Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's goats wait outside when he bathes.
"You can't arrest 'em. You don't want to kill 'em. All you're going to do is sit around and look at dead bodies."
There's no indication on the cover of Black Hand that it's a true story. However, the movie about an upright man's fight against the Black Hand, the Italian gangsters who shook down immigrant neighborhoods, does feel like a docu-drama most of the way through.
Things start happening fast when Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly, Singin' in the Rain) returns to his old neighborhood with a vendetta over the death of his father, who attempted to give the cops some info about the Black Hand. Almost immediately, a possible witness is killed and a businessman's son is kidnapped. With the help of neighborhood cop Louie (J. Carrol Naish, Dracula vs. Frankenstein), Columbo organizes a citizens' group to fight the Black Hand. These acts of violence and courage feel like they were ripped from the crumbling early-1900s headlines. There is a tendency toward speechifying that you wouldn't necessarily find in everyday life, most notably in a courtroom scene, but it is a movie.
As the battle between Johnny and the Black Hand zips along, moments of humanity occur, as when Isabetta (Teresa Celli, The Asphalt Jungle), Johnny's sweetheart, and her younger brother help Johnny study for a law exam and Louis comes in with a clue he had wanted Johnny to help him follow up. Louis sees Johnny studying and decides that the war on crime can wait—until the kid brother figures out what Louis came for. Johnny's roaring to get back into action, but Isabetta is horrified; she loves him and she wants him safe. Kelly plays Johnny as a generally good guy, although there are scenes that hint strongly at a dark side.
When a gangster is caught (in his basement taking a bath as the goats watch), he's confident that fear tactics—including a thug making the "death sign" in the courtroom—will keep him out of prison. Anyway, by the time you get to a finale that is pure crime melodrama, Black Hand has garnered enough goodwill with performances and relatively credible plot twists that you're rooting for Johnny.
All of this takes place in a backlot version of the mean streets of 1908 New York, complete with gelato vendor winding through the opening scene and some old-time music. This barebones release from Warner Archive sports a newly remastered standard definition 1.37:1 full frame transfer that's generally sharp, albeit with a few flecks. The Dolby 2.0 Mono sound is equally serviceable for a dialogue-driven picture. As always, with these DVD-R releases, it may not to play in all DVD recorders and PC drives.
If you've made your way through much of the Gene Kelly or black-and-white crime melodrama catalogues, Black Hand might be worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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