I’ve now watched three "race" movies this month, and I’ve yet to find one that’s much good, but as with The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and The Devil’s Daughter (1939), I found enough entertaining moments in Gang War (1940) to justify the hour running time.
This creaky crime flick stars the handsome, but wooden, Ralph Cooper as Killer Mead, a cocky gangster out to conquer the Harlem jukebox racket. He manages that feat with fistfights and blunt maneuvering--all documented with lengthy newspaper headline montages. He woos a showgirl, pushes his luck too far with the law, and suffers the standard fate of an overconfident forties movie gangster.
Though Cooper didn’t impress me, and I found his leading lady (Gladys Snyder) equally wooden, I appreciated the palpable energy of the lively supporting cast. As Killer’s main henchman, Reggie Fenderson in particular makes the most of his brief moments onscreen. His cheeky charisma made me think of young James Cagney chomping at the bit in a supporting role in Doorway to Hell (1930). I was also fascinated by Jess Lee Brooks as a police lieutenant who tries to steer Killer away from crime, though I’m pretty sure that is mostly because he sounded so much like James Earl Jones that I could hardly believe it wasn’t him.
I also enjoyed some of the settings. It was interesting to see the shots of 1940’s city streets (it looked like they were on location). However, the liveliest moments took place in a series of scenes in black nightclubs, where brief glimpses of floor shows and a few full-length numbers seemed calculated to fill time, but did so quite agreeably. The sight of all those African Americans dressed to the nines in a movie from that period was most welcome.