This particular syndicate was established in the 1880's by Italian Immigrants, said to be without formal education, who would extort money from wealthy Italians or their businesses under threat of bombings and other acts of violence, which were often carried out.
While the film has many historical references and truths, the storyline itself is a fictional account based on actual happenings.
Giovanni 'Johnny' Columbo was a teenager in 1900 when his father was killed by members of the Black Hand. His upset mother packs herself and the boy up and moves back to Italy to escape the violence, but Columbo returns after he grows up, and he has revenge on his mind.
The film, then, takes us on Columbo's quest to take down the criminals who killed his father, showing us the types of activities that the mob engaged in while taking an emotional look at how these activities terrorized peaceful Italians, who were afraid to speak out or see the mobsters brought to justice.
This being Kelly's first serious role, people were probably very surprised that he didn't break out into song and dance throughout the film, but not to worry - the audience is still treated to the sound of his rather impressive tenor voice in a bar song in what is probably one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie.
Another favorite scene is a court scene just about halfway through the movie, which I would say is the climax of the whole film.
Store owner Carlo Sabbarella (Frank Puglia) is on the witness stand. Mr. Sabberalla's store had been blown up by the Black Hand, and he was somewhat hesitant to talk about it, for obvious reasons. So while the prosecutor is trying to force Mr. Sabbarrella to talk, Police Lt. Louis Lorelli (played by J. Carrol Naish) implores the court, giving reason as to why he feels that Mr. Sabbarella is hesitant to cooperate.
At first the questioning is somewhat humorous. The prosecuting attorney asks Mr. Sabbarella whether there is anything different about his store lately, to which he answers, "Oh, yes, yes. We are having a sale. Big signs. Very big. Bombing sale. Halfa price." He then goes on to describe that his store was blown up but is hesitant to continue his testimony because a guy sitting in the court room subtly gives him "the death sign" - which is a kind of hand signal indicating that if he said anything else he'd be in big trouble.
So when the judge promises the witness protection, Lorelli steps in and gives a rather moving soliloquy that touches on what it's like to live in America from the perspective of an immigrant, expounding on social rejection and their apprehension of authority's willingness and ability to protect them.
This particular scene made me stop and think about the difficulties of coming to and living in the land with "streets of gold", and pondered whether it is the same for immigrants today.
J Carrol Naish's role was very deep and appealing to the emotions - I think the success of this movie hinged on his performance. Kelly's performance, on the other hand, was also quite good although not as deep and meaningful.
Kelly, having been known for his more light-hearted roles, really broke the mold of his character with this movie, and it would be interesting to know how he was received for this role. I'm thinking audiences may have been disappointed because they had him typecast into a particular type, and breaking that is no easy task - it can be a career breaker if not well received among fans.
Would I recommend this movie? You bet - and you can purchase it from Warner Archives.