No need to recap the plot. Those who compare this racketeering movie with The Phenix City Story (1955) are making an apt comparison. The problem for this film, unlike Karlson's, is that The Garment Jungle has too many flaws to succeed as a minor gem. At its core, it's a good gritty film with a gutsy screenplay and a powerhouse selection of featured players. But, the end result is compromised by two key flaws.
No matter how you cut it, Kerwin Mathews is simply not up to the challenge of his pivotal role as the conscionable son. Unlike Richard Kiley of Phenix Story who must go through similar changes, Mathew's bland demeanor remains the same even after he's committed to fighting corruption and his father. He has basically one emotionless expression for every occasion. The words are there, but crucially not the required feeling. Unfortunately, he has extended scenes with three very strong personalities, Cobb, Loggia, and Boone, and except for the camera, you might even forget he's there. It's a big emotional hole that carves a vacuum right through the picture's middle, detracting from the overall impact. In Mathew's defense, it is his first starring role, and it is a demanding part. Clearly, he's got the looks but not the skills; at the same time, he was probably wise to make a career of undemanding special- effects movies. Still and all, consider how much stronger the impact would be were the movie's ordeals reflected in Mitchell Jr.'s changed character as he goes through them.
Second, it certainly does matter who directed the scenes. Pulling Robert Aldrich off the film was a major blunder in terms of overall quality. Like fellow noir specialists Phil Karlson and Anthony Mann, Aldrich doesn't just show us violence, he makes us feel it. Consider the brutal undercurrent running through three key scenes—the elevator crash, Tulio's murder, and the union meeting. The audience doesn't just see the violence or threats of violence, we feel them with a palpable sense of dread. I suspect this is a talent that can't be taught; instead, it comes from a sensibility deeper than mere technique. Now, contrast those scenes with the utterly pedestrian last 10 minutes—the fist-fight with Boone, the cops coming in at just the right moment. These are clichés without feeling or undercurrent, and I would bet the house that Sherman directed those very forgettable episodes. I also suspect Sherman, a "woman's" director, was brought in to soften the ending into something more conventional and play up Scala's part, and especially French's otherwise non-essential role. Nonetheless, those last 10 minutes contrast sharply with the noir sensibility that is unmistakably Aldrich's.
At the same time, I wonder whose idea it was to have dad Mitchell's (Cobb) murder occur off-camera. To me that should be a dramatic highpoint of the story, where Mitchell's corrupt past catches up despite his good efforts at reform. Cobb could certainly have transformed such a scene into a vivid emotional climax that would have added a memorably tragic touch. However, the way it's done off-camera produces no impact at all. My guess is that the studio was leery of adding another violent scene to those already in place; after all, this was the period of the Production Code with its strictures on what could be said, what could be shown.
None of this is to deny that Jungle remains a riveting social-conscience film with an unusually fine New York cast, a gutsy script, and some gritty street photography. But much of that overall impact, I believe, is due to the outstanding noir sensibility of Robert Aldrich. More importantly, had Columbia Studio left him alone and in charge, the movie could easily have become a classic along the lines of his Kiss Me Deadly instead of the unevenly good film it finally is.