Classic Film Review: Matthau Stars, Directs and flirts with his future wife in “Gangster Story” (1959)

It’s funny to think about how late Hollywood was in figuring out Walter Matthau was a natural comic actor. For the first couple of decades of his film and TV career, nobody thought to let him go for a laugh.

His most famous early roles were as a club-owning gangster in Elvis’s “King Creole,” the cynical talent agent in “A Face in the Crowd,” mixed with assorted villains and straight dramatic characters on TV.

Even in Andy Griffith’s Naval service comedy “Onionhead,” Matthau wasn’t there to land laughs.

But watch him in the opening scene, and the flirtation with the librarian bit (Carol Grace, the new Mrs. Matthau, played her) in the first and last film the Oscar-winning actor ever directed, “Gangster Story.”

As a two-fisted bank robber who overpowered his guards and escaped on the way to prison, he’s laid back and downright playful as he negotiates ground rules at the seedy, underworld-friendly greater-Anaheim hotel he’s ducked into.

Check out the way he “gets back to work,” casing a bank, pretending to want to rent an office in their building when all he’s doing is waiting to hear the bank president (David Leonard) confess, “Banks rely on vaults, not alarm systems.”

In his later films, after his Oscar for “The Fortune Cookie” and the career-making success of “The Odd Couple,” you saw this wry, whimsical air affected in every Matthau performance, even in the bank robber pic “Charlie Varrick,” the gritty “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three” and the like.

He’s a heavy in “Charade,” but he’s still giving the impatient, comic business to Audrey Hepburn in every scene.

“Gangster Story” is a bare bones crime noir tale with bank robberies, a visit to the harness racing track, a car chase and a “let’s lay low with the cute librarian” bit that we know won’t let our anti-hero, Jack Martin, escape his past.

He’s ruthless, never hesitating to conk this car owner or that bank president on the head when it suits his purposes. People die in robberies he masterminds.

But watch Jack don a fake name in calling the cops telling them of a movie shoot’s “bank hold up” scene that he needs a couple of uniforms to monitor, maybe hold back the crowds. The bank president, tricked into being a vault-opening accomplice, says the only thing anybody in his position could say as that’s going on.

“You’ll never get away with this!” It’s such a cliche he can’t resist saying it twice.

Our robber has a background, which he drops into conversation with the librarian. He was on the beach at D-Day. A visit to Huntington Beach makes him remember that. This is after he’s ducked into her library and started putting the moves on the blonde with the glasses.

“Uh, do you have any BOOKS here?”

Jack’s got to worry about the cops, and about the mobster (Bruce MacFarlane) whose “territory” he practicing his trade in.

This film is a seedy no-frills affair and looks it, a $75k non-union shoot with all its exteriors in the bright, just-after-sunup light that washes the black and white out. Characters are “types,” plot elements are cliches and scenes are perfunctory.

But there’s that hint of playfulness, here and there, that prefigures the “Hopscotch” to come. The man is naturally funny.

In chat show interviews over the years, he used to play up his comic “background” in the Yiddish theater. Big deal. He sold tickets there as a kid. But he obviously had an ear and a memory for jokes.

One of the few times I interviewed him was tied to the release of “I.Q.,” in which he played the tallest Albert Einstein on record. As their lives overlapped quite a bit, I asked him what he would have said to the great physicist if they’d ever met.

“He LOVED the Yiddish theater,” Matthau gushed, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’d have told him a Yiddish joke.” He proceeded to do the whole thing in Yiddish with snappy, well-oiled timing because he’d told this one MANY times. And then he translated it, hilariously.

Whatever his career and life came to after “Gangster Story,” you can see hints of what he would be — grumpy, gruff, that honk of a voice applied to faux outrage and skewering one-liners, save for his amusing pick-up lines meant only for the actress and ex-wife of playwright William Saroyan, the woman who would become the second and last Mrs. Matthau.

“Gangster Story” thus becomes the most generic of genre pictures that still has something to dig into, thanks to all it foretold and everything Matthau was just starting to try out as part of his comic persona.

Rating: unrated, lots of violence

Cast: Walter Matthau, Carol Grace, Bruce MacFarlane and Gary Walberg.

Credits: Directed by Walter Matthau, scripted by Paul Purcell. An RCIP release on Youtube, Tubi, etc.

Running time: 1:07


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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