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A Slice of the American Underbelly
bkoganbing25 September 2008
Based on the story of Boss Tom Pendergast of Kansas City who ruled the roost there succeeding brother Jim from World War I until the outbreak of World War II, John Payne delivers a riveting portrayal of a political boss back in the day when these guys were at their heights running our nation's cities. Mostly, but not all were Democrats who rounded up and registered the foreign ethnic populations and got them to vote for the party slate. In the days before social welfare became a responsibility of government, these bosses while they enriched themselves also fed a lot of hungry people, giving them food and fuel for a winter. Tom Pendergast was no exception there.

When talking about some of the facts of the Pendergast machine operation, the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo under the pseudonym Ben L. Parry sticks pretty close to the facts. In fact Pendergast did do the things described in the film to a country club that high hatted him. The romantic angle however of Payne being in love with Doe Avedon who married best friend William Bishop and then marrying plain Jane Gloria McGehee in a moment of drunken weakness is a complete fabrication. In fact Pendergast's private life as far as we know was a model of probity and he and his wife raised several children, unlike here where he's shown to be a man alone even keeping his wife at room's length away.

The character of Joe Flynn, later Captain Binghamton on McHale's Navy is Harry Truman who was a county judge (commissioner) for Jackson County, Missouri and later United States Senator. Truman himself was honest, but he also winked and nodded at the corruption of others and some of the cronies he put into office as president embarrassed him no end.

Ward Boss Roy Roberts, Payne's brother is James Pendergast and it is true he ran a good chunk of Kansas City from his saloon. It's also quite true that Pendergast did make a deal with organized crime there who did open speakeasies in Kansas City like every place else in the USA. The famous Kansas City massacre did have a bad effect on his public image although not as immediately influential in bringing him down as shown in The Boss.

The Boss is a no frills uncompromising look at the soft underbelly of corruption in America back in the day. It's a well acted drama with John Payne in one of his best dramatic performances.
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Neatly based on 1930's Kansas City, Missouri
arode15 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
While Dalton Trumbo's political and professional travails certainly affected his outlook, I believe he looked more to conventional history in scripting "The Boss".

Trumbo certainly used the corrupt Democratic political machine of Tom Pendergast as the template for his script. Small wonder. The Pendergast machine was one of the most enduring municipal fiefs of the mid-twentieth century.

The crook that Payne is forced to make deals with in "The Boss" appears to be based on the real-life overlord of Kansas City prohibition-era crime, Johnny Lazia. The gunfight sequence at the train station is directly drawn from the famous 'Kansas City Massacre' of 1933 when 'Pretty Boy' Floyd, Adam Richetti and Verne Miller mowed down several F.B.I. agents and also killed the crook they were trying to rescue, Frank 'Jelly' Nash.

Another interesting parallel between the film and actual history is that Harry S. Truman was sponsored by Tom Pendergast and managed to keep himself personally clean and advance his political career while remaining loyal to the Machine. Truman is portrayed down to his glasses in "The Boss" by Joe Flynn, subsequently known to many as "Captain Binghamton in "McHale's Navy".

One little known historical fact that was left out is that Truman's first official act upon becoming President after F.D.R. died in 1945 was to fire the U.S. Attorney for Missouri who successfully prosecuted Tom Pendergast for tax evasion and sent him to prison in 1939.

Truman was loyal to Pendergast to the very end.
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One tough cookie exiled by time
danielj_old99926 April 2006
In trying to jumpstart itself, this movie is somewhat heavy handed at the beginning, taking one notably big and questionable dramatic risk, but gains power slowly and turns into something of a monumental mini-epic with John Payne's changes of hair coloring registering his slow and merciless journey toward a godless end...what a performance, but it's not as good as Gloria McGehee's as the unwanted wife Lorry - which is about as good as you'll ever see from an actress on screen, period. Also great is Robin Morse as Johnny the Organization Man, a wonderful low key performance...where has this movie been all our lives? It's powerful, at times difficult to watch, brutal, and worth the ride.
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Borderline noir a Kane-ish study of a big-city boss
bmacv27 December 2001
The Boss, filmed from a script by the blacklisted and hence uncredited Dalton Trumbo, starts in 1919 and ends somewhere in the Great Depression. It's about the corruption of a municipal machine that focuses on demobbed doughboy John Payne who, when his older brother dies, inherits his political clout.

