Sitting in a Brooklyn jail cell, Abraham "Pretty" Levine, a low-level gangster on the fringes of the contract-killing syndicate that became known as Murder, Inc, maintained a loyal silence for most of March 1940. When he finally broke, as the cops had always known he would, he spilled everything he knew about the gang -- how it worked, who ran it and where the bodies were. Eventually, he became the leading witness for the prosecution in the trials that finished Murder, Inc and sent his former bosses to the chair, which is as good a reminder as any of the importance of bit-part players.
One of the stories Pretty told the District Attorney is of particular interest to us, because it starts with a trip to the cinema.
One night, just a few months before he was arrested, Pretty bought a ticket for Golden Boy (1939), a film about a prize fighter. Imagine his dismay when it turned out that, instead of tough boxers duking it out in the ring and triumphing against the odds, the movie was one of those sappy family melodramas full of yakking dames and weepy fathers and with hardly any boxing at all.
As the final reel approached, Pretty was so bored that even the long-overdue climactic boxing match in Madison Square Garden was unable to fully capture his attention, and he found himself noticing background details, like the interesting extras in the quick cutaway shots. There were well-dressed guys from Harlem; there were ex-pugs with squashed noses and cabbage ears; there were some millionaire types in evening dress. And then there was a three-second shot of a bunch of tense gamblers, all chewing gum nervously because they've bet big on the fight:
This, Pretty told the DA, was amazing. He could hardly believe what he was looking at. Plastered right there in the very middle of the movie screen were the unmistakeable features of a guy called Big Gangy Cohen, who Pretty hadn't expected ever to see again. He hadn't seen him or heard anything about him since he'd vanished in the aftermath of a bloody murder one dark night in the Catskills, two years earlier.
At that time, Irving -- to give Big Gangy his real name, which we must, as contemporary sources don't seem to be able to agree on whether he spelled his name Gangy or Gangi -- was first lieutenant to a mobster called Walter Sage, who operated a slot machine racket in the Catskill resorts. The Murder, Inc bosses had given Sage the concession as a reward for years of steady service, including a number of contract killings.
Most of Murder, Inc's killers were small-time Jewish or Italian hoods from Brooklyn, like Sage or Pretty Levine. The gang -- which called itself the combination; "Murder, Incorporated" was a journalistic invention -- had invented an ingenious and lucrative scheme that enabled them to carry out murder contracts for mobs across America. The low-level gangsters who were given the contracts had no connection to the victim, and, often, didn't come from the same city, so the police had little hope of catching them. During the 1930s, Murder, Incorporated's hitmen killed hundreds of people throughout the country and were seldom caught.
Naturally, therefore, when the gang found out that Sage had been skimming the profits from the slots racket, they decided to have him killed as well. What did he expect they would do? They're Murder, Inc.
Pretty explained to the DA that Irving was nominated to be one of the killers as Sage was his best friend and wouldn't be suspicious when he suggested that they go for a late-night drive way up into the mountains with a man called Jack Drucker, another killer they knew. The hit was organised by one of the higher-up mobsters called Pittsburgh Phil, who tailed Irving, Sage and Drucker as they drove through the night. His car was driven by Pretty Levine.
At a lonely spot in the road, Pretty watched the tail lights ahead of him swerve suddenly back and forth. The car tipped into a ditch and, as Pretty and Pittsburgh Phil pulled up, the back doors opened. Out of one stepped Drucker, wiping blood from his icepick. Out of the other sprung Irving, "as if fired from a cannon". The others watched, stunned, as he charged into the woods, screaming incoherently. According to Pretty, they had no idea what had come over Irving and they didn't follow him to try to find out, as they had to get on with the urgent job of lashing a pinball machine to the corpse of Walter Sage and dumping it in a lake.
And that, Pretty Levine told the DA, was the last he'd seen of Irving until the stupid lug blew his own cover by showing up at the end of Golden Boy.(1)
Was Irving supposed to have also been killed that night? Pretty didn't know. Neither did Irving, but he knew he shouldn't stick around to find out. He fled through the dark woods, eventually finding refuge in the garage of a local man named Orville Miller. The next morning, Irving forced Miller at gunpoint to drive him to the nearest bus station, where he began his journey to the west coast.(2)
It's not clear if Irving had a plan to get movie work in Hollywood; I assume he simply headed for a distant city far from Brooklyn where he could vanish. It didn't work, though, as Pittsburgh Phil found out where he was and sent a hitman called Sholomon Bernstein to kill him. Years later, as the Murder, Inc trials drew to an end and Pittsburgh Phil had been sent to the electric chair, Bernstein said:
"I went to California to kill Big Gangi. But I didn't kill him. I got Big Gangi a job as an extra in the movies. I had connections out there."(3)
So, for a couple of years, Irving made a quiet living as a crowd-scene extra. Using the name Jack Gordon, he hid himself in plain view, his image flickering for a moment now and then across screens in every town in the country, and things were going just fine -- until Pretty Levine talked to the DA from Brooklyn, and Irving was extradited to New York to stand trial for the murder of Walter Sage.
