. I found this a very interesting and thought-provoking review, Colin. Definitely on true McGuigan form!!

    I saw this film for the first time within the past year only. It seems to have been something of a rarity, I guess, as it is definitely my kind of film and yet unseen by me. What I find quite odd though is that I viewed it on TV (on Film 4 channel) and I thought the print shown was tip-top so I know not where it was sourced but that seems to fly in the face of your comments re available pq.
    Whatever the case, I found it a well-written and acted story, mature and shaded.

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    • I’m not surprised you liked the film, Jerry. It has lots to recommend it and deserves to be better known because it does, as you say, take a mature and thoughtful approach – very rewarding.

      I find that very interesting about the print quality when it played on TV. It’s encouraging that there is a decent looking version in circulation, and maybe someone might be able to put out a better commercial copy.

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  3. What’s even odder is it sounds like Film4 must be using two different digital masters for THE TURNING POINT. A reliable friend recorded it directly for me about a year ago and – though the original print looked fine – their broadcast suffered from ghosting (like a bad NTSC-PAL conversion), heavy cropping and double PAL speed-up (26fps) which reduced the running time by 7 minutes and made Holden & O’Brien sound more like Pinky & Perky! Even my old 2nd generation VHS transfer is better. But I guess Film4 corrected their later broadcasts?

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    • Jonathan, since I posted this I’ve heard elsewhere that Paramount have struck a new print of the film and that it has been screened (I think a number of times now) by the Film Noir Foundation. So the materials are there, it’s just a matter of someone getting it out on disc.

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  4. Could that be the source for Film 4 last year possibly? Mmmm – I wonder. But certainly the print I saw had none of the problems Jonathan describes.

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    • Indeed you did, Paul, here.
      It came at the end of that long thread, but I kept it in mind. So thanks for the reminder about the film in the first place, it was an excellent call on your part.

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