Cast & Crew
J. Carrol Naish
Late one night, in the year 1900, Roberto Columbo, an Italian lawyer living in New York's Little Italy neighborhood, secretly meets with police at the Carey Street Hotel to show them a threatening letter he received from the notorious Black Hand extortion gang. The letter indicates that the Black Hand is demanding that Roberto pay them protection money or face death. No sooner does Roberto begin to describe some of the gang members to the police than two mobsters enter the station and kill him. The murder devastates Roberto's wife Maria, who decides to return to Italy with her son Johnny. Eight years later, following the death of his mother, Johnny returns to New York vowing to avenge his father's death and end the Black Hand's operations. While looking for Black Hand gangsters, Johnny has a reunion with Isabella Gomboli, a childhood friend, who warns him that the mob is unstoppable and that he will be in great danger. Although Isabella's parents were killed by the Black Hand, she suggests that Johnny drop "La Vendetta" and form a citizen's league instead. Johnny rejects Isabella's suggestion, though, and insists on meeting with Moriani, former owner of the Carey Street Hotel, who was with his father the night he was killed. Shortly after Johnny's meeting with Moriani, Moriani is found dead in his hotel room. Hoping to steer Johnny away from trouble, police officer Louis Lorelli, a friend of Johnny's father, offers him a job in New Jersey and advises him to make a success of himself. Johnny eventually decides to take Isabella's advice and form a citizen's league when he discovers that Francesco, the son of tailor Benny Danetta, has been kidnapped by the Black Hand. Francesco is released soon after the first citizen's league meeting is convened, but Johnny is punished by the Black Hand for organizing the group and is given a severe beating. Later, a bomb is found on the steps of Carlo Sabballera's dry goods store. Johnny's investigation into the Black Hand leads to the arrest of George Allani, who is accused of placing the bomb in front of Sabballera's store. At Allani's trial, Carlo is about to identify the gangster as the culprit when he is given the death sign by some Black Hand men. The frightened store owner refuses to identify Allani, and, as a result, it appears that Allani will go free. At the last moment, however, it is revealed that Allani is using an assumed name, and that he is really George Tomasino, an Italian fugitive. The judge orders Tomasino's deportation, which gives Lorelli the idea to go to Italy to check Italian police records against his list of suspects. In Naples, Italy, Lorelli is shot and killed by Black Hand gangsters right after he mails a list of Italian criminals to Johnny. Back in New York, the Black Hand has kidnapped Isabella's younger brother Rudi, and is demanding the list of names as ransom. While attempting to rescue Rudi, Johnny is captured by the Black Hand. Johnny manages to escape by setting off a time bomb that kills everyone in the Black Hand headquarters except Caesar Xavier Serpi. Serpi later engages Johnny in a fight with a pickax, but Johnny kills him with a knife. With Lorelli's list safely delivered to the police, Johnny is confident that he has put an end to the Black Hand operations in New York.
J. Carrol Naish
Angi O. Poulos
Joseph De Angelo
Thomas P. Dillon
Guido Di Capua
Charles De Crof
Paul C. Vogel
Edwin B. Willis
William H. Wright
Black Hand begins in New York around the turn of the twentieth century, when an Italian immigrant named Roberto Columbo (Peter Brocco) has a secret meeting with a cop to complain about Mafiosi running a Black Hand gang, so called because a scary black handprint is used to intimidate victims. Their racket is extortion, forcing small business owners to shell out for "protection" or have their stores destroyed, their relatives threatened, and their lives taken. But the meeting turns out to be not so secret - the cop and the gang are in cahoots, and Roberto is immediately rubbed out. Traumatized and terrified, his widow Maria (Eleonora Mendelssohn) takes their young son Giovanni back to Italy where he can grow up in safety.
The story then jumps to 1908, when grown-up Giovanni (Kelly), now called Johnny, comes back to New York with plans for a vendetta against his father's murderers. Fresh off the boat he runs into Isabella Gomboli (Teresa Celli), a childhood friend with whom he's happy to renew acquaintance, and soon afterward he meets Louis Lorelli (J. Carrol Naish), an Italian-American police officer who once wanted to marry Maria and therefore regards Johnny as the son he never had.
Persuaded by these friends that vengeance will only perpetuate a cycle of violence that has already taken too many lives, Johnny returns to his old plan of studying law, trusting that the immigrant community and the criminal-justice system will give his enemies the punishment they deserve. When he tries to organize his fellow immigrants into a community association, however, he succeeds only in getting beaten up; and when a mob leader finally goes on trial, the key witness freezes with fear, unable to testify after someone makes a hand-across-the-neck "death sign" in the courtroom. Realizing that records in the Old Country may hold evidence to incriminate the mobsters, Louis visits Naples to investigate. He's tracked down and murdered there, but not before he mails crucial documents to Johnny, who's then forced to reveal their whereabouts when Isabella's little brother Rudi (Jimmy Lagano) is kidnapped and threatened with torture. The finale is literally explosive.
Following the practice of many films with ethnically tagged villains, Black Hand precedes its story with a text acknowledging the towering Italian-American figures - baseball giant Joe DiMaggio, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and more - who have distinguished themselves since the time of this story, when New York had more Italian residents than Rome did. A towering figure not mentioned is the real-life model for the Louis Lorelli character: Giuseppe "Joseph" Petrosino, who came from Italy as a child, joined the New York Police Department in 1883, and eventually ran the department's Italian Squad until his death in 1909. Consisting entirely of Italian-Americans, the Italian Squad had great success battling Black Hand crooks. Like the character based on him, however, Petrosino was murdered during a trip to Italy in search of evidence against criminals who had emigrated to America under phony names and could be deported when their police records were revealed. Ernest Borgnine played Petrosino in the thriller Pay or Die in 1960, using Petrosino's real name.