On the night of his return he godrunk and married a stranger he comes to scorn (Gloria McGhee, whomakes you yearn for more of her). His only unwavering loyalty lies withan old wartime buddy (William Bishop), who has married the girl Payne loved. So all his passion goes into strengthening his hold over the city, including forging an unholy alliance with the (unnamed) Mafia.

Despite a precisely staged shootout in the train depot (did Brian De Palma borrow from this as well as from The Battleship Potemkin, for The Untouchables?), The Boss is really a somewhat Kane-ish look at the rise and fall of a lone wolf; Payne's tough yet touching performance lends an almost tragic tinge. The result is an involving period piece that dwells on the late fringes of film noir.

(One topical note: the men's costumes were by Dick Cheney.)
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Good Gangster Film
curt_marshall6 July 2001
I originally saw the film when it came out and only saw it again recently. Scenes from the film have stayed with me and I wasn't disappointed when it ran on TV. John Payne, The Boss, was a good Hollywood portrayal of a crime boss. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are few. Crooked politics, payoffs, rub-outs, double-crosses, brawls, you name it and it's used. Payne was a popular actor in the 40's but I didn't appreciate him at the time. Based on this film I will try to see some of his others. If you liked Asphalt Jungle you probably would also like The Boss.
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Poor Script, Direction, & Acting, except for Two Good Performances
Magma_Flow29 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers
My assessment of this film leaves aside the film's historical connections and the screenwriter's biography.

The script, direction, and acting (with two exceptions, noted below) are one-dimensional and heavy-handed. John Payne performs in a single mode -- snarling -- until the end, when he woodenly tries to appear chastened, with equally unconvincing results.

The feebleness of the filmmaking is illustrated by the relationship between the brothers Matt and Tim Brady. Their rivalry is supposed to be the key to Matt's motivation. But all that comes across in their encounters is the same unexplained belligerence that marks the rest of Payne's performance.

His refusal to end his marriage to a woman he despises shows the same failure: the filmmakers are reaching for a complexity that lies beyond their powers (or budget), and the result seems arbitrary and schematic.

Two redeeming features of the film are the portrayals of secondary characters by Gloria McGehee and Robin Morse. McGehee, as the unwanted wife, reads her lines with a natural directness that breaks through the genre conventions surrounding her. Morse, as a gang leader, convincingly presents a contradiction: an intelligent thug. This rare bit of psychological richness culminates in his distinctive walk, a lurching gait that seems to say, Because I can kill you, I have no pretenses. The director wakes from his slumber and holds the camera on this walk in two shots.
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Fast, complex, well acting, with great writing...a familiar subject well done!
secondtake12 August 2013
The Boss (1956)

This is kind of a great movie, a surprise to me, and with some stunning performances, great photography, and a sterling script (thanks to Dalton Trumbo). See it.

While the acting and visuals are going to get you immediately, the script will sneak up on you if you are paying attention. This is a movie begging to play with clichés, and it avoids them. Don't get me wrong, a mob boss in a small city is going to play tough and have cronies and the like. It's a good crime movie, for sure, and believable enough.

But there is, for example, no femme fatale (this is probably not a noir, strictly speaking, even if the dark crime mood makes you think so, but there are lots of noir characters and attitudes). The movie begins a bit off-kilter, I think, but if you think of it as a set-up for what a normal life would have been for the main character, it's necessary.

You see, Matt Brady (played brilliantly by John Payne) is a returning soldier with hopes of marriage as he marches in the opening parade. But then he gets drunk that first night home and things go very south. In another turn (not explained much) he starts rising up as a political and crime figure, becoming the big cheese.

This sounds like a Cagney or Robinson movie from the early 1930s, I suppose, and this movie is set in the 1920s for the most part, as well. But it has a different feel to it, and if you like those kinds of movies you need to give this a try. In addition to a friendly sidekick and his wife, who are regular sorts, there is a whole array of criminal types played well, with flavor but not exaggeration.

Why isn't this more well known? One reason is distribution--the only copy that I know of is a decent visual transfer with terrible sound (on Netflix). If Criterion took this up (or anyone, but I don't think a big studio owns it), it would glisten and be a late great example of its type, coming in the mid-50s as this kind of film was seeing its last days.

