Life and Death in L.A.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

One Step Beyond: Film Noir and the Supernatural

Edward G. Robinson, 'Night Has a Thousand Eyes' (1948).

We can all daydream of possessing special powers, because who wouldn’t want greater insight into their life and extraordinary abilities to manipulate the hands of fate? But if there’s one thing that speculative fiction teaches us is that supernatural powers — mind reading, communicating with the dead and other such phenomena — all come with a steep price tag. 

That’s certainly true for mentalist John Triton (Edward G. Robinson) in “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1948). He describes his ability to see into the future as something like travel aboard a train. A passenger might see a farmhouse, then a field of corn followed by a pasture of grazing cows. But someone standing on the train’s roof can see all three motifs in one glance. And for better or worse Triton is one who stands atop his own train car as it barrels through the countryside.

That may sounds enticing to some — certainly not to me. But what if those supernatural powers bring about little more than misery and alienation from the people you care about most? That’s a common theme in “supernatural noir,” a blend of film noir and supernatural fiction, two genres that fit together like a dovetail joint. 

In noir, a protagonist is usually alienated from his or her environment and faces crushing circumstances that threaten their very existence. Add unpredictable supernatural forces into the mix and a noir anti-hero gets a double whammy of everyday and otherworldly forces that mean trouble — a dark place to find oneself, indeed. 

As Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the beaten down piano player in "Detour" (1945) says, "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Noir anti-heroes are destined for failure, and the supernatural  works hand in hand with fate to bring about the flawed character's inevitable downfall.

“Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is one of those noir-tinged leaps into the realm of speculative fiction that in shortened form would fit comfortably in “The Twilight Zone” (1959 - 1964) TV series. Speaking of which, aren’t a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes especially noir-like?

John Lund, Gail Russell, Edward G. Robinson.
A Charlatan Becomes a Psychic 

It’s odd and somehow fitting that vaudeville mentalist Triton should be gifted with the power to see the future. He’s a fairly successful entertainer with a phony mind reading act who, for unknown reasons, develops supernatural powers. It’s as if  he offended the gods by pretending to be clairvoyant and they are taking revenge by bestowing on him the psychic foresight he’d been faking. Now, he must bear the torment of foreseeing tragic accidents and deaths that befall people around him. That includes not only strangers but also almost everyone in his inner circle. Once it becomes obvious to him that he’s cursed with horrifying powers he begins to wonder whether he’s simply predicting these deaths, or could it be that he’s somehow making them happen? 

Of course, it’s not just tragedy that he foresees. He picks winning racehorses for his piano accompanist and buddy Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan) who thinks Triton’s new abilities are just swell. Early on, his powers seem to be a blessing. He helps save the life of a young boy playing with matches who sets his bed afire. But thereafter his predictions grow increasingly grim and depressingly accurate. 

He exists in an existential no man’s land where his “gift” can bring great riches or somehow trigger death and he has little control over which of the two his visions will bring about. Faced with this crisis, he stops using his powers to pick winning racehorses or juicy business opportunities — by and by, Courtland becomes a rich man due to Triton’s psychic insight.

In one of his flashes of foresight he sees doom, and in a panic he abandons his fiancée (Virginia Bruce) and Courtland with no explanation. The only chance of avoiding tragedy, he believes, is to leave and never return. Holed up in a seedy Bunker Hill tenement in downtown Los Angeles, he goes into self-imposed isolation. His room overlooks the Angels Flight funicular that chugs up and down the steep incline. Likewise, he moves through his days with a mechanical repetitiveness, avoiding human contact for it can only bring about tragedy and heartache. 

When finally an opportunity for redemption arrives, it comes wrapped in impending tragedy, so at best Triton can save a life, but in doing so his actions will exact a great cost to himself.


There’s a handful of noirs with a supernatural theme running through them. They include “Alias Nick Beal,” “Night Tide,” and “Ministry of Fear,” to mention a few — I’m sure there are more. What others am I missing? 

Some, like “Dementia,” "The Seventh Victim" and “Cat People” combine elements of horror, film noir and expressionism. More about them in my next post.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Jazz Mania: Film Noir, Bebop and the Devil’s Music

Elisha Cook Jr., 'Phantom Lady' (1944)

You might be surprised to learn that jazz didn’t show up in film noir right away even though by the 1940s swing was part of the popular music landscape and bebop was well on its way to becoming a solid American art form. But you wouldn’t know it by watching “The Maltese Falcon” and other early noir offerings. 

The fact is, initially at least, film noir producers didn’t seem to dig that style of freewheeling music. Typically, they played it safe, sticking with traditional orchestral arrangements instead of cool improvisational compositions played by hip bands and small combos. In short, when it came to music, Hollywood establishment cats were squares.

A couple of noir films finally presented a scene or two of jazz musicians doing their thing, but in both cases the music serves as a backdrop that fairly drips of sex, drugs, crime and madness — in other words, good, if overheated, material for a crime drama, but unflattering to the musical genre itself.

