The Turning Point (1952) depicts a government committee’s investigation of organized crime. In film noir style, it becomes a kind of anti-crusade, a bleak tale of shattered illusions, of mobsters who get away with pretty nearly everything just by seeing how far they can go, of cops on the take, and a romantic triangle that blows up into bits.
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Edmond O’Brien plays the head of the investigating committee, a college-educated, idealistic, and unimpeachable hero out to crush the gangsters and their tenacious reach into law enforcement and politics. Though he states he has no political ambitions himself, nailing the crime syndicate would be his ticket to fame and almost any future political office he wants.
William Holden is his boyhood pal, now a cynical and savvy reporter who will follow the doings of the do-gooders and spare them as little mercy in his crusty observations as he does the mobsters. The two of them are 1950s men in the gray flannel suits, better educated than their fathers, and considered to be more successful, certainly with more polish. But rather than easier, their lives seem even more complicated.
Alexis Smith also has considerable polish. She is also college-educated, and comes along with Edmond O’Brien as his gal Friday. She holds a kind of secretary’s position, we gather, but she is seen more often pouring coffee than taking notes, and hosting cocktail parties for the committee. Holden sizes her up with a sexist if not exactly misogynistic attitude, noting at once that this apparently high-class society dame might be slumming. He senses phoniness. She challenges his self-superiority and his cynicism with her own well-pointed remarks and a withering glance or two, getting him only to admit that as a reporter, he only points out the problems of life and never the solutions.
Tom Tully plays Edmond O’Brien’s father, a tough cop. Tom Tully is one of those wonderful character actors equally adept as playing lovable as playing hard-edged and sarcastic. Mr. O’Brien invites his dad to help in their investigation, counts on it, but Tully begs off, wanting no part of politics or some high-tone committee holding meetings in a swank hotel ballroom. He says he’s just a cop and wants nothing more than that until they pension him off. O’Brien insists that he wants an honest cop like Dad on his side.
But Tully is a cop on the take.
William Holden, who always seems to be giving everybody the side-eye, suspects this almost immediately and spends a good deal time tailing Mr. Tully, who is working directly at the pleasure of the head mobster, played by Ed Begley, who is so effective in these kinds of blustering, snide roles. Tully got involved with the mob years earlier when he wanted more money to send his boy Edmond to college. So we have the irony of Edmond’s superior education and supposedly superior morals bought with dirty money.
Tailing Tully brings us some wonderful location shots of the more run-down neighborhoods of Los Angeles (though the movie is evidently supposed to be set in some fictional Midwest town). There is a great sequence on the Angel’s Flight funicular, which we covered in this previous post.
Don Porter is also one of Ed Begley’s boys, as is Danny Dayton. Even Whit Bissell, whom we see briefly when Tully goes to ask for some official records to be photo-stated, is also on the take when he rats to the mobsters that Tully has copied some info on them he shouldn’t have.
The result is Ed Begley putting out a hit on Tom Tully, and also having the mobster who shoots Tully to be killed in turn. Nobody left to implicate him. Anybody’s expendable, according to Begley.
William Holden, along with his cynicism for do-gooders as to how much good they do, now carries the burden of keeping the knowledge from Edmond O’Brien that his father is a crook. Holden confronted Tully and gave him a chance to go straight by getting the info on Begley, for which Tully was murdered, and for which Holden now feels responsible. If that wasn’t enough to carry on his plate, Alexis Smith shows up at his apartment to confront his arrogant detachment, and when he takes her on another tailing of bad guys, pretty soon she’s pouring his coffee as his gal Friday. Alexis is smart, and fearless, and honest with herself and others, and he likes that. It’s a role Alexis plays so well, her intelligence and her elegance is part of her sexiness. Pretty soon he has another burden; he’s betraying his best buddy.
Edmond O’Brien, who declares, “I’d rather nail one crooked cop than a hundred hooligans,” will eventually be crushed to find out his dad is one. In the meantime, his dad has been murdered.
Edmond also catches Alexis with her head on William’s shoulder, but he asks no questions. Some things can keep, or maybe he doesn’t really want to know.
One standout feature of the movie is the televised committee hearings conducted by Edmond O’Brien as he deposes the lesser figures in the crime syndicate in order to get at the top. This is based on the Senator Estes Kefauver hearings on organized crime from 1950 and 1951 as a special committee of the United States Senate. This was for forerunner of all the televised investigations that would become part of our social zeitgeist through the decades: the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Watergate, right up through the Impeachment of Donald Trump.
Such TV hearings make us familiar with the individuals of our legislature, make household names of senators from states other than our own, and become part of pop culture. We may expect that the trajectory of his political career will only rise for Edmond O’Brien after this. (Two other films released this same year of 1952 also featured Kefauver-like committee hearings: The Captive City and Hoodlum Empire, so we can imagine the impact that first-ever live TV hearing made on America.)
Carolyn Jones stands out in her debut film performance as a comic gangster’s “moll” being questioned by the exasperated Edmond O’Brien.
One of the witnesses blurts out the information that a company owned by Ed Begley will yield documents pointing to his guilt, and while O’Brien and his men prepare to follow this lead, Begley arranges an intricate setup of a gas explosion and fire that will destroy the building, and the apartments above it. When one of his men questions him going that far, murdering a bunch of residents in the building just to cover his tracks, Begley sneers, “You wouldn’t think we’d do it? That’s what makes it good. I don’t think a jury would believe it either.” Pushing evil to the extreme to dare people to believe their own eyes is another tactic used infamously today.
Walking among the bodies of innocent victims after reaching the blast too late, Edmond O’Brien is disgusted, defeated, and he wants to give up, but Holden urges him to continue. He tells him about his father’s being a crooked cop and makes the frank, and in spite of himself, idealistic viewpoint, “Even allowing for the apathy of the people and their lack of integrity and their occasional lack of intelligence, and that’s the fact that they all want desperately to believe in a certain majesty of the law. And for people like you and me, the greatest crime in law is the lack of faith in the law, and that’s when we join hands with the hoodlums. If they can convince us of the uselessness of knocking out crime, the difficulty, the fact that personal sacrifices may be too great, then we might as well hand over the city and the state and the nation, too…”
Then O’Brien and Holden shift gears to separately track down the girlfriend of the mobster who shot his father, because she has more info that would nail Ed Begley and she wants to talk. Adele Longmire is great in her brief scenes. It’s a suspenseful search, but we find ourselves in the bowels of boxing arena (which is actually the Olympic Stadium in L.A.) where Holden is hunted by an assassin, played by Neville Brand.
Alexis catches up to him, but he pushes her away just the gun trained on him is fired. Edmond O’Brien shows up too late again, and though we are certain by now that there is enough evidence on Ed Begley to bring the racketeers to justice, we don’t see that happen in front of us, and we are left with an ambiguous ending also for what future Edmond and Alexis are going to face. The individual stories of the trio are brushed aside, made almost irrelevant in the wake of the enormity of political intrigue.
The Turning Point can be seen, at least for now, on YouTube if you want to have a look.
Have a look at the other great blogs participating in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Politics on Film Blogathon.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally. Her next book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available for pre-order here on Amazon.