"The Garment Jungle" is a social conscience film inspired by a series of articles that Leslie Velie wrote for Readers' Digest entitled "Gangsters in the Dress Business", intended as an exposé of New York's garment industry. Alan Mitchell (Kerwin Matthews) comes home to New York from 3 years of military service to join the family business, Roxton Fashions, a dress manufacturer founded by his father Walter (Lee J. Cobb). As Alan learns the ropes, he learns of the suspicious death of his father's business partner and the vicious tactics employed to keep the Dress Makers' Union out of his shop. Walter Mitchell has been paying protection money to a gangster named Artie Ravidge (Richard Boone), and tensions between union organizers and Ravidge's thugs have turned murderous.
This unabashedly pro-union movie reminds me of films of the 1930s. Made in 1957, it anticipates the revival of "social justice" filmmaking that would again become popular in the 1960s. "The Garment Jungle" has an appealing complexity in spite of somewhat dated themes. The smart writing by Harry Kleiner and the sharp casting ages well. Beyond the workers' rights agenda, it aims to deglamorize the fashion industry by taking the audience behind the scenes with models, buyers, workers, and shop owners. It's not entirely uncritical of the union. Walter is a sympathetic man, willfully turning a blind eye to Ravidge's methods, because he is committed to protecting the business that he created. He's caught between two extortionists: the union and the protection racket. The union must get the non-union shops to fall in line, or they will lose the support of the Manufacturer's Union.
Tulio Renata (Robert Loggia) is a union organizer committed to improving conditions for his fellow workers, even at his own peril. Alan comes to admire Tulio -and is smitten with his vivacious Italian wife Theresa (Gia Scala). Although Tulio is an admirable man, not everyone in the Union is as brave or as honest. Ravidge, however, is irredeemable, a parasite who takes advantage of frightened business owners like Walter to extort money and bust skulls. Alan is just an earnest guy trying to understand the situation and do the right thing. Walter is more complex, and his morally conflicted psyche is played to perfection by Lee J. Cobb. Gia Scala instantly makes Theresa as appealing to the audience as she is to Alan, a sensuous woman fiercely protective of her family and only reluctantly involved in the fight.
Vincent Sherman is credited as the director of "The Garment Jungle", but apparently Robert Aldrich was removed from the production only 5 days before shooting was scheduled to be completed. There were a lot of reshoots, and it's not clear what footage is Aldrich's and which is Sherman's. I notice no inconsistencies in style or tone. The footage was blended seamlessly, assuming there is any of Aldrich's left. In any case, "The Garment Jungle" has a sharp script, and the work of cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc is very fine. If you're a fan of Lee J. Cobb, it's a must-see. An enjoyable film even if its politics belong largely to the mid-20th century.
The DVD (Sony 2008): This disc is part of a series called "Martini Movies". A recipe for a Manhattan Martini is printed directly on the disc. Bonus features include "Martini Minutes", which are "How to Play a Leading Man" (1 1/2 min) and "How to Hold Your Liquor" (1 1/2 min). These are montages of old movies that illustrate those ideas, with a breathy voiceover narration, intended as a promotion for other Sony films on DVD. And there is another martini recipe. It's all quite odd. There is also a theatrical trailer (2 1/2 min). Subtitles for the film are available in English and Spanish. Dubbing is available in French.