Ella Raines, Elisha Cook Jr., "Phantom Lady"
For openers, “Phantom Lady” (1944) offers a strange, mesmerizing view of an impromptu basement jam session. It may not have been jazz’s first appearance in noir, but it sticks in the memory. 

Based on the Cornell Woolrich novel of the same title, “Phantom Lady”  is a nightmarish odyssey that takes place over a single night. The story involves a woman’s hat, which becomes the object of an obsessive hunt that leads to run-ins with dangerous characters in shadowy corners of an unforgiving urban sprawl. 

Carol Richman (Ella Raines) crosses paths with Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), the drummer in a pit orchestra. They flirt and he brings her to an after hours jam session. Cliff sits in with the other musicians and the scene’s centerpiece is his drum solo, a performance that is a none-too-subtle expression of sexual  desire — Cliff is the one whose temperature rises to the boiling point, while Carol plays along in hope of getting vital information from him. 

He pounds out a frenzied solo on a trap set, his maniacal, leering expression, aimed at Carol, registers a 10 on the creep meter. Cliff later figures out that Carol has been leading him on and she splits before there’s any trouble, leaving Cliff to catch his breath and take a cold shower.

Then there’s the nightclub scene in “D.O.A.” (1949), which gives us a cartoonish rendition of both jazz and the kookie audience that grooves on the stuff. 

Frank Gerstle, Edmond O'Brien, 'D.O.A.' (1949)
Above all else, “D.O.A.” is a sobering, paranoid meditation on nuclear radiation’s deadly effects on the human race, and the pitfalls of self-absorption and hedonism. Small-town accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) comes to the big city and by chance meets a bunch of traveling salesmen and their lady companions who are all staying at his hotel. They persuade him to come to a bar and it turns out to be a hipster scene. 

Frank, a bit of a square, came to San Francisco to let his hair down before making up his mind whether or not to propose to his sweetheart back home. So he’s tantalized to check out this pre-beatnik era hangout for the bohemian set. He mingles with a lady at the bar and makes a date to meet her later that night. All the while a jazz combo is blowing up a storm on the bandstand. The excitement builds until the musicians and the crowd are in a frenzied state. The nightclub practically levitates as both the band and club patrons get caught up in the frenzied beat to the point of madness. 

The bartender, inured to the cacophony, shrugs it off. They’re “jive crazy," he says. "That means they go for this stuff.”

Frank doesn’t much understand the hipster crowd, but it looks like he’s gotten lucky, and that plus the booze are clouding his better judgment. He’s too distracted to pay much attention to the man slipping something into his drink. He takes a big sip of his tainted cocktail and things start to go sideways.

Swinging in San Francisco, 'D.O.A.'
Like the scene in “Phantom Lady,” an infectious rhythm dominates the action like a swift current carrying small crafts toward the edge of a waterfall. Both films seem to be saying that jazz is not only background music for bad behavior, it’s perhaps a catalyst for it. And while both scenes border on self parody, they are oddly striking, maybe even iconic. 

The action and cross-cutting is thrilling and mind-bending. The hyped-up, cartoonish performances may not be an accurate depiction of how real jazz is played — although, of the two, “Phantom Lady” comes closer to the real McCoy — but in each case the music becomes a powerful antagonistic force that tests the heroes’ mettle. Personally speaking, those are two gigs that I wouldn’t mind attending, martini in hand.


In later years Hollywood got hip to modern music, and jazz held a more exalted position in noir. Here are a handful of memorable performances.

“Gilda” (1946). More of a big band performance than modern jazz, Rita Hayworth wows them with a smoldering rendition of  “Put the Blame on Mame.”

“Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), featuring a performance by the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

“Elevator to the Gallows” (1957), score by Miles Davis.

“I Want to Live” (1957), score by Johnny Mandel and Gerry Mulligan.

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959), score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.  

I’d venture to guess that there are more that belong on the list. Which are your favorites? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Key to Marlowe’s Conundrum is In a Can of Cat Food

Elliot Gould, "The Long Goodbye" (1973)

One of my favorite neo-noirs is “The Long Goodbye” (1973), Robert Altman’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel of the same title, published 20 years earlier. Altman’s most drastic alteration of Chandler’s opus is placing the story in the 1970s instead of eight years after the end of World War II, when the novel is set. In doing so the film puts Chandler’s hero, private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould), in a starkly different Los Angeles. 

Here, Marlowe, the slightly impoverished white knight with a touch of wry wit, doesn't quite fit in. He's an anachronism in a time when private detectives in skinny ties and black morticians' suits are about as unhip as you can get.

His neighbors at the High Tower apartment building in Hollywood Heights are a gaggle of young female hipsters who practice yoga topless on their balcony and run a candle shop on Sunset. The grocery clerk (Rodney Moss) at his local supermarket gets busted in a protest march against police brutality. Marlowe also encounters a shifty psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) running a clinic that’s a cult-like new age treatment center. Still, the intrepid shamus takes his unfamiliar surroundings in stride, shrugging it off with bemused nonchalance. “It’s OK with me,” he says.

