King of the Roaring 20s (1961) ***

Occasionally stylish B-picture purporting to tell the story of American Prohibition-era gangster Arnold Rothstein. It’s more of drama with various nefarious figures trying to outwit each other rather than a shoot ‘em up in the style of Al Capone (1959). David Janssen (Hell to Eternity, 1960) is ideal casting as the thoughtful, cold, calculating and possibly gambling genius Rothstein, the opposite of an intemperate crook like Capone.

The story is told essentially in two parts, Rothstein’s rise to power in partnership with childhood pal Johnny Burke (Mickey Rooney), initially running dice games in the street and  pulling the odd con before graduating to fly-by-night horse racing operations. When the opportunity arises to move into mainstream illegal gambling, he dumps Burke. Corrupt cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) is a constant thorn in his side and showgirl fiancée Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) views marriage as risky – “he’s the gambler but I’m the one that’s going to be doing the gambling.”

For whatever reason, the movie dodges what was believed to be Rothstein’s biggest coup, the fixing of the baseball World Series, but one long section is devoted to how he wins $850,000 (equivalent to $13 million today) on his horse Sidereal at odds of 30 to 1 at the New York Aqueduct track on July 4, 1921, through insider information and strategic betting. Inevitably, his gambling puts the kibosh on his marriage but by far the most interesting part of the picture is the chicanery as he shakes off one partner, battles another, and without compunction sets up Burke as patsy to settle his score with Butler.

In some respects Rothstein is a template for Vito Corleone (The Godfather, 1972) in terms of his business brain and ability to out-think and out-fox opponents and certainly his facial expressions and innate coldness bear comparison with what Al Pacino brought to his characterization of Michael Corleone. Except that he didn’t trust banks, and carried around wads of cash (hence the title of the biography on which this is based – The Big Bankroll), it’s hard to get a sense of the wealth the gangster generated or, given the minimal violence,  the world of imminent peril he inhabited. 

Period detail is cursory, limited to dancing the Charleston and pouring champagne into teacups. A better idea of the flavor of the times is the wholesale corruption endemic in police departments, untrustworthy lawyers and hypocrisy run wild.  It’s not really Janssen’s fault that it’s hard to warm to such a cold-blooded character, although you could point to The Godfather and The Brotherhood (1968) for that matter as examples of hoods who do elicit audience empathy.

With occasional bravura moments involving long tracking shots and overhead shots, and a terrific image of champagne bubbles seen through a pair of binoculars, director Joseph M. Newman (This Island Earth, 1955) shows stylistic flourishes that eschew his B-movie roots. Given Janssen is called upon to show as little emotion as possible, he does very well. Dianne Foster (The Last Hurrah, 1958), though initially demure, provides the fireworks. Jack Carson (The Bramble Bush, 1960) as kingpin Tim O’Brien matches Janssen in the cool stakes and proves a worthy adversary. Oscar nominee Rooney overacts but another Oscar nominee Dan O’Herlihy (The Night Fighters, 1960) relishes his dirty cop role.

In a rare Hollywood outing British sexpot Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) puts in an unexpected and brief appearance as Carolyn’s cynical flatmate. The tremendous supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn (Point Blank, 1967), Mickey Shaughnessey (North to Alaska, 1960), Regis Toomey (The Last Sunset, 1961), Oscar-winner Joseph Schildkraut (The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959) and veteran character actor William Demerest.

Jo Swerling (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946) delivers a pointed screenplay focusing on gangster conflict with some excellent observation of the deterioration of the Rothstein marriage and the nervousness of the usually ice-cold Rothstein when confronted by his father. This is one of those pictures that you think deserves a Netflix series, a dozen or so episodes to explore the myriad characters involved and especially to examine Rothstein in forensic detail. The movie gives a hint of that potential and on a tight budget does it well.

Hard to find unless you fancy paying $90 for a DVD or $24 for a VHS video, but you will find copies on the secondhand market.

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