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July 08, 2012

Pay or Die

pay or die 1.jpg

Richard Wilson - 1960
Warner Archives Region 0 DVD

Pay or Die marks something of a anomaly in Ernest Borgnine's long career as being one of the very few films where he was both the top billed star and a romantic lead. And as leading men go, only Gene Evans smooching Mary Welch in Sam Fuller's Park Row may have been more unusual. For a lot of guys watching this film, there might have been a flicker of encouragement to see Zohra Lampert choose Borgnine over the more conventionally handsome Alan Austin.

In other ways, Pay or Die is a bit more conventional, though it has its moments. Coming in after Al Capone, Richard Wilson's film lacks the visual punch of the previous film, nor is David Raksin's score memorable in the jangly, atonal ways that mark his work with the earlier film, or the later Invitation to a Gunfighter. Every once in a while there are reminders that the budget for a major production from Allied Artists was less than allocated for some of the smaller films from the major studios. On the plus side, with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Wilson demonstrates lessons gained from working with Orson Welles especially in his staging of scenes with extended dialogue. The film is also blessed with a cast of character actors with the kind of faces perfect for playing mugs, thugs and lugs.

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Borgnine, Lucien Ballard and Richard Wilson

The film is a fictionalized account of police officer Joe Petrosino during the years from 1906 through 1909. Taking place primarily in the "Little Italy" section of New York City, the story is about the conflict between the protection rackets run by Sicilian gangsters and Petrosino's attempts to fight what became known as the Mafia. The film is also about the conflicts that still continue to persist in various forms, between older cultures and codes of behavior for immigrants in the United States. Petrosino's task is not only to curtail criminal activity but to prove that, for a people who distrust legal authority, that the police are their allies, as well as proving the possibility of making it in America, and demonstrating the capability of people among this new wave of immigrants.

What also makes Borgnine's role unusual is that it is not as dependent on the physical trademarks most exploited in other films. The famous gap toothed grin is absent save for one scene with Lampert where the pair establish mutual interest in each other. Borgnine also isn't called upon to exert his burly presence as he would have done in something previously like From Here to Eternity, or later as in The Emperor of the North Pole. Borgnine engages in gunfire, and in one scene carries a thug down the tenement stairs and into a garbage can, but for the better part of the film, plays a man more reliant on brains than brawn. Unlike the real wife of Joe Petrosino, Zohra Lampert was twenty years younger than Borgnine. Not the most gorgeous of women playing opposite Borgnine (that would be Stella Stevens in The Poseidon Adventure), Lampert quiet attractiveness works best in her own shy wooing of Borgnine.

Wilson's Wellesian touches are mostly to be seen during the night scenes, playing with darkness and shadows, such as a when Zohra Lampert is chased down an empty street by two gimps, and behind the theater where a thug has hidden a bomb inside Enrico Caruso's limosine. Wilson succeeds in creating some very real tension in another scene involving a bomb hidden in a horse drawn wagon, cross cutting between the wagon and several different characters in the vicinity of Mulberry Street. Another moment, perhaps created for the film because of the mental imagery invoked, involves some gangster locking a would be victim, a baker, into an as yet unlit oven. Richard Wilson's career as a director seems to exist in the shadows of Hollywood and film history, yet as some more of his eight features come more readily available for viewing, the evidence is shows certain, if uneven, talent.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 8, 2012 05:39 PM


I loved this little film, it was so against type all around. Lampert was a more real beauty than most, too. Good film to remember him by.

Posted by: Vanwall at July 8, 2012 07:54 PM