The film’s opening sequence finds Marlowe awakening on his bed, fully dressed, as if he’s coming out of a 20-year trance. Unlike the Marlowe we’re more familiar with, this one owns a cat and the kitty is hungry. After a trip to the market in the wee hours he tries to palm off a Brand-X cat food to the discriminating el gato, even putting the stuff in an empty can of the kitty’s favorite brand. But, as any cat owner could predict, it’s no dice. The famished feline isn’t fooled and takes a hard pass.

All of this may seem beside the point of the story, but in a way it hints at what’s to come.

Marlowe on a cat food quest.
Marlowe gets pulled into a murder case involving his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who is accused of killing his wife in a most brutal fashion. Marlowe doesn’t believe that Lennox is guilty and he sets out to prove his pal’s innocence. His investigation takes a long, winding path. Along the way he’s hired by a Malibu socialite (Nina van Pallandt) to find and retrieve her alcoholic husband (Sterling Hayden) who’s gone missing, a matter that seems unrelated to Terry Lennox’s woes. But as is often the case in Chandler stories, we learn that the two are directly connected. 

That’s where the can of cat food comes in.

It's a signal that we’re going to see a much greater subterfuge unfold before the ending credits roll. 

Granted, it’s a bit of a trek before we discover who’s pulling the wool over whose eyes. That’s because none of Marlowe’s initial suspicions hit the mark. In fact, the freelance shamus is a few steps behind the LAPD in its investigation. But that’s OK, because part of the reason we like Marlowe is that he’s not the Superman of detectives and his fallibilities make him relatable. He’s driven by a sense of right and wrong and is doggedly determined to seek justice for all who deserve it. It’s those qualities that drive him to stick to a case even after the LAPD give up on it. 

Once Marlowe figures out the final piece of the puzzle his response is shocking. More than a few Chandler fans cried foul. Let’s just say that this Marlowe proves himself to be considerably changed from the one we may be more familiar with. He’s living in a different era and like the world around him, Marlowe has adapted.

But getting back to the cat food matter, Altman said that the sequence points out that “you can’t fool a cat.” Maybe so, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe you can’t con a kitty into eating Brand-X, but you can fool an audience, and that’s the point of it. “The Long Goodbye” does what any great mystery ought to do — misdirect us until its final, rather brutal and controversial reveal. We may know that we’re in for a big finish, but we never want to see it coming.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

'Highway 301': There's a Killer on the Road

Wally Cassell, Steve Cochran, Richard Egan, Edward Norris,
Robert Webber, 'Highway 301' (1950). 

It’s a wonder that anyone gets through the first few minutes of "Highway 301," a noir based on the true-life crime wave perpetrated by an outfit called the Tri-State Gang. The film is a taut little thriller that starts off with wooden speeches by three, count ‘em, three state governors, the honorable gentlemen of  North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, where the real Tri-State Gang did its dirty work. Their turgid preambles are the same: Crime doesn’t pay, kids. It’ll make you roll your eyes and, depending on where you are, either change the channel or head for the snack bar.

But don't be put off. You might assume that the rest of the movie is just as cringe-worthy as the opening sequence but you’d be dead wrong. The action whips up to a furious pace as we follow a gang of bank robbers led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran), who seldom hesitates to squeeze the trigger whenever someone gets in his way — and that “someone” can include any of the gang members’ women who are traveling with them. He’s got pure Freon coursing through his veins and a thousand-yard stare that could stop a freight train. This being noir, the film admirably avoids giving us a fancy psychological profile explaining how he ended up this way. Bad childhood? Obviously, but who cares? He’s a B-movie killing machine. Enough said.

The rest of the hoods are a good deal less trigger happy than their boss and are quite subservient to him — who wouldn’t be? The guy’s nuts. They include Herbie Brooks (Richard Egan), Bobby Mais (Wally Cassell), Bill Phillips (Robert Webber) and the driver (Edward Norris). 

Steve Cochran, Gaby André.
French-Canadian Lee Fontaine (Gaby Andre), newly wed to gang member Bill Phillips (Robert Webber), hangs out with the band of henchmen not realizing that she’s sitting on a powder keg. Bill tells her that he and his buddies deal in women’s apparel and furs. Legenza’s girlfriend Madeline Welton (Aline Towne) who offers a bit of sarcastic comic relief, scoffs at the naive Lee. “Furs that fell off the back of a truck,” she sneers. Tension mounts as Lee finally gets the full picture of what’s going on. She knows too much, which is a surefire way to end up in a landfill. 

Voiceover narration by head investigator Det. Sgt. Truscott (Edmon Ryan) sets up each sequence, giving the film a documentary feel which fits well in this true crime drama. The cops want desperately to stop the gang’s wave of murder and robbery which Truscott characterizes as terrorism.

