In 1956, in broad daylight in midtown Manhattan, labor columnist Victor Riesel, who had written an expose of corruption in a Long Island union, was blinded by a bottle of acid flung into his face. This was the brutal New York battleground in which the aptly named The Garment Jungle took place the following year, a tough and absorbing drama about the fight to unionize the rag trade.
Lee J. Cobb runs a women's-dresses firm; his ardently pro-labor partner, in the opening moments of the film, plummets to his death down a freight elevator shaft. It was no accident. Proud entrepreneur Cobb, though shaken, persists in his campaign to keep unions out of his shop by paying protection to a ruthless mobster (Richard Boone). Cobb's son (Kerwin Matthews) returns from a stay in Europe and, sympathizing with the piece-work jobbers, starts poking his nose into his father's business arrangements. He befriends a union organizer (Robert Loggia) who meets with a knife in an alley. Ultimately even Cobb comes to realize he's been dancing with the devil and tries to break off his alliance with Boone, who in turn unleashes his standard retaliation. But Matthews discovers the location of ledgers recording the history pay-offs....
Vincent Sherman, a veteran of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, directed, with some measure of assistance from Robert Aldrich. But here no divas reign; both Gia Scala and Valerie French take subsidiary roles, if not small ones. Hard guys dominate the movie, as they did in On The Waterfront, another look at New York City's labor relations (while nowhere near as mythic as that epic, The Garment Jungle matches it in brutality and in an unapologetically leftist point of view).
The movie boasts clarity and pace; there's even some nicely observed detail. Early scenes in the factory cleave into an upstairs/downstairs dichotomy: the jobbers sweat and toil for a pittance while the fashion models step into and out of elegant frocks (but, in malicious asides, the models grouse about being exploited as `escorts' for out-of-town buyers looking for a big night in the Big Apple).
With the exception of the merely serviceable Matthews (whose young career stumbled after this movie and never regained its footing), the cast is notably fine. Cobb reins in his basso-profundo growl and curmudgeonly shtik, while Boone, Loggia (in his credited debut) and Joseph Wiseman (as a union stoolie) give restrained, convincing performances. Moments when the script threatens to go treacly are swiftly undercut by violence, and the movie never wavers from its plea on behalf of men and women risking their very lives to fight for a living wage. It's a stance that will strike many as hopelessly dated, in an era when Americans aspire to the status of stockholders; maybe that accounts for the obscurity of a bold and unsentimental film from late in the noir cycle that is brazen enough to make an overt political statement.