Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says there are eight million stories in Reader's Digest. This is one of them.
"Muscle is muscle. Use it to turn a buck, and you might as well go all the way! For fifteen years, I kept the union off your back, and you never asked me how. All you did was grab the benefits!"
"Now on the screen—the whole shocking sensational story!"
Based on a story in Readers' Digest, The Garment Jungle is a drama about racketeers keeping the unions out of the garment trade through violence and fear.
It's got New York location shooting, in the vein of The Naked City. It's also got the same sort of opening narration about "a teeming jungle of conflict, brutal competition, and terror."
Released as part of the "Martini Movies" series, it's also got drinking, naturally, but more on that later.
Facts of the Case
Dress factory co-owner Walter Mitchell (Lee J. Cobb, The Exorcist) is against the union—so much so that he literally rips the dress he's examining off a model before he realizes it—as his partner discusses a deal with labor. Walter's apologetic almost immediately, but he doesn't get to tell his partner; the man fell to his death in a freight elevator accident.
Walter's son, Alan (Kerwin Matthews, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver), is back home from Europe and wants to join his father in the garment trade. His father, once enthusiastic, is reluctant.
As it starts to sink in that Walter's in an unholy alliance with a racketeer (Richard Boone, Have Gun Will Travel), Alan befriends a labor organizer (Robert Loggia, Big) and his wife (Gia Scala, Four Girls in Town). Still, it could take another murder or two for Alan to take action…
The first few minutes of The Garment Jungle offer hints of titillation—including a walk through a dressing room full of models—but that quickly gives way to a tough action drama, with the conflict between father and son adding layers to the tension.
He's not in as many scenes as Kerwin Matthews, but Lee J. Cobb manages to be king of The Garment Jungle. Even as his anti-union stance blinds Walter to the violence and corruption of the rackets, Cobb makes his conscience and humanity come through. His sadness as he leans over the body of his dead partner is genuine, as is the gradual transformation of character that finds him supporting his son's moral stance in favor of the union. The scenes between Walter and Alan show both familial love and hard-headed conflict.
Kerwin Matthews still manages to hold his own, giving the less complex and conflicted Alan a tough determination and sense of justice. Richard Boone is as unflappable and relaxed as a villain as he was in playing Paladin on TV. His chuckle as Alan talks about what's right conveys a confidence that the boss' son will come around, a confidence that's more menacing than threats and punches. Gia Scala is also notable as a concerned wife who wishes her husband would just drop his union push, but eventually takes action for justice.
While the moral conflict between Cobb and Matthews dominates the movie, there's still plenty of excitement, including final scenes that feature a chase among the city's rooftops and a fist-filled confrontation between Alan and his racketeer nemesis.
The movie looks a little cheaper than The Naked City, with interiors that look like sets, but there's still some location footage of tenement-lined streets to give The Garment Jungle a gritty feel. The shadowy lighting helps to extend that feeling into the interior scenes. One of the most notable scenes hints of attraction between Matthews and Scala by putting them in separate booths. I liked the use of ambient music—one scene has a Latin dance class in the background—to add punch to the soundtrack.
The bonus features are mostly promos for the "Martini Movies" series, except for the martini recipes they include. One of the recipes, for a Manhattan, is also featured on the disc itself (if you hate one of these movies, it'll make a great coaster). If you want any background on the story, though, you'll be disappointed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Garment Jungle may be a "Martini Movie," but when Lee J. Cobb poured a drink, I only saw one bottle out. Didn't look like he was fooling around with recipes and mixing drinks.
Two-fisted action makes The Garment Jungle a good movie. Lee J. Cobb's performance as a man who comes face-to-face with his moral blind spot makes it one that holds up well even today.
Not guilty, although Sony gets a rap on the knuckles for the lack of information on the movie itself in the extras.
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