Holdenville, Oklahoma native Clu Gulager was an extremely busy and prolific actor (over 160 TV and movie credits) who worked right up to his death at 93 in August 2022. Even if he never quite graduated to the A list of Hollywood actors, he will always be remembered for starring roles in two iconic TV westerns, The Tall Man (1960-62), as Billy the Kid, and The Virginian (1963-68) as Sheriff Emmett Ryker as well as several cult movies. Among them are his feature film debut opposite Lee Marvin as a pair of sociopathic hit men in the 1964 remake of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Dan O’Bannon’s macabre zombie comedy, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). Other notable roles include memorable parts in the Paul Newman racetrack drama Winning (1969), Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and McQ (1974), a John Wayne cop thriller, but if American audiences had been given an opportunity to see him in the 1974 Swedish film Gangsterfilmen (U.S. title: Gangster Film aka A Stranger Came by Train), they would surely rank it right up there with his intimidating but off-the-wall performance in The Killers, which should have made him a major star.
Sharing a sadistic sense of humor and penchant for sudden violence with Lee, the professional killer of Siegel’s noir classic, Gulager plays Glenn Mortenson in Gangster Film. A ruthless, self-made thug from America who decides to relocate to a small town in Sweden and use it as his base for creating a new crime syndicate in Europe, Gulager has enormous fun in this role which requires him to be both deceptively charming and vicious as a rising fascist threat. Unlike other western TV actors like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, who relocated to Italy and became spaghetti western stars, Gulager never took that route and Gangster Film is one of his few, if only, European detours. (All of his scenes are in English but the rest are in Swedish with English subtitles).
The movie was helmed by Finnish director Lars G. Thelestam, whose work is virtually unknown here, and is cast with such familiar Swedish thespians as Per Oscarsson (Hunger, 1966), Ernst Gunther (Fanny and Alexander, 1982), Ulla Sjoblom (Here is Your Life, 1966), and Gunnar Olsson (The Seventh Seal,1957) plus a low key supporting role for Lou Castel, the Bogota, Columbia native who launched his career with the lead role in Marco Bellocchio’s extraordinary 1965 family melodrama Fists in the Pocket.
Gangster Film is set in the small town of Vitaby, Sweden, which is a real place though I am not sure if director Thelestam intends it to be a fictitious location in his movie because it is not a particularly flattering depiction. The residents seem cut off from the real world and not particularly well educated or motivated to change their stagnant situation. When an unfamiliar black man shows up in town (he is the bodyguard/personal assistant to Mortenson), people stare at him like they have never seen a person of color before. This is also the sort of place where poisonous gossip is the norm, everyone knows everyone’s business and the pre-teen school kids who walk the streets are a bunch of bullying racists. The only decent citizens we meet are Maria (Anne-Lise Gabold), the local schoolteacher, Gustavsson (Oscarsson), a city official with an intellectual bent, and Anders (Gunther), the town sheriff who takes his job seriously.
Gangster Film could be interpreted as an indictment of small town life in the manner of Kings Row, the 1942 morbid melodrama that took a dystopian view of provincial America. The movie can also serve as a critique of Yankee greed and ambition, media manipulation and rabble rousers who pervert the meaning of words like democracy to hide their megalomaniac intentions.
When Gangster Film opens, a grim-looking, well dressed businessman named Nils (Carl-Axel Heiknert) arrives in town by train. He left the village 30 years earlier and has now returned from the U.S. where he made his fortune working for the high profile criminal Mortenson. His job is to prepare Vitaby for the arrival of his boss which includes purchasing a riverside villa as his residence. He also convinces his drunken brother Hans (Peter Lindgren) to clean up his act and become part of Mortenson’s dubious entourage.
Despite Mortenson’s reputation for extortion, drug smuggling, even murder, the town’s residents appear excited at the prospect of having a “media celebrity” in their midst and, in record time, Mortenson orchestrates a spectacularly phony public relations blitz to blind everyone and possibly brainwash them to accepting him as some kind of messiah.
Gulager doesn’t make his appearance until 25 minutes into the movie but as soon as he steps off a train with two flunkies in tow he is like an unstoppable force of nature. The actor gives a tour-de-force performance in a role that allows him to demonstrate a wide range of acting styles while delineating the many amoral and depraved aspects of Mortenson. In some ways he comes on like Robert Preston’s fast-talking con man in The Music Man and his messianic zeal creates genuine excitement among the villagers. Then we see him quickly transition from a charming seducer of a 15-year-old student (whom he rapes offscreen) to a drunken misogynistic stalker (his attack on Maria in her kitchen is truly unsettling) to an Elmer Gantry-like evangelist/political figure complete with a backup choir of angelic schoolgirls. On first impression Mortenson’s character seems too outlandish and nonsensical to take seriously and that may have been true in 1974. In today’s climate, however, where conspiracy theorists, woke culture and left and right-wing extremists have become the new normal, Mortenson seems much too real.
[Spoiler alert] Rest assured that Mortenson eventually comes to a bad end but he meets it with an arrogant smile. Still, you can’t exactly say that Gangster Film has a happy ending. This is a movie with no real heroes despite a few sympathetic characters who have the best intentions of doing the right thing. Anders eventually realizes that to combat a demon like Mortenson you have to step outside the law and act like him. In an unexpected twist ending, the sheriff convinces Karl (Olsson), an old school revolutionary who worships Lenin and other famous Marxists, that Mortenson is a dictatorial capitalist who has come to destroy their way of life and must be eliminated. It is certainly satisfying to see a bloodied Mortenson lying dead from a gun wound at the fadeout but we know it was an act of murder that will go unpunished. And what does that say about Anders, Karl and the other residents of Vitaby?
Gangster Film is an intriguing cautionary tale and highly recommended for Gulager’s performance alone but it is far from perfect. Some of the characters and storylines are simply dropped without resolution or remain underdeveloped such as Nils’s relationship with his estranged family and how he processes his drunken brother’s suicide. Per Oscarsson as Gustavsson remains an enigma who, at first seems intelligent and wary, but then unconvincingly provokes an fatal encounter with Mortenson. As for Lou Castel as Simon, Maria’s weak, ineffectual boyfriend, he simply disappears from the movie after his lover is brutalized.
Some final comments on Gulager: Toward the end of his life, the actor was mainly featured in bit parts and cameo roles such as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Sean Baker’s funky comedy Tangerine (2015). At one point in his career, Gulager even wrote, produced and directed the acclaimed short film A Day with the Boys (1969), which was nominated for a Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival. What I didn’t realize before was that Gulager has two sons in the film business, Tom and John, with the latter a director of the horror film trilogy Feast (2005), featuring his father as a bartender in all three movies.
Gangster Film never had an official U.S. release nor is it available on any format in this country. At one time European Trash Cinema (now out of business) offered a decent DVD-R of the movie but some distributor like Deaf Crocodile or Vinegar Syndrome needs to rescue Gangster Film from oblivion so Clu Gulager fans can rejoice in his frightening, funny and completely eclectic performance.
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