Though he’s remembered mostly as a song-and-dance man, Gene Kelly also performed in a handful of films that required no tap shoes or leotards; straight dramas that required only acting chops and a willingness to commit. One of those is 1950’s Black Hand, an early example of a mafia drama, with Kelly taking a turn as an Italian immigrant fighting the mob in 1908 New York. Giovanni (“Johnny”) Colombo’s father was murdered by mafiosos eight years prior; now an adult, Johnny returns to New York to get his revenge—la vendetta.
First, a little historical background, as the film both depicts the immigrant experience in the early 20th century (when the film is set) as well as reflecting the shift in American perception of immigrants that was occurring in the late 1940s and early 1950s (when the film was made). Having faced harsh discrimination from the Anglo-Protestant American majority in earlier decades, German, Polish, Italian, and other “ethnic” European immigrants in the postwar period were becoming more integrated and accepted into American society at large. In particular, the younger generations of these groups, often born as Americans themselves, had served their country in war, were attending college, marrying outside of their ethnic groups, and moving out of the secular enclaves that had supported their parents. In short, they were becoming a part of the American melting pot—and, culturally, the differences between light-skinned people with European heritage was becoming less important to the American majority (especially with increasing demands for civil rights for African-Americans, and an incoming influx of non-European immigrants due to America’s wars in Asia.) So, in 1950, an Italian-American (played by an Irishman, natch) could be more easily accepted as a truly American hero, and Black Hand as a truly American narrative—no matter where Johnny’s parents were born.
Anyway, Johnny Colombo in Black Hand is a perfect example of the second-generation American—though his trajectory and the opportunities afforded to him were maybe a little more reflective of 1950 than 1908. In either time period though, he’s an ideal model of the “good” (assimilated) immigrant: he speaks perfect English, chooses to use an Americanized version of his very Italian name, has aspirations of higher learning and a white-collar career, and works ceaselessly to rid America of the “bad” influences of some of his countrymen. He, of course, doesn’t initially stoop to their levels of violence either, instead trusting and depending on the American legal system to arrest, prosecute, and deport them back to their home country—which is more than many native Americans can claim.
That trust doesn’t entirely work out for him though, and in a shadowy chase scene evocative of The Third Man, Johnny’s police detective partner Louis Lorelli (J. Carrol Naish) is murdered while researching potential Mafia connections in Italy. With his dying breath, Lorelli brilliantly manages to stuff an envelope of suspected names into a postbox, destined for Johnny in America. When the mob gets wind of this damning envelope’s existence, they kidnap Johnny’s girlfriend’s little brother, and when Johnny goes to save the kid, he gets caught himself. Johnny takes an enormous, potentially kamikaze risk, but manages to escape and take down most of the Little Italy syndicate to boot. It’s a fun, amped-up end to a picture that alternates between mystery, noir, and courtroom drama.
Although there is no singing or dancing in the film, there’s still an undeniable element of physicality to Kelly’s performance. He’s not only required to do some mild acrobatics—climbing up balconies, dropping down from ceilings, escaping from wreckage scenes while handcuffed, being chased along rooftops, throwing knives, and the like—but he also uses his whole body to convey the emotional progress of his character. The slumped, rounded shoulders and awkward posture he carries in the middle of the film, when his character has been beaten down and bullied, contrast sharply with the confident poise of the young man we met at the beginning of the picture. There are also multiple, lengthy noir-ish scenes set in almost silence, further challenging Kelly to rely on physical cues rather than dialogue.
Black Hand is a fascinating statement on and contribution to the Italian-American experience, as it was both set and filmed during periods of turbulent change. Furthermore, the film also somewhat contributed to a popular and problematic immigrant narrative that still persists today: the stereotype of the Italian-American mafioso. Though this cliche wasn’t fully popularized until films like The Godfather series, Black Hand, for better or worse, introduced many Americans to the concept. Wrapped in a package of noir, Black Hand both intentionally and unintentionally covers many aspects of the immigrant experience in America—from arrival, to assimilation, to appropriation, and it’s a fun non-musical entry for Kelly completionists.