Director Andrew L. Stone keeps the action flowing and the tension wound as tightly as a two dollar watch. He plays with the audience’s emotions and expectations the way a conductor directs a symphony. Particularly good are his action sequences that include car chases and shootouts. One standout sequence moves from the interior of an apartment building to a park and finally to city streets and ends with a stunning twist. He also ramps up the jitteriness in a chase scene involving elevators and staircases. The tension of watching the elevator floor indicator dial move as a killer approaches his victim is heart-stopping. The unintended corker is that the elevator operator witnesses a particularly vicious murder and seems barely moved by it — maybe that’s business as usual in the elevator game. 

The film boasts the use of real-life locations, but most of it was shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. The studio rushed it into production to capitalize on the success of “White Heat,” in which Cochran co-starred with James Cagney. Like his role in the Cagney film, Cochran again fits perfectly into the part of a deadly lothario who acts with chilling brutality. It’s understandable that audiences in 1950 would be shocked by the level of violence depicted here — which probably helps explain the outsized concession that allowed the three governors the chance to hijack the first few minutes of the film.

Even so, we’re apt to concede that, yes, crime doesn’t pay, as the three stuffed shirts tell us, but it can also be pretty entertaining, and that’s why it’s worth watching. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

When Tinsel Town Turns the Camera on Itself

Rod Steiger, 'The Big Knife' (1955).

Face it, scandals make good news copy and the Los Angeles entertainment industry produces a bumper crop of the stuff that keeps gossip writers in business. 

From Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle to Harvey Weinstein the press has never been at a loss for words when it comes to movie industry playboys who can’t control their libidos. An occasional murder, drug overdose or sexual assault crops up now and then and the public can’t get enough of the lurid details.

The gossip that follows a large public display of dirty laundry is especially enticing because it puts the Hollywood elite in a harsh spotlight that’s different from the radiant glow of positive press-agent-generated fluff that we normally see.

 With Damien Chazelle’s marathon tribute to decadent early Hollywood, “Babylon,” fresh in our collective memories, it’s a good time to consider some of the movies that Hollywood has made about itself over the years. Some of the best are noirs, or noir influenced, that examine the decadence and depravity of the movie making capital of the world.

‘Sunset Blvd.’ (1950)

William Holden
Films noir that savage the entertainment industry got their start with the granddaddy of Hollywood takedowns, “Sunset Blvd.” Young screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) has hit a career dead end and is about to leave Los Angeles. Broke and unemployed, he meets delusional former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who is self-exiled in her dilapidated mansion and is girding herself for a showbusiness comeback — although the industry wants nothing to do with her. 

“Sunset Blvd.” is a darkly comedic parable of youth obsessed Hollywood, whose older guard preys upon the vitality of the young fresh faces that migrate there with high hopes and naïve understanding of the parasitic society they’ve entered. Norma is a washed-up former star who cannot cope with no longer being the ingénue. She’s hit the half-century mark and there’s no one less wanted than an aging woman in Hollywood.

She latches onto Gillis and puts him to work rewriting a putrid script she scratched out on what we may darkly imagine is parchment made from human tissue. She expects this extravaganza, a retelling of the story of Salome, will be the vehicle for her big-screen comeback. Gillis plays along because he’s at the end of his rope financially and believes he’ll pocket some sorely needed cash. 

But Norma is too sharp for the rookie scribbler. When it finally dawns on him that he has become a fellow inmate in her Gothic nightmare of a home along with her dedicated man servant, Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), it’s too late to wriggle free. By the time he gets around to making a run for it, Gillis completes his journey through the depths of Hollywood depravity with an unscheduled dip in Norma’s pool and a couple of slugs of lead in his back. 

‘In a Lonely Place’ (1950) 

Humphrey Bogart
Dixon Steel (Humphrey Bogart) is a former A-list screenwriter whose career tanked. His last hit was before the war. He’s an alcoholic with a hot temper that occasionally flares up into violence. His inner rage, perhaps the result of war related post traumatic stress syndrome, causes him pick fights with the mean-spirited jokers he encounters. 

He gets into a barroom punch-out with a lout who degrades an old, washed up actor who lives from one drink to the next. Turns out the lout is the son of a studio chief, but Steele is far beyond worrying about how the brawl might hurt his career.

Based on the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same title, “In a Lonely Place” is a study of Dixon Steele’s insecurities and tendency toward self-sabotage. It’s also an indictment against toxic environments present in the Hollywood studio system. His handlers tolerate Steele’s artistic temperament, all right, and they’d probably be perfectly willing to look the other way and cover up any transgressions. When one of their own uses his star power to take advantage of a woman it’s just business as usual. 

