Set between 1925 and the Second World War, Brownsville takes its name from an area of New York city where some of its characters live, in particular Allie Tanennbaum, a key player in the Jewish organised crime syndicate later dubbed Murder Inc.
As mob experts may already be aware, the basis of this story is factual – Tanennbaum was a real mobster, infamous for his readiness to carry out hits for cash. Brownsville follows his career from his first meeting with Jewish gangsters while working at his father’s country club in the 1920s, through to the end of his career in 1954.
Kleid’s script is as interested in the man as his crimes – a picture is built up of Tannenbaum and his crew as a motley collection of ruthless killers, though as with much organised crime, most of the violence is between rival organisations. However, Tannenbaum effectively marries himself into the mob, shunning his devoted family and relegating his wife to a backseat role in his life.
On the art side, Allen’s visualisation captures the mood and atmosphere of the era with his simple monochromatic style. Although perhaps not the neatest of artists, his characters are imbued with feeling and emotion, giving a human story like this an adequate roundedness.
Dramatisation of historical characters is always risky, as situations, although obviously based in fact, have to contain elements of pure fiction, if only because no-one was there recording everything that was said and done. While students of this era and its crimes may prefer to explore some more traditional approaches to the historical analysis of the subject matter, those who enjoy films like The Untouchables and Goodfellas – films based on if not completely beholden to gangster reality – should find this an enjoyable romp that’s perhaps most interesting courtesy of its lack of reliance on the Italian mafia.