Life and Death in L.A.: May 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

Raoul Walsh Biographer Intros Two at Egyptian

If you live in the L.A. area you'll want to be at the Egyptian Theater Friday, June 10, when two of director Raoul Walsh's towering achievements in crime cinema, "High Sierra" and "The Roaring Twenties," will be screened. And to celebrate the first book-length biography of Walsh, Marilyn Ann Moss, author of "Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director," will be on hand to introduce the double feature. Both films are 35mm prints and star Humphrey Bogart.
"High Sierra" (1941) is the quintessential gangster romance. Humphrey Bogart plays Mad Dog Earle, an outlaw looking for one last score, sidetracked by love, hounded by inescapable fate. With the incomparable Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie. Remade twice, as "Colorado Territory" and "I Died a Thousand Times."
With "The Roaring Twenties"(1939), Raoul Walsh came bursting onto the screen in his first Warner Bros. directorial outing. This gangster tale stars James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart as World War I vets who return to an unwelcoming American society and go straight to the criminal life instead.
The script is by Warner Bros. writing team Jerry Wald and Richard Macauley, and the film was produced by erstwhile journalist Mark Hellinge.
Also starring Gladys Cooper as Cagney's saloon-owner friend and Priscilla Lane as the woman who just can't love Cagney the way he wants.

To subscribe to this blog, click the "Follow" button on the right.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How Do They Know About Noir?

Video gamers are taking to recent release "L.A. Noire," a game based on films noir crime stories. The game is set in 1947 Los Angeles, and its story includes the stuff that makes up hard-boiled detective fiction that inspired several decades of crime films released after World War II.
Most video gamers are younger folks -- at least that's the impression I get whenever there's a new release. The store across the street from me in L.A. has a line of teens going out the door whenever a hot new item goes on the market. So, I wonder, how does this young demographic know about, and it would seem, identify with something buried so deeply in Hollywood's past? Hell, the original films noir haven't been in theaters since their grandparents' day. Would they know Barbara Stanwyck from Lady Gaga?
Maybe that's why the Web is offering primers on film noir, such as this (click here), and this. Here's a list of noirs from IMDB. Kids will need to catch up on actors such as Robert Mitchum, Bogie, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and Ralph Meeker (in photo above in a scene from "Gun Crazy"), to name a few.
Somehow in the arena of video games, films noir seem to communicate with a younger generation, and translate into a medium different from the celluloid fabric from which they came. Maybe that speaks to the power of the original films. They were well designed and executed. And great architecture is eternal.

To subscribe to this blog, click the "Follow" button on the right.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hammer Swings Again

Although he died in 2006, Mickey Spillane has a new crime novel out featuring New York private detective Mike Hammer. Spillane wrote numerous crime novels from the 1940s until shortly before his death, including "I, the Jury" (which sold 3 million copies and launched Spillane's career), Vengeance is Mine" and "My Gun is Quick." He is reputed to have sold more than 200 million novels worldwide. Hammer, the New York City detective featured in Spillane's books, was a hard-as-nails crime fighter who preferred to punch and shoot first and ask questions later. More a vigilante that a detective, Hammer's escapades were reviled by the critics and gobbled up by the general public. Spillane's detective novels were revolutionary for their time due to the inclusion of frank sex and violence in their pages.
The new book, "Kiss Her Goodbye," is the work of Spillane and novelist Max Allan Collins, who completed the unfinished book. On his deathbed, Spillane instructed his wife Jane to give his unfinished manuscripts, notes and outlines to Collins, whom he'd been pals with for a number of years.
Spillane's posthumous novels completed by Collins include "Dead Street" (2007), and the forthcoming "The Consummata."

Subscribe to this blog by clicking the "Follow" button on the right.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Touring Scenes of the Crime (Film)

You can still see some of the hauntingly familiar locations where film noir scenes were shot in the 1930s to '50s. For instance, the rooming house at the intersection of Franklin and Ivar (1851 North Ivar Ave.) in Hollywood. Early on in Billy Wilder's masterpiece, "Sunset Boulevard," hapless screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) taps out pages and puffs Luckies at the residence. Gillis, the struggling scribe with a couple of B pictures to his credit, plays gigolo to faded silent-screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). As we all know, things go badly for the writer. But Gillis does end up getting the in-ground swimming pool he always wanted.

Subscribe to this blog by clicking the "Follow" button on the right.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

AFI Picks Top 10 Gangster Films

American Film Institute members vote on which films they believe are the best. They offer a list of the top 100 films of all time as well as top 10 lists of best genre pictures. Here's the lowdown on their picks for best crime films.
AFI described gangster films as "a genre that centers on organized crime or maverick criminals in a 20th century setting. Profit-minded and highly entrepreneurial, the American gangster is the dark side of the American dream. The gangsters' lifestyles are portraits in extremes, with audiences cheering their excesses and reveling in their demise."

Nominees: Robert De Niro was the most featured actor with seven movies; James Cagney and Al Pacino were featured with five movies each.