When he brings Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a naïve coat check girl, to his apartment it’s clear that he’s no predator. She’s going to tell him the plot of a novel he’s supposed to have read so that he can decide whether or not he wants to adapt it to the screen. He changes into a robe to get comfortable, which startles Mildred at first until she realizes that he doesn’t have any hanky-panky in mind. She tells him about the book. But as she describes the plot he realizes that the novel is trash and sends her home in a taxi. 

But after Mildred is discovered strangled and left by the roadside Steele’s world begins to come apart. A few friends have a nagging suspicion that he may have done something terrible. His agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith), is set with an escape plan to Mexico. We can only wonder how many times he’s helped other clients avoid the consequence for their bad behavior.  

When Steele is identified as a person of interest in the murder investigation we see the paranoid delusions that begin to cloud his brain. There’s no telling what’s liable to send him into a rage and as suspicion begins to coalesce around him his erratic behavior increases. His friends wonder whether or not he killed the young girl, and so do we. 

‘The Big Knife’ (1955)

Ida Lupino, Jack Palance
Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is a movie star under contract with a major studio and he wishes he wasn’t. He lives in big house and has all of the comforts that a load of cash and celebrity can provide. But the film industry is ruining his life. He’s alienated from his estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), who can’t stand being married to a drunken womanizer who has compromised his ideals. 

Charlie would like to quit the business but the snag is that his melodramatic boss, studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), won’t let him off the hook. Charlie’s contract is about to expire and Hoff is determined to make him sign another. 

One of main attractions of “The Big Knife” is the three-ring circus Charlie’s living room becomes when all of the hangers on converge like sharks around a drowning man. Hoff, the lead shark, has a conniption when the Charlie balks at signing a new contract. Steiger’s performance as Hoff is, shall we say, over the top, even for an actor known for occasionally chewing the scenery like a chainsaw. 

“The Big Knife” is the story of a corrupted actor who has sold out to the Hollywood machine, gets caught in its gears and is about to be torn asunder. He’s sacrificed his artistic integrity for the monied life of a film star but it’s an empty existence that’s brought him little happiness. But why does Hoff have so much power over the actor? A dark secret lurks in Charlie’s past and because of it he’s doomed to walk the Hollywood treadmill for eternity. 

In movieland, depravity is contagious, and even a naïve palooka like Charlie can’t help but be drawn into it. It’s easy to become corrupted when everyone around you is ethically bankrupt and willing to cover up your embarrassing and felonious transgressions when you land in hot water. And Charlie is in it up to his neck.

‘Barton Fink’ (1991)

John Turturro 
A noir-tinged comedy set in the 1940s, “Barton Fink” tells the story of the titular character, played exquisitely by John Turturro, an up-and-coming playwright with a politically progressive bent — a thinly veiled stand-in for Clifford Odets. 

His socially aware dramas are taking the New York theater world by a storm. But Fink, irritated by the nitwits and hangers on who plague his existence, has high ideals and an even higher opinion of his own artistic merits. Lured to the West Coast by the promise of piles of cash, he has to twist himself into knots justifying his transition from the stages of Broadway to the backlot of Capitol Pictures, his new employer. 

But move there he does, and from his first day in Los Angeles Fink finds himself in a Kafkaesque nightmare. His hotel is extra creepy, the studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) kills him with spooky kindness, assuring him that the writer is king at Capitol Pictures — a deceptive reading of the facts, if there ever was one. 

His next-door neighbor at the dilapidated Hotel Earle, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), is a too friendly, in-your-face bumpkin with some peculiar habits. Fink meets one of his idols, author W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a thinly disguised William Faulkner, who, like Fink, has been lured to the shores of “the Great Salt Lake” by the promise of riches.

The darkly humorous conceit that runs throughout “Barton Fink” is that Hollywood is hell. Fink failed to read the sign posted at the gates of the city: “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here.” It’s a warning that fools ignore, because, after all, they know better.

‘Hollywood Story’ (1951)

Richard Conte
If “Hollywood Story” has a familiar feel, that’s because it’s is based on the real-life murder of film director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922), a crime that remains unsolved. 

In this fictionalized account of the Taylor case, New York theatrical director Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) comes to Hollywood to direct his first picture with longtime pal Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). 

O’Brien’s agent, Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), persuades him to direct a film at a disused movie lot that thrived during the silent film era. The director becomes obsessed with a murder of a silent era director, Franklin Ferrera, that happened on the same movie lot more than 20 years before. 

It’s not of the same caliber as the above-mentioned films, but “Hollywood Story” needs to be added to the list when discussing noir’s cold, hard look at the entertainment industry. Perhaps most significantly, it was directed by B-movie maven William Castle, who produced many thrillers on the cheap and promoted them with gimmicks. 

For his film “Macabre” (1958), he came up with the idea to give every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies with hearses parked outside the theaters.

It may not have been promoted with flashy attention-getting hokum, but “Hollywood Story” is, like other Castle films, a bare-bones production, ginned up with cameos by a number of silent film era actors and a few location shots. He knew how to stretch a production budget dollar. 

