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Black Hand Strawman
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Reviewed on 2009-03-20
Received[3]  out of 4 stars
The classic mob film "The Godfather” might be fiction, but the real thing actually existed across the state line in the "City of Fountains."

Kansas City attorney Terence M. O'Malley, whose 2006 documentary "Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time” was a big hit, setting box office records for longevity and revenue at the Screenland Theater downtown, is back as producer, director and narrator of another film with considerable local appeal.

O'Malley takes a very detailed and scholarly approach in spanning seven decades of organized crime in Kansas City. It all began with the "Black Hand” era from 1900 to the early 1920s, when small criminal cells of Sicilian immigrants brought the terror concept to the Northeast side of town, which became known as KC's Little Italy.

These rogue thugs drove around in black sedans armed with sawed-off shotguns. They engaged in extortion of local businesses and were linked to a string of execution-style murders.

These early Mafia footprints and its honored code of silence led into the dry days of Prohibition. Bootleggers profited from the pent-up demand for booze. Jazz clubs and speakeasies sprang up all over town.

An alliance was formed between the Irish political machine of boss Tom Pendergast and the Italian gangsters. This powerful voting bloc was responsible for Harry S. Truman's successful initial run for the U.S. Senate.

The Union Station Massacre in 1933 of federal agents put Kansas City front and center in the national headlines.

"Strawman” was the code name assigned by the FBI to the investigation and prosecution of KC wise guys headed by Nick Civella who were skimming Las Vegas casinos. These glitzy pleasure palaces were financed by loans from the Central States Pension Fund of the Teamsters Union.

The Las Vegas nexus to these embezzled funds came about because Roy Williams (not to be confused with the former KU basketball coach), the head guy at the Teamsters holding the purse strings, was in Civella's pocket.

The gangland war in the River Quay area is explored in depth.

One of the highlights of this documentary is a wiretap recording of a telephone conversation between Civella and a bookmaker about the heavy financial losses that would be incurred because nobody in Kansas City would bet against Lenny Dawson and the 12-point underdog Chiefs in the 1970 Super Bowl.

O'Malley does a masterful job of editing this monumental film down to two hours. He divided the film into different parts with chapter headings.

By covering seven decades, O'Malley has bitten off more history than he could chew. There is just too much material to digest in one sitting. It comes across as a classroom exercise with an exhaustive roll call of forgotten monikers and nicknames.

Retired FBI Agent William Ouseley is one of several talking heads interviewed.

The movie is primarily in black and white with archival newsreel footage, newspaper articles, vintage photographs from family albums, law enforcement files and surveillance recordings.

A musical score of operatic and jazz tunes plays in the background.

This cinematic experience feels like a trip in a time machine when viewing photos and artifacts from a past that existed before most of us were born. An indelible image that stays with you is a newspaper cartoon declaring Kansas City as one of the few livable cities left in America and shows a dead body stashed in the trunk of a car.

Now playing exclusively at the Screenland Crossroads in Kansas City.

Review By:
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"


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