Payne, by the way, might be thought of as underrated--he certainly pours it on here, emotionally--and most of the movies I've seen him in he's a compelling type ("Kansas City Confidential" and "99 River Street") though he's a different and more boring guy in "Miracle on 34th Street." Here, the strong and silent type (Gary Cooper style) doesn't get carried too far. He bursts out at times, and has good physical energy on the screen. He might not be handsome enough for Hollywood, but that's a matter of taste, and tastes change.
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Surprisingly good
smokehill retrievers18 October 2001
This was much better than the late-night potboiler I had expected. Payne was playing such a vile character that his performance seemed a bit forced at times, but I can see why he did this picture since the portrayal is a bit different from most of his roles He's up to the stretch, and should have done more dramatic work and fewer formulaic westerns & cop/investigator parts. More plots and subplots than we're used to in this period, and it all works. Dalton Trumbo's heavyhanded anticapitalism, thoroughly-corrupt-government motif is a bit much, but that was the popular theme amongst the leftie writers of the period, much as it is even today.
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Heavy-handed author
jaykay-1022 October 2001
Dalton Trumbo, who scripted this picture pseudonymously, was so anxious to make his political and sociological points that he (nearly) let the story and characters get away from him. The plot moves, not naturally or logically, but in order to serve the author's purposes. Characters who have been steadfast and dependable, whatever their motives, betray those close to them. The fulfillment of one's ambition requires unprincipled, corrupt behavior, with only indifference or contempt for those who are hurt in the process. The sole semblance of loyalty is found among criminals. Trumbo's viewpoint clearly grows out of his personal experiences, and distorts what might have been a highly effective portrayal of a powerful man who lost more than he gained. The character of Matt Brady is a given: arrogant, thoughtless, insensitive, impetuous. But why? As much as these characteristics help to move the story where the script wants it to go, we are offered no insight into the main character's psyche, and little of significance concerning his background. And his drunken insistence that he and the woman of the streets he picks up are to become man and wife that very night (and thereby provide another key element for the plot) is - to say the least - a bit hard to take. Yet with it all, this film has more than a few effective moments. Those, and the substantial theme being presented, will leave the viewer with much to ponder.
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Despite its title the movie is not about that guitarist from New Jersey
sol-kay26 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
***SPOILERS*** The film is obviously based on the notorious and mobbed up Tom Pendergast Missouri political machine that got future president of the United States Harry S. Truman, played by Joe Flynn using the name Ernie Jackson in the movie, elected senator. "The Boss" follows the career of a crooked politician Matt Brady, John Payne, from running the state of Missouri, that's never mentioned in the film, to running from the law and ending up spending his golden years in a federal penitentiary.

Coming back home from WWI as a decorated US Army captain Brady was uninterested in following his older brother Tim, Roy Roberts, footsteps in taking over the city's Third Ward. It was after a night of drinking and fighting with his best friend Bob Herrick, William Bishop, and while barley sober marrying a complete stranger Lorry Reed, Gloria McGhehee, that Brady finally came to his senses. It was also after being dumped by his girlfriend, who would later marry his best friend Bob, Elsie Reyonolds-Doe Avedow- and his brother Tim suddenly dropping dead, after having a violent argument with him, that changed Brady's way of thinking. Changing it for the worst not the better.

Being the top political king maker Brady controlled every politician in the state from Governor Beck, Harry Cheshire, on down to the local dog catcher. Ruthless and vindictive at anyone who as much as meekly disagreed with him Brady nurtured a slew of enemies who, when the time came, descended upon him like vultures on a dying corpse in the wild.

Brady went so far as getting involved with the mob who's head man Johnny Mazia, Robin Morse, he helped out, from going to jail, when he was a teenager. This happened when Brady got wiped out in the stock market and was deeply in debt to Mazia's gang in him losing over $200,000.00 in his gambling with Mazia's illegal bookies. With Brady having no choice but letting Mazia's gang have their way they turn the entire state of Missouri into a den of political corruption and mob drive-by shootouts and sponsored hit-jobs.

The final shoe to drop is when Brady gave the go ahead for Mazia to whack former gang member Morris Lazetti, John Mansfield, who was to turn states evidence against both him and Mazia in their criminal activities. This lead to what is now known as the "Kansas City Massacre" that cost the lives of a number of FBI Agents who were taking Lazetti, who was also killed, to Washington to testify.