After O’Brien decides to do a film about the murder he meets resistance from his producing partner, his agent and the deceased director’s heirs who would rather let the matter rest. But then someone fires a bullet at O’Brien, warning him to drop the film. Of course, he doesn’t, and we’re left guessing the killer’s identity until the conclusion.

A forced happy ending tacked onto “Hollywood Story” no doubt calmed the nerves of studio execs and investors who feared a dark wrap-up would result in thin box office returns. Those concerns were probably unnecessary. Few things are more appealing to B-movie audiences than the sight of a Hollywood meltdown, preferably with a hack screenwriter floating face down in the pool. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Casual Malice: Ascots in Crime Films

Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, 'Beat the Devil' (1953).

What’s in an ascot, you ask? Quite a lot, actually. The loosely tied neckwear that’s tucked inside an open-collared shirt (for hardcore cases, tucked into a smoking jacket) says a lot about the character wearing it. 

Choosing an ascot is a ticklish matter. It can make you appear rakish, roguish and maybe sleazy. It sometimes adds a whiff of foreign intrigue — or at least that’s what the wearer might like you to think. At worst, it’s a bum fashion choice made by a square trying to look like a swinger.

In films, ascots are often worn by slick operators, gigolos, the idle rich and a few crime fighters. Here’s an assortment of the sporty characters and misfits who wear them. 

Robert Walker
Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
Bruno is a confused fellow who mistakenly thinks he’s made a murderous pact with pro tennis player Guy Haynes (Farley Granger). A man of leisure who sponges off his wealthy parents, Bruno has lots of time to dream up fantastical, dangerous schemes. His lounging attire: a dandyish ascot and smoking jacket robe. We’d expect nothing less from him.

Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman,
Patricia Hitchcock.
Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll) “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
For some reason U.S. Senator Morton speaks with a British accent — or is that an Ivy League mid-Atlantic brogue? He wears a robe and ascot to an impromptu late-night family conference because, we assume, that’s the way posh dads dress in Washington, D.C. 

Gina Lollobrigida, Humphrey Bogart.
Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) “Beat the Devil” (1953)
Billy is an American traveling overseas with a motley group of cutthroat business associates. At ease on the European continent, he dresses like the locals — his jacket and ascot give him an unstudied, casual air. He’s the antithesis of the ugly American even if some of his travel companions are the scum of the earth.

John Cazale
Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) “The Godfather II” (1974)
The Corleone family shunted their second eldest son Fredo off to Las Vegas to keep him out of harm’s way. Now under the dubious tutelage of casino boss Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), Fredo dresses like a strip club barker and an ascot does little to improve his image. A hipster he’s not.

Al Pacino
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) “The Godfather II” (1974)
Unlike his brother Fredo, Michael seems relaxed and stylish in an ascot. But, despite his unflappable appearance he's a man who is never fully at ease. Ever on guard, he watches for the next foe to make his move. All the while he’s dressed impeccably.

Edward Fox
The Jackal (Edward Fox) “The Day of the Jackal” (1973)
A hired assassin known as “The Jackal” is every bit the steely killer that his moniker implies. He’s the picture of cool as he attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. The ascot affords him a suave, relaxed look that allows him to blend into his environment. But there’s nothing casual about the Jackal — he’s all business.

Cary Grant

John Robie (Cary Grant) “To Catch a Thief” (1955)
Let’s say you’re a retired jewel thief luxuriating on the French Riviera. You’re obviously going to wear an ascot, as does ex-cat burglar John Robie — it’s practically mandated by law. Someone is pilfering expensive trinkets from the fabulously wealthy and the gendarmes think that Robie’s the one behind it all. He’s got to corner the real burglar to prove that his hands are clean. In the meantime, he’s busy romancing Grace Kelly, as retired jewel thieves do. 

Jeroen Krabbe

Gen. Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) “The Living Daylights” (1987)
Renegade Soviet Gen. Koskov tries to manipulate the British into assassinating his rival, Gen. Pushkin. Yes, this is a spy story, not a crime film. But let’s remember it’s not just any spy flick, it’s a Bond movie — albeit one that was chosen at random. It belongs to a film dynasty with a decades-long relationship with the ascot. It would be unseemly to ignore that connection.  


Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas) “Too Many Crooks” (1959)
Billy’s wife is kidnapped by bumbling hoodlums and they’re holding her for ransom. No dice. He’s been carrying on with his secretary and would be delighted to have wifey vanish permanently. His red and white polka-dotted ascot is practically the international banner of rakes worldwide and he wears it with pride.

Roddy McDowall

Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) “Evil Under the Sun” (1982)
Writer Rex Brewster finds himself smack dab in the middle of a murder mystery. The deceased woman refused to sign a release document, which tripped up Rex’s plans to publish a tell-all biography of her life. Is he the lout who felled the quarrelsome lady? Beware, Rex sports a red and white polka-dotted ascot. Say no more.

