The Borgia Stick / F.B.I vs Gangsters (1967) ****

Happily married after five years Tom Harrison (Don Murray) turns to wife Eve (Inger Stevens) and asks: “Who are you?” No, we’re not tumbling down some existential rabbit hole. Reiterating his love for her, he continues, “Don’t you want to know who I am?”

They’re living an effective lie, nice house in the suburbs, Tom catching the train every morning with neighbor Hal (Barry Nelson), joshing with Hal’s youngest son about the giraffe that took the elephant’s seat one morning, Eve a contented housewife, cocktails and sex at the ready, charity work to occupy her idle day.

Since nobody knew what money-laundering was in the 1960s and any mention of Borgia took audience minds in a historical direction it was best to play safe in the title department.

They work for The Company aka The Mob. Nothing nasty though. He’s not in the drugs/enforcement/prostitution departments. He’s a money launderer. He goes round the country opening accounts in obscure banks and helping deposit Mafia cash as a means of buying other companies. “It’s not illegitimate, but it’s legal,” he’s informed.

This isn’t the Mafia that Coppola and Scorsese would later invest with grandeur, it’s closer to the faceless corporation of Point Blank (1967) but taking the business aspect to a higher level. There’s computerisation for a start, personnel files appear as a printout, and some hefty degree of organisation required to keep tabs of the $100 million-plus that enters legitimate business each year. And you would think they were spies, everyone uses code names, “Borgia Stick” being Tom’s, telephones have particular numbers, even conversation is some kind of code.

Trouble is, what was supposed to be an arrangement with benefits has turned into true love, and Tom wants to find a way out, live a different life, have kids. Eve backs off from that kind of commitment. But eventually the decision is taken out of their hands. A guy called Prentice (Ralph Waite) comes snooping around, claiming he knew Tom as Andy Mitchell from Toledo.

“Murder Syndicate” in one country translated into “Gangster Syndicate” in another, no mention of the FBI.

Cover potentially blown, Tom’s boss Anderson (Fritz Weaver) plans to give him a new life – his employers are not “unfeeling monsters” after all – pack him off to Rio with $83,000 to get him started. But only Tom. Eve is sent back to her old life, to prove she can be trusted, the life she was trying to keep from her husband. She is put to work in a clip joint.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way and there are about a dozen twists before we reach an unexpected climax, especially given the opening scene which I won’t disclose.

Although The Godfather is seen as the high point of humanising the Mafia, in that picture Michael’s constant concealment from his wife of his true life means it avoids the real drama of the situation. Here, that drama is the crux. A clever big boss would try to avoid a marital mismatch. The wrong kind of love match can endanger the Family – just look at Meghan and Harry – and it’s a pretty clever device to splice two souls rescued from potential prison and a more sordid life, give them life’s trappings, assured that a woman who has sold herself to so many different men might be grateful just to be assigned a single one, and that a man who otherwise might have been a dull banker could receive, almost as an “extra,” a glamorous wife.

That they might have feelings for each other may well have been calculated into the equation. What would that matter? Surely, it would only benefit the relationship. Every manager knows that an employee with a happy home life is one less problem to worry about.

As long as company loyalty remained uppermost. Eve reminds Tom he’s no less guilty in helping the company get rid of tainted money than the guys on the ground who made it in the first place. Quite why Tom has a stab of conscience and hasn’t the smarts to work out that gangsters can be happily married is never made clear. However, once he sets rolling the particular ball of quitting the Mafia, it can only end in trouble.

Director David Lowell Rich (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968) does an exemplary job, spinning emotion and angst, humanising a couple we should really despise, and every now and then throwing in a corker of a twist. Unlike the experience of Lee Marvin in Point Blank, the employers are shown to be far from rigid, with an apparent touching regard for their employees.

Rich even manages to slip in a couple of scenes that provide greater insight. One of Tom’s co-workers  talks like any successful salesman about the pressure of hitting his targets. And he fears the effect of computerisation, that it could make the Mafia vulnerable to Government investigation (rather than, as would later transpire, harnessing it to massive financial effect). And there’s a little nugget about how 200 businesses who controlled the entire U.S. economy in 1932 held the country to ransom for a year by refusing to accede to the wishes of President Roosevelt.

Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968) is the pick here, by turn confident, vulnerable, loving, hating, and with a terrific scene as she tries to control her emotions when tossed back into bargain basement of prostitution. Don Murray (The Viking Queen, 1967) spent his entire career trying to live up to the promise shown in Bus Stop (1956), for which he was Oscar-nominated, without quite getting the roles consistently enough that he deserved. But he is pretty convincing here.

This was television regular Barry Nelson’s first movie role in a decade. Fritz Weaver (The Maltese Bippy, 1969) is good as the boss whose game face is “understanding” and you might spot John Randolph (Seconds, 1966). George Benson wrote the songs for the nightclub sequence.

If you’ve never heard of this, it’ll be because David Lowell Rich is a very under-rated director and because it started life as a made-for-television movie in the heyday of that particular notion, but, as was often the norm with such projects, was released as a movie abroad under the alternative title.

Terrific little film, well worth a look. Way ahead of its time regarding money-laundering, sexual business arrangements (Homeland, 2011-2020), the pressures of working for the Mafia (The Sopranos, 1999-2007) and quitting that organization (Stiletto, 1969). You can catch it on YouTube but be warned this was filmed on video so the quality ain’t great.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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