Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

Graft and gangsters on the waterfront probably evoke thoughts of Brando, Kazan et al, but there was more than one movie to make use of that particular milieu. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), while naturally incorporating  some social commentary, follows the template of a more traditional crime story. To add some further confusion the title is borrowed from Richard Rodgers’ ballet. The film features the composer’s music throughout but it has no direct connection to the on screen events; one could perhaps make a case for both having something to say about the pernicious and tragic effects of crime and poverty on the lives of the underprivileged, but I”m not convinced it’s worth heading too far down that route. No, this is essentially a solid crime/noir exposé that sits comfortably alongside, and actually a few notches above, a number of other 1950s  productions which looked at how deeply the gangs and racketeers had embedded themselves in post-war society.

The opening is businesslike, shot impersonally from above,  as a car purposefully makes its way  through the streets of New York, on its way to a killing. While we don’t get the stentorian narration that frequently accompanied these socially aware noir pictures, there is a matter of fact feel to the way a grubby little hit is treated as just another part of the daily routine, another minor affair to tick off the agenda before the day begins in earnest. As Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) lies, bleeding his guts out on a  tenement staircase, and his distraught wife Madge (Jan Sterling) tries to comfort him, the gunmen responsible melt away as unobtrusively as an early morning mist.

Enter Bill Keating (Richard Egan), an inexperienced assistant D.A. and a two-fisted product of the coal mining country of Pennsylvania. He’s full of vim and vigor, and the kind of righteous faith in justice that the audience must know will be sorely tested before the credits finally roll. His principal police contact is Lieutenant Vosnick (Charles McGraw), an insider in a neighborhood and beat where Keating is most assuredly an outsider, and something of a tarnished knight whose gritty manner acts as a thin veil for the principles to which he remains true. These two form an idealistic bond, the goal of which is to break the power of the mobsters and their corrosive hold over the blue collar dockworkers, and the means will be the prosecution of those who came to visit Solly Pitts in the early morning.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was adapted from Keating’s own autobiography The Man Who Rocked the Boat, and directed by Arnold Laven. It rates as one of this filmmaker’s best efforts – part noir, part social justice picture, part melodrama, and completely human. Crime stories can sometimes distance themselves from the viewer, the plot twists seeming to relate to intangible “others” rather than to people like ourselves. However, the sense of empathy is never lost in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and the characters feel real at all times, the major and minor tragedies touching on their lives perfectly believable.

I mentioned the brisk, no nonsense beginning already, and the courtroom scenes in the second half are also of note, never overcooked as can sometimes be the case. Then there is the ending, which has the courage and imagination to avoid any anti-climactic reaction from the principals. Instead, this is extraordinarily well realized, with the camera soaring in tandem with Rodgers’ music, panning out to reveal a now deserted dock as a bruised and disheveled Nick Dennis, the radio announcer’s news of the verdict still ringing in his ears, stumbles off towards a hopefully better future. In one hand he’s clutching a bottle of hooch, in the other the lawyer’s crammed briefcase; truth and justice side by side, as always.

One of the first things to grab the attention about Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is the cast – it’s deep and rich, a movie lover’s dream. Egan is top-billed, and he was very much a star property at this stage. He had the right kind of quiet brawn to suit the part of the white collar guy who still hasn’t put too much distance between himself and his working class roots. Julie Adams, who only recently passed away, makes the most of her limited role as his wife who sticks faithfully by him despite the growing pressures from friends and enemies alike. She has a couple of subtle yet telling scenes with sparse dialogue, not the least of which is the aftermath of the dockside brawl when she tenderly caresses Egan’s livid bruises. She doesn’t say a word but those simple gestures and looks convey all the character, and we the viewers, needs to know. It’s little things such as this that I find very cinematic, very discreet, and very effective. Charles McGraw is typically gruff, although atypically white-haired, and offers a reassuringly pugnacious presence.

Jan Sterling was highly skilled at playing the kind of slightly shop worn dames that were the staple of many a film noir, and she brings  that world weary quality to the part of the tough waterfront wife. One becomes accustomed to seeing Dan Duryea in either villainous or slippery roles. He only shows up after the hour mark and, while he is on the side of the villains here as the lead defense lawyer, he gets to play an essentially straight up figure who may wheedle but balks at outright cheating. The real bad egg is Walter Matthau, ruthless and malicious in his determination to  maintain control over the longshoremen. It’s a masterclass in the art of mean and a fine portrayal of the ugly side of corruption.

Sadly, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is yet another of those Universal-International films that nobody seems willing or able to release on disc. At the moment, one has to rely on catching the movie if it happens to show up on TV. I feel there is enough depth and quality in the story, direction and cast to warrant wider availability. Lesser works than this have been shown to have an audience so let’s hope somebody somewhere gets around to this neglected movie before too long.

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20 thoughts on “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

  1. This movie took on epic proportions in my mind as I had seen it only once when I was an impressionable young teen. I caught it a few months ago on a Canadian specialty movie channel and the epic sheen was replaced with an appreciation for that deep cast you mentioned, along with the sturdy and engrossing storytelling. The use of Rodgers music helps immensely with both reactions at both times of my life.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was my first ever viewing and it was a movie I’d been wanting to see for a while now. It didn’t disappoint, but these Universal-International 50s titles rarely do if I’m going to be honest about it.
      The music, and the way it’s used, gives it all a great boost.

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  2. Never seen this film and I’ve wanted to see it for years. I was always attracted by the film title, which I remember from a 45 record my parents used to have of the main theme. The UK group The Shadows also had a record out of it sometime in the 60s.
    Considering all the obscure crime films out on DVD and blu ray at moment, I can’t understand why this one is still missing. Could it be Universal fire ??