Michel Piccoli

Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), “Topaz” (1969)
Spy ring leader Jacques Granville (yes, it’s another spy movie) is the picture of urbane sophistication in his ascot and crimson smoking jacket. The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds as Westerners scramble to gather evidence of Soviet nuclear missiles positioned on the Caribbean island just south of Key West. Meanwhile, Granville lights up an excellent Cuban cigar. The fate of Western civilization may hang in the balance, but those concerns should never interrupt the enjoyment of a good smoke.

Gene Barry

Capt. Amos Burke (Gene Barry) “Burke’s Law” (1963-’66, ABC-TV)
Suave, sophisticated Amos Burke is a multi-millionaire who lives in a mansion and is chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce limousine. Somehow, he’s also an L.A. homicide detective who solves a tricky murder case each week. After a challenging day of rounding up killers he relaxes at home, as do most lawmen, with a pitcher of martinis and wearing immaculately tailored suits that are often complemented by an ascot.

Joan Crawford, Jack Palance

Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) “Sudden Fear” (1952)
Lester, a classic noir cad, is an unsuccessful actor who gloms onto noted playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford). They get hitched, but Lester and longtime lover Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) cook up a dark plan for Myra. However, Myra has a few ideas of her own. Lester’s neckwear marks him as a smoothie, but Myra will prove a challenging match for him.

If you yearn to get ahead in a field such as burglary, casino management, law enforcement or espionage consider wearing an ascot. It could help pave the way to a new, exciting career.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

‘Eddie Coyle’ Introduced Us to ‘Boston Noir’

Robert Mitchum in 'The Friends of Eddie Coyle' (1973).

How Boston labor union muscle
terrorized Hollywood film crews

No one was quite ready for the grittiness of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” when it arrived in theaters in 1973. 

It didn’t look like most films that Hollywood turned out — it had a certain rawness in each shot that probably wouldn’t pass muster in Tinsel Town, and there’s not a single hint of glamor in the crumbling urban landscape in which the story unfolds. 

What’s more, it’s a tale of low-level hoods, about as far as one can get from the top echelon mafioso of “The Godfather” (1972).

All of those elements could and did work in various films set in the big, shiny, bustling American metropolises, but not so much in Boston. Sure, there was “The Boston Strangler,” a ripped-from-the-headlines police procedural that used then-fashionable split screen montages. But that was a psychological study, not nearly as unapologetically raw as “Eddie Coyle.” 

Lacking in Allure
You had “Mean Streets,” “The French Connection,” both New York stories, and even “Get Carter,” set in London and Newcastle, England. But, my God, this was Boston, a backwater with an abundance of colleges and universities and a depressed economy. 

City folks had been moving out to the suburbs in droves at least 10 years prior. As movie locations go, it was no New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. 

Labor Pains
To make matters worse, labor unions presented a major problem for film crews working in Boston in those days. A production could get shut down by a guy with a broken nose and a blackjack in his back pocket. The Teamsters labor union held Boston film productions in a hammerlock, according to Boston film critic Ty Burr

Teamster truck drivers smashed windshields and beat up crew members if they didn’t get what they wanted. It appears that the “Eddie Coyle” crew didn’t have significant difficulties with the union — could it be because the Teamsters were Robert Mitchum fans? 

A Familiar Kind of Criminal
Despite the drawbacks, British-born director Peter Yates liked Boston as a filming location and remarked that the criminals in Boston were like those in London. They wouldn’t harm others so long as they got the loot they were after — a criminal ethic of a bygone era, he wistfully declaims on the “Eddie Coyle” DVD commentary track.

What changed the perception of Boston as a lackluster setting for a crime story was George V. Higgins’s novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” on which the film is based. The book was so highly regarded that it not only put Boston on the crime film map, it inspired a sub-genre of fiction and crime movies — Boston noir, if you will. 

Novel Influenced Writers
The novel was a big influence on writers local to his area as well, such as Robert B. Parker (“High Profile,” “Valediction”) and Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone, Baby, Gone”). Elmore Leonard, who was based in Michigan, said “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was the best crime novel he’d ever read, and it was an inspiration in his own writing. 

When Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” into the film “Jackie Brown,” he changed the lead character’s name from Jackie Burke, as it was in the novel, to Jackie Brown in homage to George Higgins’s book — one of Eddie Coyle’s gun-running cohorts is named Jackie Brown. 

A Dialogue Driven Novel
What made Higgins’s book stand out, unlike other crime novels of that era, is that it’s around 80 percent dialogue and the dialogue beautifully defined the story’s characters. Higgins, born and raised in the Boston area, had a sharp ear for the way people talked. He knew their accents and inflections. 

Before embarking on a writing career, he was an assistant prosecutor who helped bring a number of Boston-area gangsters to trial. Then he went into private law practice and defended them. He knew how they spoke and how they thought and was skilled at getting the nuances and details of their speech down on paper. 