It isn't clear why Black Hand turns Joseph Petrosino into Louis Lorelli, but names aside, Naish makes the benevolent cop into a warm and sympathetic character. He's an important character, too, rivaling Johnny for screen time even though Johnny is the film's nominal hero. Kelly plays Johnny with a fair degree of panache, and his customary persona as a musical star lends extra irony to certain scenes - when mobsters break his leg, for instance, and when he escapes from captivity by lighting a fuse with his nimble feet instead of his tied-up hands. In visual terms, Black Hand lives fully up to its title, thanks to the dark-toned cinematography by Paul C. Vogel and the light-deprived sets by Gabriel Scognamillo and the great Cedric Gibbons, which are almost too grungy for comfort.
There aren't many original touches in Richard Thorpe's directing, but an eye-catching exception comes when a thug knocks Johnny senseless by bashing his head with a water pail: the pail hits its mark, water flies out of the top, the screen fills with a hallucinatory cascade, and the picture dissolves to an out-of-focus face that Johnny sees while regaining consciousness, all in about three seconds. The final scene is also well handled, with Johnny disappearing into a crowd of immigrants who are, after all is said and done, the enduring heroes of the tale. The old studios had a flair for this kind of populist filmmaking, and Black Hand is an entertaining example.
Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenplay: Luther Davis, from a story by Leo Townsend
Cinematographer: Paul C. Vogel
Film Editing: Irvine Warburton
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Alberto Colombo
With: Gene Kelly (Johnny Columbo), J. Carrol Naish (Louis Lorelli), Teresa Celli (Isabella Gomboli), Marc Lawrence (Caesar Xavier Serpi), Barry Kelley (Captain Thompson), Frank Puglia (Carlo Sabballera), Mario Siletti (Benny Danetta), Carl Milletaire (George Allani), Peter Brocco (Roberto Columbo), Eleonora Mendelssohn (Maria Columbo), Grazia Narciso (Mrs. Danetta), Maurice Samuels (Moriani), Burk Symon (Judge), Bert Freed (Prosecutor), Mimi Aguglia (Mrs. Sabballera), Baldo Minuti (Bettini), Carlo Tricoli (Pietro Riago), Marc Krah (Lombardi), Jimmy Lagano (Rudi Gomboli), Phyllis Morris (Mary the Shamrock)
by David Sterritt
The Black Hand
The Black Hand was modeled on the real-life story of Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police lieutenant who traveled to Palermo, Italy, to investigate the Mafia. He was shot and killed by snipers on the evening of March 12, 1909 while waiting for an informant at the Garibaldi statue in downtown Palermo at Piazza Marina. The Louis Lorelli character is a stand-in for the real Petrosino in the film, but some aspects of the case are fictionalized. Regardless, the result is a taut suspense thriller that is greatly enhanced by Paul C. Vogel's cinematography, which captures the appropriate "film noir" look, and Albert Colombo's atmospheric music score.
Gene Kelly and J. Carrol Naish were so convincing at playing men of Italian descent in this film that audiences were fooled over their true ancestry. Kelly came from a line of Celts, and Naish was Irish despite the fact that he played Italians often and had a long-running radio series called "Life with Luigi." The majority of the other cast members in The Black Hand were Italian; foremost among them was Teresa Celli in the role of Isabella Gomboli. Despite her impressive performance, Celi's Hollywood career was brief and she would only make three more films before fading into obscurity.
Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: William H. Wright
Screenplay: Luther Davis, Leo Townsend
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editor: Irvine Warburton
Music: Alberto Colombo
Cast: Gene Kelly (Johnny Columbo), J. Carrol Naish (Louis Lorelli), Teresa Celli (Isabella Gomboli), Frank Puglia (Carlo Saballera), Marc Lawrence (Caesar Xavier Serpi).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
The Black Hand
A working title for this film was The Knife. The film opens with the following written foreword: "At the turn of the century, there were more Italians living in New York than in Rome. Many had hurried here seeking fortune and freedom. Some of them found only failure and fear. From all these Italian immigrants came no truer American names than Di Maggio, Pecora, Giannini, La Guardia and Basilone. This story deals with the hard, angry days when these new citizens began to place their stake in the American dream-when they purged the Old World terror of the Black Hand from their ranks and gave bright dignity to their people and to this nation."
As a September 1948 Hollywood Reporter news item notes, although the picture is fictional, it is based on factual material about the Black Hand organized crime syndicate. The Black Hand crime syndicate originated in Italy and operated in the United States in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. A biography of Gene Kelly notes that Robert Taylor was originally slated for the starring role, and that M-G-M had changed the picture's ranking from a "B" picture to a "programmer" when its potential for success was fully realized. An August 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that John Waters directed the second unit on location in Naples, Italy.
Other Hollywood Reporter news items add that actor Carlo Tricoli was a former San Francisco District Attorney and that Marc Snow was a UCLA drama professor. Black Hand marked the feature film debut of actor Anthony George (1921-2005) was at the time acted under the name George Ott.