With public outrage reaching its hight the city fathers lead by newly elected District Attorney Stanley Millard, Rhys Williams, have Brady kicked out of his position as head of the Third Ward. On top of all that there's also a federal charge in the murder of the FBI Agents, as well as fixing both federal and state elections, also hanging over Brady's head.

In the end even Bob Herrick, Brady's best friend, turned on him perjuring himself-in order to save his own hide-by falsely testifying that Brady took over a million dollars in kickbacks from a number of city insurance companies. What hurt Brady most is that he risked his life in saving Bob from being murdered by the Mazia mob! And this is the gratitude he ended up getting from him!

In the end a beaten and broken man ,looking at least twenty older then he actually is, Matt Brady who even his long suffering and abused wife Lorry couldn't quite bring herself to feel sorry for is seen walking into the state penitentiary- Leavenworth- with his trademark Cuban Cigar dropping to the ground as he prepares himself to spend the rest of his life behind prison bars.
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More Like a TV Show
dougdoepke22 June 2012
A political fixer rises to the top of a corrupt city and beyond.

This is a movie that cries out for a bigger budget than the cheapjack values the production gets. After all, Brady (Payne) is supposed to be swimming in money and influence as head of a political machine. So we need to see some of that gilded life in order to appreciate his final tumble from the heights. Instead, we get endless seedy conflabs with his cronies or his long-suffering wife. In that sense, the production more resembles a TV drama, say The Untouchables, than a feature length movie.

Also undercutting the effect is actor Payne's heavy-handed turn as the boss. Reviewer Plankton's correct, Payne's incessant growling is almost comical at times. It's an unfortunate one-note performance that over-does the toughness of a political fixer without the necessary slickness. Then too, writer Trumbo's script only hints at the social effects of Brady's corrupt regime without the dirty details—a rather strange outcome for a leftist writer, but then this is the Cold War 1950's.

On the plus side is obscure actress McGehee's sensitive turn as Brady's unloved wife. Her plain-faced predicament is handled with considerable feeling that, to me, is the film's only memorable part. Also actor Bishop does well as Brady's lawyer and confidant. Too bad his career was cut short by an untimely passing.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, but the movie came as an unfortunate disappointment. I'm just sorry a studio with resources like Warner's, along with a Sam Fuller, didn't get the material first.
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dark shadows
RanchoTuVu22 June 2012
On returning home from fighting the first world war, Matt Brady (John Payne) reunites with his brother Tim (Roy Roberts) after leading a well staged parade of soldiers down the main street of his home town. As the day unfolds, so does the true character that John Payne memorably plays, a combination of ruthlessness and loyalty. Inheriting a crooked political machine with tentacles that extend statewide and eventually as far as Washington, from brother Tim, who dies of a heart attack when Payne refuses to divorce Lorry Reed (Gloria McGehee), whom he met in the closing hours of a rundown bar on the same night or early the next morning of the day of the parade, the story carries Payne's character to the heights of behind-the-scenes political influence gained through widespread corruption which represents business as usual. Forced into dealing with the mob because of losses incurred in the 1929 stock market crash, Payne's character forms an alliance with Johnny Mazia (Robin Morse), a character he had earlier kicked out of his political machine but who has now become a crime boss. Morse's character is classic, his scenes with Payne are tense. Payne's rise to the top is accompanied by his ostracism from the city's social elites who blackball him from their country club. It's a tough performance, shot in the darker hues of black, white and grey by stellar cinematographer Hal Mohr.
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A bit overrated...
MartinHafer30 November 2011
This film currently has an IMDb score of 6.9 and I think this is a bit generous. I felt the film was an adequate time-passer and nothing more.

This film is from John Payne's tough guy era--after he stopped playing pretty boys such as in musicals when he was younger and more handsome. Now middle-aged, many of his film were much grittier--and he made a bunch of noir films during the 1950s. Some were very good and often he was very good as a heavy, but here he comes off as almost funny--barking orders and giving a rather heavy-handed performance. In other words, he seems to be a caricature of a bad guy here and it never comes off as very believable. Some of this is surely due to the script. Regardless, the film is unconvincing and, at times, a bit silly. Not a terrible film, mind you--just not all that good.