The Rich and the Poor
But what makes “Eddie Coyle” the cornerstone of Boston crime novels and movies is its depiction of two separate but intertwined worlds that are endemic to the city. There’s the Harvard-educated upper class and the struggling working class. 

The dingy areas in which Eddie Coyle travels are shown in marked contrast to the glimpses we get of bankers’ comfortable suburban homes. Prior to Higgins’s novel we’d not seen Boston portrayed in such a divided state, at least not in crime novels.

The story takes place in the late 1960s or early ‘70s when the city was especially down at its heels. Director Peter Yates shot the least photogenic sides of the city, unlike “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), which presented a tourist’s view of Boston. 

The City's Rough Edges
“Eddie Coyle” shows the places that the chamber of commerce didn’t want outsiders to see, the tacky strip malls, dingy bowling alleys, dive bars, seedy cafeterias and the like — where working-class folks circulate. For that it has an authentic, unvarnished look. 

Shots are efficient, blunt and not as conspicuously composed as are other films of the genre in that era. It has none of Martin Scorsese’s artfully designed, meticulously lit scenes that somehow make desolation look beautiful. “Eddie Coyle” is as often as not lit by the greenish glow of fluorescent tubes and flickering neon Narragansett Beer signs.

Peter Boyle as Dillon, and Mitchum.

Adding Up the Pieces
We see meetings between gangsters and sometimes between gangsters and cops. The story’s episodic nature leaves us to piece together the facts and figure out what’s going on. Eddie Coyle is in only about half of the film. 

The rest of the time we witness his so-called friends, their machinations and the jockeying they do to get what they want. The title is ironic — Eddie has no friends, only acquaintances and crime associates on whom he’s come to depend and obviously shouldn’t. 

A Page Right Out of the Novel
The film retains the novel’s local flavor due largely to the screenplay’s loyalty to Higgins’s dialogue. Entire scenes are transcribed verbatim from the book, which works because the book often reads like a film treatment. 

In the end, the job of adapting the novel to a screenplay was given not to Higgins but to veteran TV writer Paul Monash who had worked on shows as varied as “The Untouchables” and “Peyton Place.”

The Low Man
It’s the dialogue that pulls us into the life of the title character, Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), an almost flat broke gangster who sells guns to criminals. He’s on the bottom rung of the crime syndicate ladder and he doesn’t get much respect from his peers. 

Eddie is a family man who lives in a cramped apartment with his wife and three kids in a blue collar town on the outskirts of Boston. The family is his only ray of sunshine in the bleak world that he inhabits. He’s facing a criminal charge that means jail time and he’s desperate to avoid that. 

Not only because his family will have to go on welfare, but because people are beginning to wonder if he’s snitching to the police. Once inside prison it would be easy to have him done away with.

Made for the Role
Mitchum is a natural fit for the role of Eddie, the hard-luck gun runner whose life is in a state of increasing turmoil. He was first approached to play the role of Dillion, a bartender whose saloon Eddie frequents to sip draft beer and commiserate. 

But Mitchum read the script and decided he wanted to play the title character. As it turned out, his sleepy eyed, world-weary demeanor was made to order for the role. 

A 'Noir God' 
And what qualifications he had — a bona fide film noir god who in real life did time for a pot bust in the 1940s, further cementing his bad boy credentials. Other actors’ careers would have been devastated by the publicity. For Mitchum, it was merely good press.

He’d recently starred in David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) playing against type as a cuckolded Irish schoolteacher. Although the film was a financial success the critics eviscerated it. His career was at a lull and he needed a role that would put him back in a favorable light, and Eddie Coyle was just such a role. 

A Night on the Town
Peter Boyle ended up playing the shifty bartender Dillon and handled the part magnificently. He was a shoulder for Eddie to cry on, and even gave the gun runner a night on the town prior to his sentencing. But beware of hoodlums bearing gifts.

Bank robbers use the guns Eddie provided to them.

To prepare for his role, Mitchum wanted to hang out with notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger

A Word to the Wise
Actor Alex Rocco, who plays a bad guy in the film — he was also Moe Green in “The Godfather” — had a real-life history of association with Boston criminals having grown up in the city and gotten into scrapes with the law. 

Rocco gave Mitchum sound advice. “You don’t want to hang out with Whitey.” Instead, he introduced him to Howie Winter, a local gangster with whom Mitchum eventually spent time, all in the name of research.

An Insider's Pointers
Speaking of authoritative advice on the ins and outs of organized crime, Yates found that working in Boston, even with the hassles of dealing with thuggish union men, had its advantages. He recalled attempting to direct a scene depicting a gang hit, and he wasn’t sure how to stage it authentically. 

A Teamster truck driver piped up, saying he knew others who did such things, and he offered some advice which the director ended up following. It was at that point that Yates realized that the driver had probably done exactly what he was advising the on-screen talent to do.

That brought a greater sense of realism to the screen — much greater than anyone would have anticipated. And that's what you don’t learn in film school.