Wednesday, February 27, 2013

High Mass: Whitey Bulger, LSD and a Devil's Deal

Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger? Yup, the actor who played Dillinger in "Public Enemies" is going to play another crime icon, and the movie is slated for release next year. More about that later.

Dick Lehr, a former Boston Globe reporter and co-author of a new book about the life of James "Whitey" Bulger was in L.A. last night, and he brought along screenwriter Mark Mallouk who has adapted Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's previous tome, "Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal" for a movie that is to begin filming in Boston this summer. Depp and director Barry Levinson are both attached. Levinson is also in pre-production with "Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father."

James "Whitey" Bulger, 1956
Whitey, the crime boss who went on the lam and got busted here in Santa Monica, was an outstanding figure among underworld bosses, said Lehr. "His gang had reach." Whitey not only controlled Boston rackets, he had a hand in fixing horse races up and down the East Coast, and had a money skimming scam netting him $10,000 per week from World Jai Alai. He is a suspect in 19 homicides, including that of World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler.

Lehr read from his latest book, recounting Whitey's prison years in Atlanta in the 1950s, where he volunteered to participate in studies on what was a new drug in the United States, LSD. Psychiatrists thought that LSD might be a useful tool in the study of criminal psychopaths. However, Lehr says the CIA also got into the act and tested numerous other drugs on prisoners. We'll likely never know which substances were used in the testing because all records were destroyed. As you might expect, the agency's shadowy behavior during that study resulted in quite a scandal.

Whitey is probably most noted for having compromised the nation's leading law enforcement agency, the FBI. The G-Men protected him from prosecution for the crimes he committed in return for information he provided that helped smash Boston Mafioso operations. FBI agent John Connolly, who came from Whitey's South Boston neighborhood, was instrumental in setting up the quid pro quo deal between Whitey and the FBI. Connolly said of his first meeting with the infamous Whitey, "It was like meeting Ted Williams," the legendary Red Sox slugger.

Lehr noted that, aside from the FBI, Whitey conned other notable figures into helping him sidestep the penalties due to him, including speaker of the U.S. House John McCormack, and Father Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest and dean of Boston College Law School, who would later become a Massachusetts congressman.

"McCormack's fingerprints are all over Whitey's records," noted Lehr. The House speaker stepped up to the plate for Whitey, as did Drinan, and saw to his early release from detention, including two years served in Alcatraz when the norm for most inmates was an eight year stretch.

Whitey's most commonly heard refrain was, I'm no angel, but I'm not ... fill in the blanks: As bad as they say. A drug pusher. A murderer. Of course, his self-assessment was dubious at best.

Ed Harris, left, Whitey, right
As for the movie, both Lehr and Mallouk have no control over casting, so they can't be blamed for the choices that have been made. While I like Johnny Depp, I can think of few actors less suited to play Whitey -- how about Ed Harris instead? Of course, Harris doesn't have Depp's A-List credentials, and in Hollywood that's the only thing that counts. I thought Depp was also miscast as Dillinger, and of course the movie bombed. But in tinseltown, A-Listers are allowed to repeat their mistakes -- until they're no longer A-Listers.

Whitey, being the notorious narcissist that he is, is undoubtedly aware of and concerned about the movie project. Someone last night asked Lehr if a special screening is in the cards for Whitey, who is sitting in a Plymouth County jail cell awaiting trial. "Whitey isn't going to be having any special screenings," the author said.

Monday, February 18, 2013

This Scarface is in Chicago, Not Miami

Living dangerously - Tony muscles in on his boss's girlfriend.
"Scarface" (1932) is still one of the most thrilling gangster stories on film. Don't confuse it with the remake with Al Pacino. About the only thing the 1983 version has in common with the original is the title.

Howard Hawks directed the earlier one, and Ben Hecht wrote a script that is just as break-neck paced and witty as the writer's comic masterpiece, "His Girl Friday," which Hawks also directed. There's plenty of violence in this Scarface. The film had to sit on the shelf for two years after its completion because the studio was reluctant to release this cinematic extravaganza of bloodshed. Come to think of it, violence is another thing other than the title that the 1932 and 1983 Scarface films share, although Hawks's Scarface is not nearly as graphically cringe-inducing as is the Pacino film.

Paul Muni is terrific as the wisecracking Tony, a gangster who wants to control all of Chicago's bootlegging. He must step over or crush many other hoods to get the job done, and like any successful gangster, he will rub out even a longtime pal if he stands in the way.

Tony flirts with his boss's girlfriend, and talks of taking over the North Side of Chicago's bootlegging business -- both actions suggest that the guy has a death wish. But pretty soon he makes good on both ambitions.

Tony (Paul Muni) likes the feel of a machine gun in 'Scarface.'
Despite his penchant for deep-sixing his rivals, Tony has a goofy side that few filmmakers could integrate into such a dubious movie hero. The newly rich Tony shows off his fancy new digs to the girl he's taken a shine to, and she tells the vocabulary-challenged mobster it's sort of gaudy, which he takes as a compliment.

When Tony gets his hands on a Thompson machine gun, the first one he's ever seen, he's like a kid with a new toy. He takes delight in shooting up the room with a spray of bullets, but it doesn't take long before he starts training the weapon on human targets.

Like many a movie gangster, Tony is devoted to his mother -- do all gangsters have mother issues? He's also a fierce overlord to his younger sister, demanding that she never go on dates with young men. His fixation with his attractive sibling ultimately becomes a key part of his undoing.

Tony's fancy townhouse is equipped with steel shutters, making the joint a fortress to stave off bullets and bombs that rivals and the police fire in his direction, but he can never completely shut out the threats that will ultimately rain down upon him.

By virtue of his own paranoia he ultimately finishes off his friends as well as other hoods looking to put out his lights. Alone, he's no longer a force to be reckoned with, and he pays the ultimate price for his misdeeds. A fitting end to a strangely likeable bad guy. Score another one for Hawks.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Whitey Not a Rat? Shelley Murphy on Whitey Bulger

The James "Whitey" Bulger saga continues, and here's an interesting interview with reporter Shelley Murphy about the incarcerated 83 year old Boston mob boss. Check out Shelley's accent -- sounds like she's right out of Southie.
Shelley Murphy on Whitey Bulger - RadioBDC blog -

You may remember that Whitey was on the lam from Boston Police, and wanted for some 19 murders he is accused of committing or ordering others to commit. But Whitey's luck ran out in June 2011 when authorities busted the gang overlord in Santa Monica, Calif. The crime kingpin is widely believed to have received immunity from prosecution courtesy of the Boston branch of the FBI, because he was informing on his mob brethren. But hold the phone -- now Whitey says he ain't no canary!