Falk plays Abe Reles, a vicious thug who led the Murder, Inc. gang and was believed to have committed thirty murders, for which he was never prosecuted. The film was the first major feature role for Falk, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his performance. In his 2006 autobiography, Just One More Thing, Falk said that Murder, Inc. launched his career.
The movie was the first film directed by Rosenberg, who later won acclaim for films that included Cool Hand Luke (1967), and also launched Stuart Whitman's career as a leading man.
Abe Reles (Peter Falk) and Bug Workman (Warren Finnerty), two killers from Brooklyn's Brownsville district, meet in the Garment District to meet with Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, kingpin of an organized crime mob, who hires them as the syndicate's hit men.
Their first job is to kill Walter Sage (Morey Amsterdam), a Catskill resort owner who has been holding back slot machine profits from Lepke. To get close to Sage, Reles forces singer Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman), an old crony of Sage who owes Reles money, to help him. Reles and his henchman kill Sage. Reles visits Joey and threatens to kill him and his dancer wife Eadie (May Britt) if they tell anyone about the murder. Eadie throws Reles out. Reles later returns to the apartment when Joey is gone and brutally rapes her. Despite her urging Joey refuses to run away, and this causes him and Eadie to split up.
Reles continues to carry out assassinations at Lepke's direction. Reles reconciles with the couple by giving them a luxurious apartment filled with stolen goods. Under police pressure, Lepke hides out from the police at Joey and Eadie's new apartment. He treats Eadie like a maid.
District Attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan) takes over the law enforcement campaign against Murder, Inc., enlisting local Brownsville police detective Tobin (Simon Oakland). Lepke orders the death of the entire Brownsville gang as well as Joey and Eadie. Eadie visits Turkus and becomes an informant, as does Joey. He then confronts Reles, who has been arrested, in his cell, and threatens to testify against him. In fear of that, Reles agrees to testify against Lepke in exchange for reduced charges. He provides a detailed account of the activities of Murder, Inc.
Turkus puts Joey and Reles in protective custody and hides them at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Eadie comes to visit Joey, imploring him to testify against Lepke. Joey is reluctant, fearing the mob will kill Eadie in revenge. Despondent, Eadie slips her police escort and wanders alone on the beachfront, where she is murdered. Later that night, Reles is thrown out the window by an assassin. Joey avenges his wife's death by testifying against Lepke, who is executed.Stuart Whitman – Joey Collins
May Britt – Eadie Collins
Henry Morgan – Burton Turkus
Peter Falk – Abe 'Kid Twist' Reles
David J. Stewart – Lepke
Simon Oakland – Lt. Detective William Flaherty Tobin
Sarah Vaughan – Nightclub Singer
Morey Amsterdam – Walter Sage
Eli Mintz – Joe Rosen
Joseph Bernard – Mendy Weiss
Warren Finnerty – Bug Workman
Vincent Gardenia – Lazlo
Helen Waters – Mrs. Rose Corsi
Leon B. Stevens – Loughran
Howard Smith – Albert Anastasia (as Howard I. Smith)
The film was the screen debut of Sylvia Miles, Seymour Cassel and Sarah Vaughan. Vincent Gardenia, who later became an acclaimed actor for his performance in Moonstruck, plays a small role.
Twentieth Century-Fox based Murder, Inc. on a book of the same title by Burton Turkus, which was published in 1951. It is similar in style to the popular TV series The Untouchables, which may have inspired the studio to make the movie. Murder, Inc. is more factual than The Enforcer, and uses real names.
The story of the Murder, Inc. crime group was first told on the screen in the Warner Brothers film The Enforcer, a semi-fictional film that was released as "Murder, Inc." overseas. The film starred Humphrey Bogart, in his last role for the studio, as a crusading district attorney in the mold of Turkus. A Lepke-type character was played by Everett Sloane. Ted De Corsia played a character loosely based on Reles. The films differ in that Murder, Inc. is factual and dealt with a Mafia kingpin's establishment of a contract murder organization within that framework and The Enforcer is fictional and had a free-lance group willing to work for anyone, in or out of the mob. The 1951 film begins with De Corsia falling off a ledge, despite Bogart's attempt to save him, and includes gruesome scenes based on fact.
