Among the lesser known gangster films from the Seventies, this true-crime biopic recounts the rise and fall of Jewish-American mobster Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter (Tony Curtis), one of the premier racketeers of the Thirties. After multiple stints in juvenile prison Lepke rejoins society more driven than ever to become a major player on the New York crime scene. Working as an enforcer for mob kingpin Little Augie (Jack Ackerman), Lepke impresses a young Lucky Luciano (Vic Tayback) with his street smarts and ruthlessness (e.g. flinging an old man off a tall building for refusing to pay protection money). In rapid succession he guns down his boss, bumps off witnesses, hires childhood pal Robert Kane (Michael Callan) as his attorney and forms organized crime syndicate Murder Incorporated along with Luciano and shifty rival Albert Anastasia (Gianni Russo), all the while concealing his criminal activities from his angelic sweetheart Bernice (Anjanette Comer) until his inevitable downfall.
Tony Curtis fans rank this among his most underrated performances. Though he is good here sadly it was while making Lepke he developed the cocaine addiction that sent his career on a downward spiral. He cleaned up in time to savour his autumn years as a bonafide Hollywood legend yet never really got the third act comeback he deserved unless you count a cameo on an episode of CSI directed by Quentin Tarantino. One imagines Menahem Golan, at the time still a relatively respected filmmaker rather than the trash film force of nature he became at Cannon Films, saw Lepke as his Godfather (1972) much as he saw The Apple (1980) as his Tommy (1975). He certainly invests the film with an approximation of the epic sweep Francis Ford Coppola brought to his seminal gangster epic. Sumptuous photography by Andrew Davis, future director of Under Siege (1992) and The Fugitive (1993), soaks up the atmosphere of the period while the Jewish-American milieu and sepia-toned intro detailing Lepke's juvenile exploits prefigure elements Sergio Leone elaborated upon in Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Yet whereas Coppola viewed the Thirties through the prism of cynical Seventies social realism, Golan appears to be drawing on faulty memories of James Cagney in old Warner Brothers movies.
Painted in broad strokes, Lepke has a second hand, oddly cartoonish quality lacking the authenticity of the great crime pictures despite impeccable production design. Golan, an exploitation filmmaker at heart, crams in all the lurid sex and violence one would expect but reduces a decade's worth of true-crime headlines to a near-incoherent cocaine blur, often relying on breakneck narration from none other than radio columnist Walter Winchell (Vaughn Meader) to paper over the cracks. To the credit of screenwriters Tamar Simon Hoffs, who went on to write musical drama Stony Island (1978) then produced and directed The Allnighters (1987), a teen comedy starring her famous daughter, The Bangles' sexpot singer and guitarist Susanna Hoffs, and Wesley Lau (an actor scripting his only feature film) the film does delve into underworld politics, specifically strained relations between Lepke, Luciano and Anastasia, as well as the blurred morality underlining Lepke's friendship with Robert Kane who goes from representing a mobster to working with the FBI. However, both Curtis and Golan play several sequences for cracked comedy, notably a long, dull section where Lepke grapples with his orthodox Jewish in-laws including comedy icon Milton Berle delivering a solid, even affecting performance as Bernice's father.
In detailing Lepke's attempts to keep his murderous mob activities separate from his genteel domestic life the film tries to have things both ways drawing him as both ruthless murderer and caring family man without really dissecting that contradiction. Lively sequences like an ambush at a movie theatre where Lepke and his men trade gunfire with mob rivals while a gangster movie plays on screen and a slow-motion shoot-out at a fairground show Golan was a more skilled director than his detractors might believe. Yet the deaths are anonymous and meaningless and throughout his climactic attempts to evade capture and bump off his own men before they testify against him, Lepke only emerges as unfathomable and odious as he probably was in real life.