Life and Death in L.A.: July 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Bugsy Became A Hollywood Fixture

Here is the final resting place (above) for one Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (left), who ruled L.A.'s underworld until one fateful night in 1947 when his reign came to an abrupt end. Siegel is credited with envisioning Las Vegas, then a dusty desert outpost, as a world-class gambling empire.
But his luck ran out before he could cash his chips.
On the night of June 20, 1947, as Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in his girlfriend Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home, an unknown assailant fired at him through the window with a .30-caliber military M1 carbine, hitting him many times, including twice in the head. No one was charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.
Visit him at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, located conveniently close to Paramount Studios.
The Flamingo Hotel (Below), Las Vegas, 1946 -- Siegel's last big project. The joint failed to bring an immediate profit, and it was the end for Bugsy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Bogart Still Center Stage As American Screen Idol

I talk about film here for the most part, but I would be shirking my duty as a reporter if I didn't mention a book that I finished reading some time ago that deserves to be noted in this forum. It's Stefan Kanfer's biography of Humphrey Bogart, "Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart." A side note: I didn't even receive a review copy of it. I paid full price. I'm just saying ...
The author traces Bogie's life as a child of privilege growing up in a wealthy Manhattan family that later fell into economic hard times, and his ascent from New York theater to an extraordinary career that saw his trajectory shift from character actor to Hollywood leading man.
The title comes from Raymond Chandler's comment upon learning that Bogart was to play Philip Marlowe in the screen adaptation of Chandler's novel, "The Big Sleep." Chandler said he approved of the casting choice because Bogart is "tough without a gun."The book is a clear, balanced history of one of the country's truly great actors. It also looks at how Bogart's reputation diminished sometime after his death, until the next generation again discovered his movies. He's remained an America film icon ever since. For Bogart fans and anyone else interested in film it's a very good read.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Twisted Ways of 'Good Neighbors'

A twisted film noir with two or three very sick characters, the exact number dependant on your point of view, Good Neighbors takes supreme advantage of its grim setting —Montreal in the dead of winter. As any native will tell you, winters there can drive a person crazy.
Although the film’s writer-director Jacob Tierney makes it pretty clear that the tenants of a multi-story apartment complex in the Notre Dame de Grace area are mentally shaky in the best of times. Good Neighbors is a film of acquired taste. If one is willing to accept humor in a movie about a serial killer, if one likes a thriller than emphasizes character over thrills, if one is susceptible to a cast of characters that includes three cats, then the movie has found its very selective target audience. The Canadian film will receive solid reviews and modest box-office returns in south of the border play dates, but Good Neighbors heralds a promising although by no means new talent in actor-turned-writer-director Tierney.
The title is, of course, ironic. The surface friendliness of many of the residents of this aging but well appointed apartment building is mostly a façade. So when three of them seemingly hit it off, there is still general awkwardness all around since everyone feels uncomfortable in one another’s company.
Then there is that serial killer, who menaces young women in the neighborhood. Louise (Emily Hampshire), who works as a waitress in a nearby Chinese restaurant, has become obsessed with the story, scouring Montreal newspapers for any and all stories about each victim. The latest one is a co-worker. Her wheelchair-bound downstairs neighbor Spencer (Scott Speedman) shares her predilection up to a point.
But he mostly likes to keep to himself. Then a new tenant moves in, an elementary school teacher Victor (Jay Baruchel), recently returned to the city from a sojourn in China. Victor eagerly wants to make friends with the other two. Louise and Spencer reluctantly do so but remain wary of the newcomer. To their way of thinking, he is only a tad more agreeable than the crazy, drunken, foul-mouthed tenant (Anne-Marie Cadieux), who hates Louise’s cats. As the trio’s relationships develops, it is soon clear each is a troubled character. Louise’s life is oriented more to her felines, Mozart and Tia Maria, than to humans. Indeed you have to go back to the first 10 minutes of Robert Altman’s classic The Long Goodbye to find a movie where cats figure so prominently.
Victor is almost a benign stalker, a little creepy in his keenness to ingratiate himself to the other tenants, especially Louise on whom he clearly has a crush and soon develops an imaginary love life. Oh, yes, he talks to his mirror too, which in certain movies is always a bad sign. Outwardly Spencer seemsthe best adjusted of the trio despite his handicap. But there is something about his false smile that you instantly distrust. Maybe Spencer is a little too easy-going.
These three live above one another on three separate floors and the walls are paper-thin. In other words, it’s hard to keep secrets in this apartment complex although its manager, Mme Gauthier (veteran actress Micheline Lanctôt), will find herself completely in the dark when a murder takes place in the building itself. Tierney lets his cameras —and those cats, which expand to three when Victor’s cat from China, Balthazar, rejoins him —prowl all over the building from its lobby, stairway and hallways to the fire escape and snowy frontage on a surprisingly deserted street. The place is eerier than a haunted house.
The tensions within the trio’s insular world and then outside their uneasy circle with a crazy neighbor and vicious killer on the loose mount steadily in Tierney’s well orchestrated script, based on a 1982 novel by Chrystine Brouillet. An American might not immediately realize it, but this is a period piece as the story is set in 1995 when all of Quebec was caught up in the referendum about whether the province should sucede from greater Canada. Thus, signs are everywhere urging citizens to vote Oui or Non, which the filmmaker clearly sees metaphorically as a question each character faces in his or her secret life.
This also, as the director makes clear in press notes, puts his story outside the era of DNA and the Internet, which he calls the “death of noir.” Tierney more or less pulls off his elaborate and clever juggling act of elements macabre and disturbing within the seeming normalcy of domestic cats and friendly neighbors. The whole affair is very tongue-in-cheek, a kind of deconstruction of noir atmosphere and its tropes into a meditation on the treachery of the human heart. Working on a modest budget and taking advantage of its very limitations, he brings great vitality and ambiance to a paucity of sets and locations.
Meanwhile his actors deliver wonderfully ambiguous performances. For this isn’t one of those movies where clarity only comes at the end. You’re aware of the identity of the killer before too long. What keeps you guessing is how everyone will react to what they know, or what think they know, about one another. None of which Tierney would have accomplished if it weren’t for animal wranglers Josée Juteau and Raymond Ducasse. Who says you can’t train cats? Opens: July 29 in Los Angeles.
-- Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