Winners: The Godfather (1972) (# 1), GoodFellas (1990) (# 2), The Godfather, Part II (1974) (# 3), White Heat (1949) (# 4), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (# 5), Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932) (# 6), Pulp Fiction (1994) (# 7), The Public Enemy (1931) (# 8), Little Caesar (1930) (see photo above) (# 9), Scarface (1983) (# 10).

Subscribe to this blog by clicking the "Follow" button on the right.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Foreigners Drive Noir Projects Forward

American directors don't seem interested in making many noir-inspired movies these days. Maybe some would like to but can't get the funding. Most American-made films are targeted at a younger audience, and hard-boiled fiction doesn't usually make the cut.
That's OK, foreign filmmakers are picking up some of the slack.
Case in point is Denmark's Nicholas Winding Refn, who just won the Best Director award at Cannes for his film, "Drive," a film noir he shot here in Los Angeles. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a stunt man who makes movies by day and does robberies at night.
I'm reminded that it's often non-Americans who keep American film and music genres alive after audiences in the U.S. turn away. Europeans and Asians have remained solid fans of U.S. home-grown jazz and blues. And the same goes for film genres such as film noir and gangster movies.
I'm glad that someone still sees the value of this kind of filmmaking. Maybe overseas enthusiasm for the genre will catch on here. Let's hope.

Subscribe to this blog by clicking the "Follow" button on the right.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Game Even Mickey Cohen Might Have Liked

"L.A. Noire" launched today. I'm not a video gamer by any means, but it's worth mentioning today's radio interview with John Buntin, author of "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," the book about gangster Mickey Cohen's reign over the City of Angels.
The book and the video game are similarly titled, although the game title has an extra "e" for reasons still unclear to me.
Why mention the game at all in this forum? Because the video game is said to be more cinematic than a non-enthusiast for video games such as myself might suspect. The plot also borrows story points from the AMC TV series "Mad Men," a favorite of mine.
Buntin, who I've had the pleasure of meeting at a book signing he did at the L.A. Athletic Club, got a preview of the game, which has been under heavy wraps by its developer, Rockstar Games. Buntin admired what he saw, all in all, but noted that L.A.'s skies circa 1947, the era in which the "L.A. Noire" game is set, are too pastel blue (where's the smog?), the police don't act as violently as they were capable of then and the city is not shown as densely populated as was 1947 Los Angeles.
However, developers went to great pains to portray the city accurately, poring over 1947 topographical maps of the city, collecting vintage Sears catalogs to get the colors correct -- yes, this "Noire" is in color, not black and white.
For those of us who enjoy the films, fiction and true crime stories of 1930s to 1950s L.A., it's probably a good thing that pop culture is finally catching up with the literature from the shadowy underbelly of Los Angeles. Maybe film-makers will become inspired and create something like the old movies for the big screen.

Subscribe to this blog by clicking the "Follow" button on the right.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dead Hollywood Starlet Still Spotted at Old Haunt?

17575 Pacific Coast Highway, once home of silver screen star Thelma Todd.
Quite by accident I had the opportunity to tour a historic L.A. crime scene this week. I'd seen pictures of the place a thousand times, but I didn't recognize it until my host pointed out the tawdry historic significance of the location -- and that's right up my alley.

I found myself walking the hallways of the apartment and former speakeasy operated by 1920s-'30s screen siren Thelma Todd. The place is a sprawling art deco remnant of the silent film era located at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway. It's got a breath-taking view of the ocean.

Lucky Luciano
According to legend, Todd was a bit of a wild woman. Among the list of notable characters she associated with was notorious gangster Charlie "Lucky" Luciano.

Luciano is alleged to have pressed Todd to allow him to open a gambling den on the top level of her speakeasy. The actress balked.

Theories abound about Todd's death, and aside from Luciano, other suspects include:

- Todd`s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, a self-described agent with underworld connections. After one too many beatings, Todd divorced him. He felt humiliated and may have sought revenge.

Slumped behind the wheel.
- Roland West, a failed director and Todd`s occasional lover. They were co-owners with West`s wife in the Malibu restaurant, Thelma Todd`s Sidewalk Cafe. The three partners lived in a duplex together above the eatery. It was an uncomfortable arrangement, and West bitterly resented Todd`s numerous affairs.

- Jewel Carmen, West`s wife. She didn`t object to her husband`s liaison with Todd, but when the restaurant started to lose money, she threatened to kill Todd for squandering her investment.

On Dec. 16, 1935 after a night of partying at the Trocadero nightclub on Sunset Blvd., Todd was found asphyxiated behind the wheel of her Lincoln Phaeton touring car inside her garage, the doors pulled shut. Her
nose was broken. The death was called accidental, but understandably doubts linger -- with no less than four suspects who could have helped her take that last big curtain call, you'd have to wonder. But the case remains unsolved.

They say the building is haunted by Todd's ghost. I peered through the garage door windows at the scene of the actress's death. It looks very much the same as those 1935 crime scene photos. I did not see Thelma's ghost -- of course, it was the middle of the day.

Maybe another visit, sometime in the early morning hours next Dec. 16 might be a better time to catch a glimpse of the departed actress's restless spirit.

Listen and watch as "Mysteries & Scandals" host A.J. Benza runs down the details of Todd's demise: