In the dirty razzle-dazzle of Neptune Beach, one man runs the rackets, and he has the unlikely name of “Shubunka.” (You can sing his name along to the Perry Como hit “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba.”) Neptune Beach is a thinly fictionalized version of Coney Island (there are references throughout the film to “uptown,” 5th Avenue, Central Park, and Queens).
Barry Sullivan plays Shubunka perfectly. His opening voiceover narration (quoted above) is just the tip of the iceberg. Like a lot of tough guys, Shubunka’s cynical patter doesn’t always match his actions.
As we learn, he actually cares a lot about what people think of him. He’s sensitive, suspicious, and vain. The first time we see him, he’s inspecting his scarred face in a mirror. Later, he angrily asks Dorothy (Joan Lorring) — the girl who runs the cash register at the Neptune Beach ice cream store where he cools his heels — if there’s something wrong with the way he looks when she’s uncomfortable around him and doesn’t want to accept a gift from him.
If there were such a thing as “B-Movie Academy Awards,” Barry Sullivan would be at the top of my list for best actor of 1947.
Shubunka is a big fish in a small pond. The wisecracking soda-jerker Shorty (Harry Morgan) calls him “the King of Siam” behind his back and wonders why Shubunka hangs around Ann’s Soda Store if he’s so great. The Gangster takes place over a short period of time, and tells the story of how Shubunka loses his hold on the rackets in Neptune Beach — as well as his hold on everything else in his life.
Things are already falling apart when the film begins. The owner of Ann’s Soda Store — the sweaty, nervous Mr. Jammey (Akim Tamiroff) — sees right through him. “You go around putting up a tough front, but you don’t fool me. I see inside you. You are no man of iron. You are no terrible big shot. I’m telling you for your own good. If you don’t watch out they’re going to push you right out of business.”
When Mr. Jammey refers to “they,” he’s talking about the Syndicate, a group of sharply dressed criminals who are knocking out the independents one neighborhood at a time.
“Nobody’s pushing me out of business, forget that! I’m no soda jerker,” Shubunka tells Mr. Jammey. “I’m not one of these broken-backed dummies that come into your soda store. I’ll handle it, don’t worry. I worked six years building this thing up. I’m going to keep it. Nobody’s going to make a mug out of me.”
Shubunka is also paranoid about his beautiful blond girlfriend, Nancy Starr (played by Olympic and professional figure skater Belita). Everywhere he looks he sees evidence of her infidelity, even though she’s only making contacts and auditioning for roles in Broadway shows.
The Gangster is occasionally a little “arty,” but it’s never pretentious. And honestly, more B productions could stand to have this film’s self-consciousness and careful camera setups and lighting choices.
It doesn’t hurt that the actors are all really well cast. Harry Morgan, Barry Sullivan, and Akim Tamiroff are all really great, and even the lesser actors tend to be the cream of the crop of B movies — Sheldon Leonard, who plays the syndicate boss Cornell, was the best actor in Decoy (1946), and John Ireland, who plays the desperate, gambling-addicted accountant Karty, was the best actor in Railroaded (1947).