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther dismissed the movie as a "new screen telling of an old story". Crowther singled out Falk's "amusingly vicious performance", and that when he appears "there is a certain dark frightfulness and terror" in the film. But "otherwise the traffic is that of an average gangster film that slacks off too much for proper tension and runs a great deal too long." Crowther praised the other leading performances but said that Morgan, a radio and TV personality known mainly for his sharp wit, "does better when he is telling jokes".
Describing Falk's performance, Crowther wrote:
Mr. Falk, moving as if weary, looking at people out of the corners of his eyes and talking as if he had borrowed Marlon Brando's chewing gum, seems a travesty of a killer, until the water suddenly freezes in his eyes and he whips an icepick from his pocket and starts punching holes in someone's ribs. Then viciousness pours out of him and you get a sense of a felon who is hopelessly cracked and corrupt."
More recent reviewers have generally praised Falk's performance, but have not lavished much praise on the movie itself, with commentators divided on the film's semidocumentary style. A 1986 study of films as art praised the film's "journalistic thoroughness" and "teledramatic immediacy". Falk's performance, it said, "is one of the grittiest portrayals of the primitivism of an underworld henchman on film; the supporting relationships of Whitman's cowardly, acquiescent innocent and May Britt's beleaguered wife perversely juxtaposed to the unusual pathos generated by the crime boss and his aide delineate the glumness of the crime world with few concessions to moral righteousness".
In their 1997 book Crime Movies, film historian Carlos Clarens compared Murder, Inc. unfavorably to Samuel Fuller's Underworld USA (1961), which was released at about the same time, on the grounds that it stuck too closely to the facts. Falk, he said, delivered a "miscalculated comic performance" as Reles, and "the power and resonance of The Enforcer was missing, chiefly because the facts tyrannized the weak screenplay". In contrast, they said, Underworld USA was a "free and colorful fiction" that "packed the visual and dramatic wallop of an atrocity photo in the National Enquirer".
After release of the movie on DVD, DVD Review called Murder, Inc. "an entertaining, if somewhat trifling, piece of violent fluff". It said "Peter Falk walks away with the movie anyway. Falk was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for this film, and it is easy to see why. He imbues his role with the sleazy charisma and rugged charm that would later become his trademark on the long-running 'Columbo.'" Another reviewer said in 2001 that "the best thing about the film was Falk's tough-guy performance. Otherwise, everything was routine."
In 2005, film scholar John McCarty praised Falk's performance and David J. Stewart's "reptilian" Lepke, and says "the film belongs to Stewart and Falk; as with Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, it is mostly when they are on the screen that this minor but engaging docudrama about the mob's ugly but profitable murder-for-hire business really cooks."
The stylistic score by Frank De Vol was well received. It is included in the soundtrack album of the film, released by Canadian-American Records in the same year as the film release.
Awards and nominations
Falk was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Reles. It was the movie's only Academy Award nomination. The winner was Peter Ustinov for his portrayal of a slave merchant in the Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus.
Falk unsuccessfully campaigned for the award. In a 1997 interview with writer Arthur Marx, Falk said that the idea of campaigning for the award was suggested by Sal Mineo, but that he didn't take the idea seriously until it was suggested by Abe Lastfogel, head of the William Morris Agency. He hired a press agent "and what do you know – I got nominated." Falk described what happened at the award ceremonies as follows:
"Now we're in our seats; the press agent, Judd Bernard, is seated on my right. It's my category and I heard a voice say, 'And the winner is Peter...' I'm rising out of my seat. '...Ustinov.' I'm heading back down. When I hit the seat, I turn to the press agent: 'You're fired.' I didn't want him charging me for another day."