The Hollywood connection made a nice angle for the reporters, who photographed a particularly sorry-looking Irving as he returned to the east coast:
Irving's escape plan had fallen apart. He'd outrun murderers in the Catskills, managed to get himself safely across the country and somehow convinced a hired killer in Los Angeles to not only spare his life, but also get him work in Hollywood and, presumably, lie to Pittsburgh Phil, but now he had to sit in court and listen to Pretty Levine telling the jury about the night he'd helped to murder his best friend, about how he'd reached from the back of the car to pin Sage to his seat while Drucker plunged the icepick into Sage's body again and again -- 32 times, in total. The blood must have been awful.
Irving couldn't take it. The next day's papers read:
"Irving (Big Gangi) Cohen, movie extra on trial for murder, wept today when a witness accused him of participating in the fatal stabbing of Walter Sage, Brooklyn gangster. 'This man is lying. I wasn't there, honestly,' Cohen sobbed."(5)
Irving -- this 260-pound giant -- rose from his seat and wailed hysterically that he was innocent. His lawyer was unable to calm him, and cried for help. A deputy sheriff led Irving from the court, which was suspended for a quarter of an hour while he pulled himself together.
The trial lasted eight days; the jury's deliberations lasted an hour and a half, and the result surprised everyone: the jury had bought Irving's story! Swayed by his emotional denials, they acquitted him. Irving was reported to have cried softly when his sobbing wife, Eva, rushed to his side.
There was only one thing Irving wanted to do. Immediately after the trial, perhaps with cheeks still glistening with tears of relief, he announced to reporters that, now that he had been cleared of all wrong-doing, he was going to dedicate himself to his career as a bit-part actor:
Even though Irving's alias had been busted during the trial, he kept using it for professional purposes. However, the name "Jack Gordon" doesn't appear to have been entered in any studio's records until 1944, four years after the trial, which might suggest that, even though the law was no longer a threat, he was still too scared of his old mob associates to take anything other than the most anonymous, man-in-a-crowd parts. It's probably not a coincidence that 1944 was the year in which Jack Drucker, who Irving had last seen holding a blood-stained icepick in a menacing manner, was finally arrested and sentenced to life in jail.
For the rest of the 1940s, Irving lumbered through B-movies in the sort of bit-parts that you'd expect a hulking, gorilla-like ex-gangster to attract. His finest hour came in 1945, when he played a silent gunman whose bosses use him to rub out rival gangsters. This role enabled Irving to leave us with a performance that we can only accept as a uniquely well-informed portrait of a hired killer, sculpted from a deep and visceral knowledge of the subject.
It's hardly Irving's fault that the subject's actually kind of banal.
A great deal of the job of the hitman, as interpreted by Irving, consists of tracking a target while wearing a slack, blank expression:
Those hours culminate in the shooting of the target, which is accomplished without a change of expression:
And that moment of excitement is followed by the arrest and imprisonment of the hitman, which, as expected by this point, brings about no change in the hitman's expression:
The film is called Crime, Inc. Although it's only a cheap little supporting feature, Irving must have been gratified to have been cast in it, as it's the first cinematic telling of the story of his old gang, and he gets to rub out not only a few gang bosses, but also a thinly disguised version of that dirty, no-good stool pigeon, Pretty Levine.
I don't know if that constitutes a satisfactory revenge, but it's closer than most people get. Take that, Murder, Inc!
After 1950, with the decline of the mobster genre, Irving's type fell out of fashion and his stream of small roles dried up. His last reported job was as a stand-in for Hoss Cartwright in the 1960s TV show, Bonanza.
Irving died in the mid-1970s. I don't know anything about his later life, apart from a few details that his grandchildren left on a website about old Jewish gangsters.(7) They describe Irving as a loving, gentle man who smelled of cigars and alcohol and lived across from the Paramount studio with his wife, with whom he would speak privately in Yiddish. He had a nasty smoker's cough. He would take his false teeth out and chase the kids around the apartment with them. You know, the usual. They point out that Irving's part in Sage's murder was never proven, but admit that it wasn't a subject that the family spoke about, and that their father was, understandably, "very secretive about 'Grandpa'".
Sources: (1)"Murder, Inc - The Story of the Syndicate", Turkus, Burton B and Feder, Sid, Gollancz, London, 1952, pp41 to 43; (2)Kingston Daily Freeman, NY, June 19, 1940; (3)Oakland Tribune, Oct 30, 1941; (4)Kingston Daily Freeman, NY, June 22, 1940; (5)New York Times, June 18, 1940; (6)Kingston Daily Freeman, NY, June 22, 1940; (7)sixforfive.blogspot.com, post:"Big Gangy Cohen Found".