Barry Sullivan is the deeply troubled gangster, Shubunka. He can’t trust anyone, even the girlfriend he dotes on, Nancy (Belita). He eventually alienates her to the extent that she double-crosses him. His underlings (John Ireland and Akim Tamiroff) turn on each other.
The only really decent characters are the two women, Nancy and Dorothy (Joan Loring).
As ruthless, petty, and paranoid as Shubunka is, he does love Nancy, and respects Dorothy. But neither of them really wants to deal with his controlling behavior. This is very much a character study; a psychological film noir. Shubunka dominates his scenes, and we get so close to his view that, by the end, we experience his hallucinations and rants.
Aside from his personal problems, he has to deal with his increasingly powerful rival Cornell (Sheldon Leonard). The rival gangster, and his whole crew, are appropriately slimy. Elisha Cook, Jr., in particular, makes a great hyper/nutty sidekick. Tamiroff’s Jammey, on the other hand, is essentially a decent guy driven to despair as he’s caught between the two gangsters. Ireland’s Frank is intensely uneasy; unlike Jammey, Shubunka despises Frank because he’s made all of his own problems.
The same could be said for Harry Morgan’s Shorty. I admit I’ve never taken to Morgan; he’s got a sort of pretentious demeanor in most of his roles. Here he’s gobbling up screen time as the “soda jerker.” Another reviewer pointed out that Shorty’s abortive flirtation with Olga (Fifi D’Orsay) parallels the central couple of Shubunka and Nancy. But for me it just messes with the tone: it’s not even comic relief, it’s pathetic relief.
For the most part, the tone’s dark, with a claustrophobic atmosphere and a relentless pace. The cardboard backdrops in the street and beach scenes accentuate the flat, compressed space that mirrors Shubunka’s narrowing world. This settings have the expressionistic feel of some of the inter-war German films. The ending is especially expressionistic, with a horror-story feel; Shubunka sees every face as threatening. The crowded streets and boardwalk become nightmarish; the downpour doesn’t let up until Shubunka’s literally swallowed up by the gutter water.
The lightning burst coincides with the gunshots that kill him; or does it just seem like lightning? The outer world has become a menacing character to Shubunka, both by (his killers’) intention and by accident.
The Gangster carries a powerful anti-crime theme. We can see that the criminal lifestyle has driven Shubunka mad; his complete breakdown is much more effective than the ‘crime-doesn’t-pay’ sermons we sometimes get in similar films. This is crime drama at its best; by trimming “the soda jerker” subplot, The Gangster would be perfect. 9/10