Pulpy but shallow, the gangster biopic Lepke lacks a distinctive point of view. A compendium of episodes tracking the career of Jewish mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter—played with generic intensity by Tony Curtis—the picture was produced and directed by Menaham Golan, who later found his groove as a producer of glossy action pictures. While Lepke is probably the slickest movie that Golan ever directed, it feels artificial from beginning to end, and it has nothing to say about its subject matter. Thanks to solid production values, a steady stream of violent episodes, and the surprising presence of iconic funnyman Milton Berle in a dramatic supporting role, Lepke is never less than watchable. However, it makes very little impact while unspooling and disappears from the viewer’s memory immediately afterward. Opening in 1923 and covering events through 1944, when Lepke was executed for his crimes, the picture depicts Lepke as a tough street kid who channels his anger at the world into violence, and then discovers that ruthlessness leads to career advancement in the underworld. Lepke eventually teams with—and breaks from—fellow gangster “Lucky” Luciano (Vic Tayback) before helping to form the infamous organization known as Murder Incorporated. In addition to depicting Lepke’s criminal activities, the picture explores his relationship with Bernice Meyer (Anjanette Comer), the daughter of Orthodox businessman Mr. Meyer (Berle). Another component of the story is Lepke’s friendship with lawyer Robert Kane (Michael Callan), who eventually joins the Justice Department.
A few of the picture’s episodes are mildly interesting. In one scene, Lepke dispatches a subordinate to the Far East in order to collect heroin. In another scene, Lepke has a tryst that Golan and cinematographer Andrew Davis (who later became the director of such outstanding action pictures as 1993’s The Fugitive) stage sexily, with light streaming through windows. And the bit with Berle negotiating for his daughter’s hand in marriage is somewhat droll, thanks to the way Berle channels his legendary comic timing into a crisp sort of dramatic tension. Yet most of Lepke is painfully unimaginative. During a climactic action sequence, for instance, a shootout in a movie theater is intercut with black-and-white gangster action on the movie screen. And thanks to distractingly clean costumes and sanitized sets, much of the gangster material recalls the old Star Trek episode in which the crew of the Enterprise beams down to a planet where society is modeled after Earth’s Depression-era gangster culture. (Adding to the unhelpful visual association, Lepke costar Tayback appeared in that particular Trek episode.) While Curtis scores a few points during his character’s darkest interludes, summoning the edge that he brought to his fine work in The Boston Strangler (1968), his performance is middling overall—just like the movie surrounding him.