Edmond O’Brien plays a law professor enlisted by the governor to lead a commission charged with investigating organized crime in the state’s largest city, similar to real-life Senator Estes Kefauver. Given seemingly the same freedom as Elliot Ness to form his own team of racket-busters, O’Brien’s John Conroy recruits his reporter friend Jerry McKibbon, played by a perfectly cynical William Holden; Mandy, Conroy’s sweetheart and girl Friday (Alexis Smith); and finally his detective father (Tom Tully). There's just one problem with this: unbeknownst to the younger Conroy, the elder Conroy is crooked, and mixed up with the same syndicate he’s been appointed to take down.
A few words about the girl are in order. Alexis Smith was never as well known as she deserved, and isn’t a household name today, if she ever was one--yet she was an excellent actress with a fine body of films to her credit. What may have kept her career under wraps was a rather contemporary style that didn’t quite fit her era: she probably would have been more bankable now than then. Nonetheless, she’s well cast here and delivers. Bookish, smart, wry, and a bit cool, she foils Holden’s natural cynicism--and while she clearly sees the world for what it is, her attraction to Conroy’s boyish idealism is entirely believable. It would have been difficult for another actress to play the part and not come off as either duplicitous or petty. (It’s probably not fair to think of her as a femme fatale in The Turning Point, though someone prone to reaching might make the case. Her part in the film is essentially that of cheerleader to Conroy and conscience to McKibbon, and it’s after her prodding to do the right thing that he meets his ultimate end. She technically lures him to his doom, but her intentions are good.)
The Turning Point oozes cynicism from the get-go. No one actually believes that naïve do-gooder Conroy will make any hay. Boyhood pal McKibbon thinks he’s destined to bang his head against the wall: the rackets are too well organized, run too deep, and--after all, everyone likes to put down a bet once in a while, so where’s the harm? It appears that all but Conroy himself know he’s little more than a gubernatorial poster boy for the coming election.
In order to reinforce the everyday nature of corruption, and to quash the idea that the modern gangster sports a zoot suit or a violin case, the cockroach in The Turning Point has a banal, slightly cumbersome name: Neil Eichelberger. Veteran actor Ed Begley, in a crackerjack, Oscar-worthy performance, brings Eichelberger vividly to life. Shifting effortlessly between stern, kindly, suave, and manic, Begley plays the crook as an upstanding middle-aged businessman, almost grandfatherly, who considers his criminal enterprise in business terms: people are going to bet, people need loans; after all, someone has to take the bets and loan the money...why not me?
Eichelberger is savvy, sophisticated, and avoids the typical movie cliché of underestimating his opponent. In fact, he recognizes early on that Conroy is able to get to him, and in a pivotal moment he responds to his adversary’s legal resolve with an act of cold brutality that is hardly matched anywhere else in film noir.
The Turning Point's title alludes to a key pivot point in noir: the ease with which criminal forces can corrupt individuals, even those who work for organizations charged with stamping out crime. Matt Conroy is basically a good cop and decent man--after all, he raised one helluva son--but he finally took the easy money after years of pounding the beat while seeing his family go without. In a lengthy monologue to McKibbon, he explains that he went crooked because a cop even has to “pay for his own bullets when he shoots a crook.” By the time he realized he was in over his head, it was too late to get out.
The film’s best use of irony surfaces when Conroy is finally taken down by his own son, by the law school education his graft paid for all those years before. When he decides for his son’s sake to double-cross Eichelberger by copying incriminating files, he learns the extent of the mob’s influence--he’s ratted out by the lowly clerk at police headquarters. (The scene in which he is killed is a gem. The syndicate boys contrive a grocery store heist just as Conroy passes by. He’s shot down by a hired gun just as he draws his service piece. The young thug is in turn silenced neat-as-you-please by two Eichelberger men concealed in the back of a truck and firing through a hole in a fruit crate. Taking place at street level in broad daylight, the scene has an elaborate, yet natural realism that’s heightened by the public nature of the action.)
Another notable sequence is the televised Kefauver-style hearing that places Conroy and Eichelberger face to face. Clearly drawing inspiration from the real life hearings of 1950-1951, a Senatorial road show that visited a dozen cities and was viewed on television by an astonishing thirty million Americans, the actors and cameras bring to mind the real-life events of the source footage. O’Brien, shown in close profile, plays it tough, while Begley sweats, squirms, shrugs, and consults his attorney, hand covering the nearby microphone as flashbulbs explode in the background. It’s following the hearing that Eichelberger decides to get clear by destroying the books at the securities firm where he keeps all his ostensible dirty laundry.
The problem is that Conroy is beginning to recognize the importance of Eichelberger’s connection to the brokerage, which is just a front for his loan sharking. Realizing that destroying the books themselves is tantamount to a confession, Eichelberger decides the best course of action will be to destroy the entire building. When his stooges remind him that dozens of families live in the floors over the firm, Eichelberger coolly points out the bright side: not even a jury would believe they’d kill all those people just to destroy the books.
The fact that the crooks actually execute the plan is quite powerful, and meant to be so. It’s the sort of nefarious movie crime that we come to expect to be averted at the last moment--but it isn’t. In the aftermath, McKibbon and Conroy walk among the burning remains of the building in shock at the dead bodies strewn all around them. The effect is chilling, as we see Eichelberger’s true nature revealed.
Feeling guilt over his father’s death and the murder of the families in the building explosion--and with his idealism crushed, Conroy decides to give up. He’s brought back to his senses by a pep talk from McKibbon, who despite his rampant cynicism insists his pal finish what he started. McKibbon is also able to deliver the goods in another way: the widow of the man who shot Conroy’s father has information that can put Eichelberger in the little green room, if only they can find her.
With Conroy’s determination renewed, McKibbon gets a call arranging a meeting at the fights, where he’ll learn the whereabouts of the missing girl, now the most sought after informant in the city. But its a trap: Eichelberger’s gang has hired a killer, in the form of iconic film noir heavy Neville Brand, to take out McKibbon. He succeeds, shooting him in a crowded arena, with Dieterle and cameraman Lionel Lindon expertly syncing the action, cross-cutting furiously between Conroy's desperate attempt to save McKibbon and the perilous journey of the missing witness.
In the end, Eichelberger is vanquished, but the cost in human life is enormous. One is left with the shaky hope the The Turning Point actually depicts a turning point--the struggle to stamp out corruption always seems to be on dangerous ground...