THE PUSHER. United Artists, 1960. Kathy Carlyle, Robert Lansing, Felice Orlandi, Douglas Rodgers, Sloan Simpson, Sara Amman, Jim Boles, John Astin. Screenplay by Harold Robbins, based on the novel by Ed McBain. Director Gene Milford

   While it may not be polished, one thing is for certain. The Pusher has grit. Loads of it, actually. Based on Ed McBain’s eponymous novel, this crime film has the aesthetic one might expect from such a movie. Lots of on location shots of tough, crime-ridden Manhattan streets, nightclubs galore, and a particularly unsavory drug dealer who admittedly preys on the youth and vulnerable women. Although clunky at times, with pacing that never quite works, it’s an overall solid work of independent film-making and an early example of what would later be come to be known as exploitation films.

   The plot follows New York police lieutenant Peter Byrne as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed a young Puerto Rican junkie. As it turns out, his daughter has a nexus to the crime. Not only that, she’s also been hooked on heroin by the same dealer who is a suspect in the aforementioned murder. There’s also a romantic relationship at play. Byrne’s partner is engaged to be married to his daughter. And he has no idea that his beloved is an addict. A tough spot to be in.

   What makes The Pusher work is not so much the plot, but the atmosphere. Lots of scenes showcase urban poverty, cold and cruel sidewalks, and an overarching sense of despair and dissolution. Although staid compared to 1970s cinema, it’s still a movie that pushes the envelope for its time. An MGM film, this is not. Had this movie been made in the 1980s, it definitely could have easily been produced by Cannon Films and starred Charles Bronson as the lead.

   One final thing. The film’s villain, a heroin dealer who goes by the nickname Gonzo, is portrayed by Italian American actor Felice Orlandi. Although I wasn’t familiar with him until I saw this film, he gives an exceptionally convincing performance as a conniving street smart criminal. I had a chance to look him up and saw that he was in numerous crime films from the 1960s and 1970s, including some I have seen. Next time I watch them, I will be sure to keep an eye out for him.