There was something insubstantial about Dennis O’Keefe. He starred in a slew of film noirs—more than almost any other leading man, in fact—but the impression he made didn’t go very deep. That probably sounds like a tougher criticism than I mean it to be. O’Keefe was rarely ever bad in a film, and in films like RAW DEAL and ABANDONED he stepped up and delivered strong performances, but most of the time he was more of a sturdy workhorse than a star player.
Look at a film like CHICAGO SYNDICATE. Here O’Keefe plays an accountant named Barry Amsterdam who is recruited by the cops to infiltrate the criminal empire which has sprung up in the wake of Al Capone’s arrest and conviction. This new syndicate is run by a powerful behind the scenes player named Arnie Valent (played smoothly by Paul Stewart). Since the gangster recently let his accountant go, at the end of a gun no less, Amsterdam works his way into the organization, impresses Valent, and starts to gain his trust. He also meets two women hovering around Valent. One is a singer named Connie Peters (Abbe Lane), the kind of washed-up showgirl who’s a couple of days past her expiration date and doesn’t know it yet. The other woman is a mysterious gambler named Sue Morton (Allison Hayes) who may not be what she seems. Neither woman likes Amsterdam very much, but Valent takes an immediate shine to him. Soon the soft-spoken gangster is entrusting Amsterdam with his private books, offering him a cut of the proceeds, and even taking him to the old neighborhood to meet his devoted mother.
Most of this is pretty standard fare, albeit done well. Director Fred F. Sears was a journeyman director and bit-part actor who churned out a lot of low budget westerns and the occasional crime flick (he directed O’Keefe in INSIDE DETROIT). Alas, he’s also the man who gave us the camp classic TEEN-AGE CRIME WAVE, so he could go bad when he had weak material. Here, though, he moves scenes at a brisk pace, and he ends the film with a chase that’s actually quite well done. O’Keefe and Stewart have a shootout that extends through a factory, down into some tunnels beneath the city, and ends in the old neighborhood right under Mama Valent’s window—it’s a beautifully shot sequence with some nice twists and turns.
Still the script feels like a rush job. As Valent, Paul Stewart probably gives the film’s best performance, but his character isn’t allowed any real breakthrough moment. Stewart started out on the stage with Orson Welles in New York and moved to Hollywood for CITIZEN KANE. His aura as an actor was an almost lethargic sleaziness, as if he couldn’t be bothered by the pretense of decency. CHICAGO SYNDICATE seems to set up his character for an emotional showdown with Amsterdam—after all, in their relationship, Valent is the honest one—but the film never does anything with this. Likewise, as his washed up girlfriend, Abbe Lane works hard, but her part is so underwritten that a later scene in which she’s tortured lacks the power that it should have.
At the center of it all is Dennis O’Keefe, sturdy and bland. He had a classic fifties face, suspicious of emotion but weakened by booze and cigarettes. He’d started out in films as an extra in the early thirties, and he’d stayed in the business for the better part of forever without ever really becoming a star. CHICAGO SYNDICATE was well over the two hundredth movie of his career, and like a lot of people on the B-list in the fifties his days in features were numbered. The studio system was starting to break up, and with it died the classic B-movie. O’Keefe found himself on television where he had a short lived comedy series costarring Hope Emerson. His legacy in film comes down to the glut of crime flicks he made in the forties and fifties, and yet even in noir he never achieved the following of someone like Robert Mitchum or Sterling Hayden. In truth, he lacked Mitchum’s style or Hayden’s glorious artlessness. What O’Keefe had was a professional’s consistency. It wasn’t a sexy quality, but it got the job done.