8 March 2003 | bmacv
Likeable Frank Lovejoy can't quite convince in '50s topical crime melodrama
Lewis Seiler's The System tries to have it both ways. It wants to show us that betting a couple of bucks on a horse with your neighborhood bookie feeds a mammoth and murderous syndicate. But then, too, it wants us to believe that its central character (Frank Lovejoy), who controls the syndicate's operations in a midwestern city hovering somewhere between the gravitational fields of Chicago and St. Louis, is at heart a pretty decent guy who'll do the right thing once destiny points out the error of his ways.
That's a pretty big chunk to swallow, but, once it's down, The System turns out to be fairly digestible, if on the bland side. It opens when a 19-year-old kid, armed with a water pistol, gets shot and killed by the police for burglary; he needed money to pay off his local book. An old newspaper man who knew the kid wants to run an exposé on the whole operation and nail Lovejoy; his publisher gives a cautious go-ahead, as Lovejoy is dating his daughter (Joan Weldon, a detachable accessory to the plot). Lovejoy pays a courteous visit to the reporter, whom he knows; both their sons are in college together. But the reporter sticks to his guns, and Lovejoy leaves him alone.
The storm of publicity, however, brings a Congressional investigation to town (making The System yet another '50s movie riding the coattails of the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime). This so scares the big shots in Chicago that they send down some heavy artillery to protect their interests....
The movie's at its best in its many small roles for quirky players and in Lovejoy, a solid, likeable actor who gets a part that's hard to sell with any conviction. The System ends up being less film noir than topical crime drama, at once both somber and melodramatic (the interconnections among the characters, and some of the turns they take, are soap-opera baroque). But don't put any money on Lovejoy's living in a posh penthouse and buying a flashy roadster for his kid without getting his soul as well as his hands dirty; that's a sucker's bet.