A TV journalist exposes a massive bookie syndicate operating under police protection. District Attorney Tol Avery can’t trust many people to investigate the police, and shuffling personnel is just a temporary solution, so Avery hand picks a group of rookies fresh from the police academy to go undercover in the search for names and connections. Of these new recruits, Darren McGavin, as an ex-Marine, 10 years out of the service, is one of the oldest and most ambitious. His mission is to get information out of the widow (Margaret Hayes) of the syndicate’s latest victim, a garage owner who killed himself when he couldn’t pay his gambling debts.
McGavin and his partner, Brian G. Hutton (who only made a few more movies before going on to direct Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare) get an apartment in Hayes’ neighbourhood, and McGavin starts romancing the lonely widow and betting on the races to find the bookies. He’s professional, a little bit reckless, and drives himself hard to make it in this new career. He works without stops or sentiment, which gets him in trouble with all three important people in his life and in this case. Once he and Hutton find the bookie office in back of a barber shop, they tap the phone and get lots of valuable information. But the syndicate begins to suspect snooping, and when Hutton is jumpy about picking up the recordings, it’s McGavin’s impatience and unbending toughness that get Hutton murdered. McGavin also leads Hayes pretty far down the garden path with zero regard to her feelings; he openly states he’s prepared to go all the way with her if needed. When Hayes discovers his real identity, she goes to see his wife and then, devastated, drunkenly blows his cover and gives his address to the mob. Finally, McGavin is cold and cut off from his wife, Peggy McCay, brushing off her concerns for his safety and her sympathy for the heartbroken and innocent Hayes. McCay thinks him increasingly callous and cold, and asks him where their marriage is headed if he thinks success means abandoning his humanity.
And for all that, McGavin is still appealing to watch because he’s doing the best he can against the corruption and his own fears of failure, and totally convincing with that intent stare, clipped speech, and determined, hard boiled manner. He’s quick thinking and cool under pressure but seems ready to blow at any moment. He loves his wife and wants to keep her safe, which to him means keeping her oblivious to the ugly realities of his job. The meeting of Hayes and McCay proves he’s right; those worlds are best left separate and once they cross into each other, his wife is killed in a bombing meant for him (exactly like The Big Heat). After that he’s a loose cannon, and his wrath guides him as he quits the force and uses Hayes to break open the syndicate once and for all.
Characters are drawn briefly but effectively. Hutton is the cool, swinging, chain smoking young cop who studies police shows but gives himself away by fleeing when the crime boss (Nestor Paiva) walks into the alley where the phone tap is set up. The syndicate’s laundry (aka cash) delivery man Warren Stevens is a slick and scary thug like Henry Silva or Jack Palance. He keeps a close eye on Hayes and her new man McGavin and slides over to invite himself on their dates, when he’s not busy supervising killings and beatings. Margaret Hayes is good as the streetwise widow, an elegant, mature lady who’s appreciative but always slightly doubtful and feels undeserving of McGavin’s attention.
This is a tough, hardboiled noir with neat images and devices like: a loud train passing by an apartment at the most important moments of a conversation and a confession, a police sergeant picked up for corruption and murder of a fellow officer who takes a flying leap out the station window in the middle of an interrogation, a punch at the camera when McGavin opens his door to thugs, plus clever use of mirror reflections, camera angles and just a bit of voice over narration. None of it is overdone, and everything looks good thanks to the rich, shadowy photography by Fred Jackman Jr. His shots inside the huge garage where heavies come to collect debt, and later in a giant commercial laundry plant which serves as syndicate headquarters, make nice use of the darkness and shiny chrome, shots of steam and plenty of hoses and busy machinery as part of the obstacle course during the climactic chase.
The movie is directed by Paul Wendkos, with screenplay credited to Raymond Marcus (a blacklist pseudonym for Bernard Gordon), and based on a story adapted by Daniel Ullman from a True Magazine article by Ed Reid, “I Broke the Brooklyn Graft Scandal.” Undercover stories depend on suspense from the danger of being discovered, of the cop making that one dumb slip that exposes him and his family to danger, and those conventions are well-used here, with one sloppy exception. McGavin is sent undercover using his real name, which makes it ridiculously easy for Hayes to just look up his number and address in the phone book. Other than that big hole, The Case Against Brooklyn is a fast, gritty and entertaining look at what it takes, and what it costs, to dig up the dirt needed to end a crime ring.