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  3. Just like many others I’ve been trying to track this movie down because I’ve heard so much about it. Every time it pops up online it’s a bad copy.

    The cast indeed sounds fantastic. Apart from all the others I’ve developed a real appreciation for Walter Matthau, a very underrated actor.

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    • It’s a film that can pop up on TV occasionally but it really deserves a proper commercial release and I’d like to think it will get one from somebody eventually.

      Matthau was a very talented man and much more versatile than those only familiar with his comedy work might think.

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  4. I’m personally very pleased you chose this film to review, Colin, and I’m also really happy you shared my enjoyment of the film.
    It really is quite a superior crime drama with, as you say, a rich, deep cast. I was particularly impressed by Charles McGraw and Walter Matthau here. That is no great surprise about McGraw who inhabited the world depicted in this type of film so perfectly. Matthau’s performance is ‘different’, I feel, in that he plays a really nasty piece of work with subtlety and reality. I suppose he will always be the slob, Oscar, from the wonderful “THE ODD COUPLE” but actually he was so much more.

    Richard Egan was an underrated actor whose top-lined career should have lasted longer.

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    • McGraw rarely disappoints and a role like this as a gruff, yet still sensitive, detective was tailor-made for him.

      While Matthau had some excellent villainous parts earlier in his career they tend to get glossed over or forgotten in light of his later and lighter work. It shows a different side to the actor, one many will be less familiar with and the credibility he brings to the role underlines his ability as a rounded performer.

      I like Richard Egan and usually enjoy his work, and I concur that he ought to have been a headliner for longer. I’d like to see more of his films – Tension at Table Rock is another of those elusive ones I’m keen to track down. I’d also like to see Seven Cities of Gold again as I was a bit hot and cold on it in the past and would like to see how I react to it now.

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  5. Ha! I know I wrote here pretty recently about that great ending and it’s great to see you responded to it that way too.

    Well, really, I’m especially glad that you got to see this, and liked it as you did. Such, an excellent and satisfying movie in all respects, and yeah, it’s hard to see something like this being so out of view.

    Universal has a good 35 print (shown at the American Cinematheque in their film noir series a few years ago). You know, I don’t know their problem is really–they may have lost some digital copies in that fire but I’m certain they have all the original materials (even when they don’t have prints) stored somewhere else and could properly restore anything if they cared.

    Not much else to say about the movie right now because you gave a really good account of it. I like all those cast members too. I do really consider Matthau especially effective. You know, you get cast a certain way when you’re perceived a certain way, and Matthau was versatile but had comedic talent they felt could be mined. But it’s interesting–his breakthrough role in THE FORTUNE COOKIE may be in a comedy, but that’s a very malevolent character, certainly not treated sentimentally at all even if he is funny. The way he played the cynicism was what was so brilliant there

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    • Yes, I’m glad you mentioned The Fortune Cookie here. I should have done so myself as it really is the bridge in Matthau’s career – funny, but mean and cynical with it.

      On Universal, I’ve heard too that the fire often referenced did not involve any original material so nothing was technically lost.

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      • Yes, I had heard for a number of years that Seasons 3 to 6 of “TALES OF WELLS FARGO” TV series would never be seen as it was presumed lost in the fire. That was not so and all those seasons ARE out there (and in beautiful transfers) – sadly, just not commercially.

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    • I often find when you have so many talented people involved that some of them make little more than cameo appearances, either that or a few of them deliver a less satisfactory performance than you would like. Here, however, almost everyone has a worthwhile part and a fair share of the screen time, and there’s really not a weak performance to be seen.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Egan was in a lot of good movies in a range of genres and was mostly good value. I’d like to see someone do a piece on him and his work as he’s one of those leading men who is rarely mentioned nowadays. I think he deserves it and it would be worth reading.

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  6. A thought about Dan Duryea……

    Did this actor ever give anything less than a stellar performance? I don’t think so. Some well say he was typically cast as a sleazy villain and that may be so. So many times those kind of roles called for someone that would be integral to the movie. Duryea fit that slot perfectly….maybe more so than anyone during that era. There was really no one like him. A fine actor.

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    • Scott, any time I see Dan Duryea in the credits I have to watch the movie or show. There’s no ifs, buts or maybes about it, I’m there. Did he ever give a poor performance? I don’t know, perhaps not poor but he does ramp it up a bit much in Night Passage.

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      • Thanks for referencing NIGHT PASSAGE in respect to Duryea’s seemingly overly loud exuberant bombastic portrayal of his part. It seems a lot has been written about this, laying blame in many different directions…….from Duryea being out of control and left alone to act out using his own devices and thus, not being reigned in by Stewart, Murphy and/or Director James Neilson. Even suggesting that things may have been different if the once slated Anthony Mann had been at the helm.

        It had been many years since my last viewing of this movie until last night. I’m of the belief that Duryea played his role as was written and Directed. I feel that Director Neilson was intentionally trying to develop a theme of sharp contrast and counter-balance between the moral characters of the laid back good guy Stewart and the reactionary non to bright bombastic Duryea with the gone astray Murphy left to learn in the balance.

        Henceforth, we have grown used to seeing many pivotal parts with Duryea in roles like this one and when it goes against the grain to what we are accustomed to we are quick to judge. With these thoughts in mind, I’m left to believe that Duryea played out his part as written and directed accordingly. Just my two cents.

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        • That may be so. I remember a fair bit of discussion over at Toby’s 50s Westerns site years ago, but I can’t recall now whether any definitive conclusion was reached at the time. It’s certainly a “different” performance from Duryea.

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