The Boss (MGM LE Collection) Review

There's a primitive sense of The Godfather and, particularly, its sequel to the 1956 gangster noir The Boss. The most obvious reminder occurs during the opening titles, when we see the familiar image of puppet strings representing a Godlike control of, in this instance, a city and its people. The design, indicating the presence of an all-powerful figure with a cigar in his mouth and a bowler hat on his head, serves as a striking precursor to the much more famous one seen on the cover of Mario Puzo's novel and the posters for Francis Ford Coppola's films. Thematically, The Boss shares some its story of the origins of a gangster's rise to power with the Vito/Robert De Niro section of The Godfather Part II. The scope is much more ambitious in the latter, with its meditations on family and assimilation to a new country, but The Boss remains intent on fairly large scale ideas despite some budgetary and creative limitations.

Credit writer Dalton Trumbo, who never lacked for ambition in his often politically-minded screenplays. The blacklisted Trumbo needed a front, in this case Ben Perry, but remained active even after Hollywood officially shunned him. Trumbo's screenplay for The Boss attempts to expose political machinations specifically, rather than just the Godfather-style of powerful gangsterism. A line can be traced back to the real-life Kansas City power broker Thomas Pendergast, whose machine was responsible for the early political victories of Harry Truman. Like Pendergast, the figure of Matt Brady (John Payne) in The Boss has an older brother who owns the local saloon and holds sway over the community's politics. Brady has returned home following his heroics in World War I, but is having immediate difficulty in finding a normal life. His brother Tim (Roy Roberts) has a few suggestions, none of which Matt wants to follow.

The film's turning point occurs with Tim's death, and Matt, like the real-life Pendergast, takes over and even expands the breadth of his brother's operation. He's soon placing men in political positions and staving off any official charges of corruption. The usual combination of force and money seems to complement Matt's power. An interesting strand of the main plot involves Matt's wife Lorry (Gloria McGehee), who is largely hidden from public view by her husband. The two had met and quickly eloped one night when Matt was near his lowest, not long before Tim's death. Matt remains generally loyal to Lorry, perhaps as an act of defiance against Tim who wanted the two to divorce. Regardless, the complicated relationship between Matt and Lorry feels very different than the typical marriage on display in movies of this time. It could be seen as predicting aspects of Michael and Kay in The Godfather and its follow-up or Tony and Carmela on The Sopranos, among others.

Though individual aspects of The Boss are compelling and effective, the larger themes and overall aggregate are where it becomes most impressive. The character of Matt Brady may lack some of the tragic dimensionality of later mob bosses on film, but he's extraordinarily well-developed given some of the practical circumstances of the picture. We see him struggle with family dynamics, business matters, and even the issue of friendship with Bob (William Bishop), a fellow veteran who becomes Matt's lawyer. Some tension is added by Matt's longstanding affection for Bob's wife Elsie (Doe Avedon, one-time wife of photographer Richard Avedon). The balance among these elements is handled well by director Byron Haskin, who also made the better than average film noir I Walk Alone but is probably best known for his science fiction pictures War of the Worlds and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Also aided greatly by Payne's performance, the unexpected delicateness of The Boss becomes one of its strongest assets. Some feeling actually emerges from a character who should be unsympathetic. He's built his own walls, but, like a tragic hero in a Greek drama, cannot seem to recognize the accompanying folly.


The Disc

The Boss has been made available on DVD-R as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. The cover designs in this line have been really hit-and-miss, but this one deserves particular ridicule. Star John Payne's name appears in large font above the title, yet it's William Bishop, who plays the lawyer role, seen alongside Doe Avedon, with Payne nowhere in sight.

The old blue Turner logo, familiar to U.S. cable television viewers in the eighties and nineties and also appearing on some Warner Archive prints, plays before the start of the film. That's a clue that the source here is an older television print. It looks noticeably soft, with unimpressive contrast, and marked by occasional scratches and dirt. Watchable, to be sure, but obviously unrestored and best classified as being of modest quality. The film is presented in approximately the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with slight pillarboxing.

Audio is an English mono track, also purely functional at best in terms of quality. It sounds distant throughout, with a slight drone and some hiss making it not the best of listens. Dialogue remains generally understandable but it would be a stretch to heap any real praise on the track. As we've come to expect from films burned to recordable media, there are no subtitles available. The low technical quality of this disc is compounded by the high asking price, rewarding only those with indiscriminate pocketbooks and low standards.

The single-layered disc contains no extra features.


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