By the way, look at the machine gun scene. A group of guys are mowed down at point blank range and only the tiniest trickle of blood is seen on one victim's hand. Ha!
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Floats strangely in Time
Zipper6925 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Sorry if that title confuses but, watching this on TCM recently I was convinced this was made in the early 40's so was amazed to see the 1956 date on it. It was the staging and story arc so reminiscent of several Bogart and Cagney movies that made it seem so dated in it's overall production.

That being said, John Payne gives a powerful and well nuanced performance as a man whose inner turmoil of unrequited love, filial duty and tussles with what is "right" (feeling he has to marry a one night stand) and the attraction of an easy but crooked lifestyle are visible on his gradually hardening features as he ages - nicely done.

Based clearly on the Pendegast machine of the 20's and 30's the action becomes a little stereotyped, with the "good citizens" of the town having to include a priest as a sign of moral rectitude.

Brady's downfall in the Crash of 1929 is perhaps a little convenient (a sharp guy like this would have had hot cash stashed in many accounts and ensured that the diamonds seen earlier were part of a large collection of readily realizable assets but, I digress)and the heavy symbolism of the final shot of Payne shuffling towards the shadow of a tall, barred prison gate, dropping the cigar that had been his symbol of success owes much to the existential films coming out of many central European studios at the time.

An excellent central performance but Dalton Trumbo's uncredited screenplay lays on the "truth prevails" message too heavily.
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unpleasant story
blanche-226 April 2013
John Payne worked hard to overcome his image as a handsome leading man by turning to more character-like roles in the 1950s, and actually producing a few films. He was effective, but like anyone else, he needed a good direction.

"The Boss" from 1956, written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo under the name of Ben Perry, could have used such a director. Based on the story of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, it tells the story of this powerful man whose reign lasted from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II.

Some of this is fiction, and some is fact. The personal life situation is fictional. In this film, the main character, Matt Brady (Payne) marries a woman, Lorry (Gloria McGehee) described by him as a "beat up alley cat" one night while drunk and after being rejected by his true love Elsie (Doe Avedon). All we hear about in this movie is how homely Lorry is, when in fact, at 35, she's a few years older than Doe Avedon and good-looking. To me it was bad casting. Maybe I missed a second head or something.

Brady is a crooked politician who steps on his enemies (including a country club where he was blackballed) and, as he rises in power, uses anything and everything to get his way and wangle big profits for himself. It's a well-oiled machine and includes his best friend, Bob Herrick (William Bishop) and others he can control. Eventually, though, things catch up with him.

"The Boss" is somewhat overblown, with Payne yelling through most of it, when he isn't drunkenly punching somebody out. It's way over the top, and I for one lost interest in the story quickly.

Not really much to recommend this. Doe Avedon, who plays Elsie, was the inspiration for the Audrey Hepburn character in "Funny Face."
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not much "left" in this story
karlericsson20 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I would have expected more from Dalton Trumbo's script. This boss comes over as something of an angel by today's standards. From a "leftist" writer this is somewhat surprising. You must not try very hard to feel sorry for this boss. I would rather have seen him murdering people with delight and becoming president or worse and, of course, never get caught. And after two terms as president, I would have had some lackey of his becoming president and on and on and then let him die of old age at least a hundred years old after having nothing but a "pleasant" life nurturing every lust and nastiness under the sun. This is not that kind of picture, for sure. He has contacts with the underworld but most unwillingly and when one of these contacts bumps off a policeman he is not happy about it and almost does not mind getting caught! Come on Dalton, I don't see much danger in bosses as far as this film goes.
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JohnHowardReid5 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Hal Mohr's effectively low-key photography throughout this movie, plus two grippingly staged action sequences, are offset by a lot of small-budget dialogue and a hokey plot. Edward G. Robinson might have made the main character an interesting figure, but John Payne lacks the necessary charisma for such a role. The other players are not suitably cast either. And though some effort has been made to obtain a period atmosphere with a careful use of locations and the right stock footage, the final impression is negative, thanks chiefly to too much dialogue, too little imagination in Byron Haskin's direction with its over-reliance on close-ups, and two hammy performances (Payne and Gloria McGhee – a TV actress who made only three movies of which this is the first).
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