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Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue(1957)

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teaser Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)

There is a good chance that the waterfront corruption melodrama Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) would be more well-known today if it were not overshadowed by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg's definitive film on the subject, On the Waterfront (1954). While director Arnold Laven is no Kazan and star Richard Egan is no Brando, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is nevertheless a tight crime film, shot in semi-documentary style and based on actual cases. It was produced at Universal-International by Albert Zugsmith.

In an apartment building near the waterfront, longshoreman boss Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) is gunned down by two men that he obviously recognizes. Though he is left for dead, Pitts is only wounded, and names his assailants to his wife Madge (Jan Sterling). Lawyer William Keating (Richard Egan) is working as a deputy assistant to the District Attorney when he is assigned to investigate the attempted murder. Keating has never covered such a high-profile case before, and in an understatement, he is told "These waterfront cases tend to get involved." Indeed, when Keating interviews the Pitts, as well as witnesses and fellow dockworkers Benjy (Harry Bellaver) and Midget (Nick Dennis), he discovers that there is a conspiracy of silence surrounding the sordid waterfront goings-on. Keating eventually determines the suspects, but they are being protected by a corrupt labor leader, Al Dahlke (Walter Matthau), who arrogantly flaunts his wide-reaching influence. When Keating takes his case to trial, he goes against another colorful character, the defense lawyer John Jacob Masters (Dan Duryea), a flashy dresser who will always sell his services to the highest bidder.

Rather than give their film the same title as the true-life book from which it was adapted, The Man Who Rocked the Boat, Universal wisely borrowed for its title and main musical theme a pre-sold commodity: a well-known piece of music by composer Richard Rodgers. "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" was written for the Broadway musical comedy On Your Toes, which opened in 1936. The instrumental piece was a jazz ballet, a show-within-a-show that provided the climax for the production. (The film version of On Your Toes was released by Warner Bros. in 1939 and featured Vera Zorina and Eddie Albert dancing in the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" sequence. As with the Broadway show, the choreography was by George Balanchine).

In his book Lost Films of the Fifties, Douglas Brode calls Slaughter on Tenth Avenue "gritty and unsparing," and says "...the film is a fine example of the fifties crimebusting genre, featuring Walter Matthau in one of the many bad guy roles he played early in his career, at a time when no one could have guessed he would eventually emerge as one of our more beloved comic actors. Jan Sterling, always effective as a dreary, dour, washed-out blonde, was at her best here, playing a woman who understands that to reveal what she knows about her husband's death would insure that she promptly join him. Richard Egan, always searching for the role that would catapult him into the Big Leagues, certainly had a strong one here, though Dan Duryea stole the show with another of his slimy/silky villains."

Producer Albert Zugsmith guided an amazingly diverse assortment of films during his career; while the quality could vary wildly, his movies almost never committed the sin of being dull. Beginning, as many low-budget producers did, with the science-fiction genre, his first films were Captive Women, Invasion USA (both 1952), and Port Sinister (1953). Not afraid to experiment, in 1954 Zugsmith produced the odd Top Banana, which is nothing more or less than a filmed burlesque revue starring Phil Silvers and a bevy of striptease dancers. In 1955 he began a productive stint at Universal-International, where he had the chance to produce impressive A-films such as Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1958), both directed by Douglas Sirk. Zugsmith also guided some of the studio's B-films which turned out to be among the greatest examples of their genres, such as the Jack Arnold Richard Matheson science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Orson Welles' unforgettable film noir, Touch of Evil (1958). Zugsmith closed out his career as something of a trend-follower, producing a long string of exploitation films for the youth market, chronicling the fads and fashions of the day in such films as High School Confidential! (1958), The Beat Generation (1959), College Confidential and Sex Kittens Go to College (both 1960).

As it turned out, the acquisition of the Richard Rodgers jazz ballet piece was a wise move for Universal. It was newly-arranged for the film by Herschel Burke Gilbert and an uncredited Henry Mancini. While the movie only did average business at the box-office, the 1957 soundtrack album for Slaughter on Tenth Avenue proved to be a huge seller. Its success inspired many new cover versions of the Rodgers piece over the years, by both jazz musicians and rock artists. For example, the title was used by David Bowie's lead guitarist Mick Ronson for his first solo album in 1974.

Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Arnold Laven
Screenplay: Lawrence Roman, based on the book The Man Who Rocked the Boat by William J. Keating and Richard Carter
Cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.
Film Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Robert Emmet Smith
Set Decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Julia Heron
Costume Design: Bill Thomas
Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert, Richard Rodgers, Henry Mancini
Cast: Richard Egan (William Keating), Jan Sterling (Madge Pitts), Dan Duryea (John Jacob Masters), Julie Adams (Dee Pauley), Walter Matthau (Al Dahlke), Charles McGraw (Lt. Anthony Vosnick), Sam Levene (Howard Rysdale), Mickey Shaughnessy (Solly Pitts).
BW-103m.

by John M. Miller

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