Settling down with an old movie, one wouldn’t necessarily expect the over/under on Robert Loggia being called “a spic bum” to be set at two occurrences, but that’s totally true of 1957’s The Garment Jungle, a quite serviceable, black-and-white pro-union urban thriller from director Vincent Sherman.
Set on the mean streets of New York City’s garment district (“a teeming world of conflict, brutal competition and terror,” as the opening voiceover hard-sells us), the film centers around returning war veteran Alan Mitchell (Kerwin Matthews, a sort of cross between Fred MacMurray and Paul Rudd), an only son who discovers that the fabric and dress business owned by his father Walter (Lee J. Cobb) is being controlled by the mob. The movie opens with Walter, vehemently anti-union, having a heated argument with his pro-union designer and business partner, who then plunges 27 floors to his death in an elevator “accident.”
Walter isn’t explicitly aware of his partner’s erasure — he in fact is legitimately heartbroken — but he is in a way complicit in his death, having for years used Mafioso muscle, no questions asked, to crack heads and maintain the status quo. Times are changing, though, and Walter’s beginning to feel the squeeze of that change. Enter Alan, who wants to finally learn the ropes of his father’s built-from-scratch business. While he at first finds some of the charges hard to believe, Alan is at least willing to listen to labor leaders out to unionize the whole district, including headstrong organizer Tulio Renato (Loggia), whose fiery wife Theresa (Gia Scala) constantly worries for his safety. When bodies start turning up, Alan is even more apt to believe the worst about the puppet-masters controlling his father’s company. So he sets out to cleave them from the business, eventually enlisting the assistance of dress buyer Lee Hackett (Valerie French), an air-quote friend of the widowed Walter.
Written by Harry Kleiner, based on articles by Lester Velie, The Garment Jungle is fairly on-the-nose with respect to both dialogue and structure. There aren’t many surprises within the narrative, and those that do pop up are easily foreshadowed. In essence, this is a meat-and-potatoes urban issue drama, but director Sherman helps give it some pop, as do committed, intense performances by Loggia and Cobb. Matthews, for his part, is the perfect Everyman foil — a squeaky-clean guy discovering the world is a fucked-up place. The loss of innocence and subsequent discovery of steel-backed resolve may both be telegraphed, but it’s done in an engaging enough manner so as not to be a turn-off.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, The Garment Jungle comes presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with complementary English and French Dolby digital audio tracks, and optional subtitles in each language. Apart from the theatrical trailer and static scene selections, the only supplemental bonus feature is a “Martini Minute” segment (running 90 seconds, actually) entitled “How to Play the Leading Man.” This basically is a mash-up of clips from other leading male turns in other films in the “Martini Movies” series (Sony’s packaging strategy for a handful of catalogue titles), and has very little to do directly with The Garment Jungle. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)