Movie: The Boss (1956)

Now here is one odd noir.  1956’s The Boss begins as US soldiers are returning home from fighting in the first world war.  That’s earlier than when most such films are set.

Also, this is a thinly-veiled biopic of a real public figure, ala Citizen Kane, which is odd for the genre.  Not sure why the filmmakers were compelled to obscure the true source of the story, as the man had already been dead for over a decade.  The subject is Tom Pendergast, a corrupt political boss who kept a firm grip on Kansas City in the early 20th century. 

John Payne plays Pendergast surrogate Matt Brady.  When we first see him, he’s leading the parade of returning heroes through an unidentified midwestern town.  Marching behind him is his good friend William Bishop, as well as Bob Morgan as a guy who can’t wait to punch Payne’s face in. 

Both will exchange blows with Payne when they all find themselves in a bar where Payne’s politically prolific brother (Roy Roberts) is holding court.  An all-out brawl ensues, resulting in Payne being late for a date with school teacher Doe Avedon (a bit of trivia: she was the wife of model photographer Richard Avedon).  Then he proceeds to rage like a lunatic outside her door.

Bishop marries her on the rebound.  Payne takes this so badly that he forces seemingly the next woman he sees (Gloria McGehee) to marry him.  I’m not really sure how somebody in the US can be forced to marry another person.  Isn’t there usually that bit where each party gets asked if they take the other as their lawfully-wedded spouse?

The next morning, Payne regrets what he has done.  McGehee gives him an ultimatum: “I’ll let you out today.  But, if you don’t go today, I’m going to keep you for the rest of my life.”  Unfortunately, she’ll be stuck with him, and he keeps her cloistered in the house and out of sight as he scales the political ladder. 

At the same time he woke up to discover he got married the previous night, Roberts also barges into the cheap hotel room to express his disappointment.  Almost as soon as Roberts has exited the room, somebody barges in to say the man just died.  I think it was a heart attack, though I think he only died because the plot needs to give Payne a shortcut to assuming power in government himself.

Like the real-life inspiration, Payne’s character is part owner of a cement company, and he ensures that company receives government contracts.  With the assistance of local mob bigwig Robin Morse (looking like somebody Joe Flaherty could impersonate easily), Payne gets assistance in stuffing the ballot box.  As for his politics: “I’m all for reform, except when it’s bad for business.” How prescient–it’s like he could run for office today.

It is to the film’s credit that Payne, who is in almost every scene, plays such a thoroughly unlikeable character.  He is petty, easily angered and even self-pitying.  He’s prone to making statements of regret, nearing spitting out the words when he does so: “I should have gone to college” or “I should have been born in Chicago”.

I think the best performance in the film belongs to McGehee.  Her masterful expressions convey so much more than her words, as she longs to help her deeply miserable husband find happiness.  There’s an especially painful scene where he brings people to their home for the first time, and the way in which he tells McGehee to make herself as pretty as possible is akin to the saying about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear. 

The single most exciting scene in this film (and, if anything, the reason to see it) is in a busy train station where Morse’s lackey (William Phipps) is supposed to take a prisoner away from G-men without firing a shot, only to instead mow them, and a great many bystanders, down with a machine gun. There’s an unbroken shot facing straight-on a long staircase where the prisoner and the two agents he is handcuffed to roll all the way down. That had to be a difficult stunt.

Strange aside but, in that scene, Morse just happens to be playing with one of those coin-operated claw games, trying to win a harmonica.  Those games are decades older than I thought possible.

I was surprised the script was written by Dalton Trumbo under an alias.  This was one of many such scripts he worked on under such conditions while being blacklisted for not cooperating at the McCarthy hearings.  Some of the dialog has a real snap.  The overall structure, however, is kind of a rambling shambles until it just ends.

Although it has its moments, I found The Boss to be a bit of a chore to watch.  It isn’t boring—really, a great deal happens in its 90 minutes.  But somehow, by the end, it feels like one has watched a movie at least one hour longer.  This was a strange animal, and I’m not sure who I recommend it to.

Dir: Byron Haskin

Starring John Payne, William Bishop, Gloria McGehee

Watched as part of Kino Lorber’s blu-ray box set Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VII