'Gangster Squad' Targets Stone

Emma Stone is reportedly in negotiations for a role in "The Gangster Squad," the highly anticipated feature about the reign of L.A. underworld kingpin Mickey Cohen. Sean Penn is slated to portray the mobster.
The 22-year-old Stone has been in the business for a good amount of time but got everyone's attention with breakout role in last summer's "Easy A." She's also expected to appear in the next "Spiderman" reboot.
Stone has been offered the "Gangster Squad" role of Jean, a woman romantically attached to two men: the gangster Cohen and the police officer who is chasing him down.
Ryan Gosling is playing Sgt. Jerry Wooters. Josh Brolin and Michael Pena also star.
The movie is about Cohen, the Brooklyn-born gangster who was sent to Los Angeles by Meyer Lansky to keep an eye on Bugsy Siegel. Cohen became a mob kingpin himself in the 1940s, and at one point fired rounds from two .45-caliber handguns into the ceiling of the Hotel Roosevelt lobby.
"Gangster Squad" is based on a series of articles by Paul Lieberman. "L.A. Rex" author Will Beall wrote the script.
Ruben Fleischer is directing and Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick are producing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Let There Be 'Brighton Rock'

Some great news: "Brighton Rock," the acclaimed new adaptation of Graham Greene‘s classic novel, will be seen in U.S. theaters August 26, thanks to IFC. The film depicts the story of Pinkie, a lowly gangster who romances a naive, lonely waitress, Rose, after she discovers evidence he committed murder.
Fans of British cinema will certainly remember the beloved 1947 version, starring Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, Carol Marsh as Rose, and the fine Hermione Baddeley as Rose’s motherly protector, Ida.
In the new version, Control‘s Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, and Dame Helen Mirren step into the roles, with Andy Serkis and John Hurt rounding out the excellent cast. The film is 28 Weeks Later screenwriter Rowan Joffe‘s feature-film directorial debut.
Carey Mulligan was slated to play Rose but decided to do "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" instead. Whether or not that was a wise move is up for debate, but Riseborough’s performance in the film is said to be “star-making.” The Guardian declared the film “masterpiece” and singled out Riseborough’s acting as particularly skillful. “To say her achievement deserves an Oscar would be somehow to demean it,” raved David Cox. Riseborough was one of our 5 British Breakout Film Stars of 2010, as well as one of our Top 5 British Actresses of the year.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Nicholson Times Two Tonight

A double bill of "Chinatown" and "The Two Jakes" with a special appearance by screenwriter Robert Towne. It takes place at The Aero in Santa Monica.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Remembering the City's Prince of Pulp

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."
-- Raymond Chandler, "Farewell, My Lovely," 1940

This Saturday, July 23, marks the 123rd anniversary of the birth of one of this city's greatest fiction writers, Raymond Chandler. Chandler was born on July 23, 1888 in Chicago. But Los Angeles is the city with which he is most closely associated, and where his mystery novels are set.
Chandler's most famous creation is private detective Philip Marlowe, who prowled the "mean streets" of Los Angeles, a term that Chandler coined. Marlowe was a citadel of moral fiber in a city that had long ago lost its way, seeming to spiral downward into a pit of decay and decadence. Through it all, Marlowe soldiered on, but it was a lonely struggle.
Chandler turned to fiction writing after a failed career as an oil company executive. His hard drinking caused him to be fired in the midst of the Depression. He wrote short stories for pulp crime magazines, and eventually, by age 50, published his first novel, "The Big Sleep."
His novels reflected his attitude toward Los Angeles -- the city is every bit a character in his fiction as is Marlowe. He saw L.A. as a sun-drenched paradise rotting from the inside, filled with hopefuls determined to reinvent themselves, and hucksters looking to make a quick score at the expense of the suckers.
Hired on to adapt James M. Caine's novel "Double Indemnity" to the screen, Chandler not only co-wrote the script with director Billy Wilder, he appeared in one of the film's scenes, reading and smoking a cigarette in a hallway as Fred MacMurray walks by -- a fact that went undiscovered for 55 years.
In addition to "Double Indemnity," Chandler also penned the "The Blue Dahlia" screenplay. His addiction to alcohol was so strong he allegedly went on a round-the-clock bender and dictated the script to secretaries in order to meet the deadline.
He died in 1959 in La Jolla, Calif., tired, written out and alcoholic. It wasn't until some years after his death that American critics began to hold his writing in equal esteem with that of the country's other great authors. Disappointing for Chandler, but like Marlowe he more or less took his lot in stride. He was fighting the good fight.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Crime Double Feature At LACMA

Get set for a night of Los Angeles crime on film. Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye," based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same title and starring Elliot Gould (pictured at right), screens with Nicholas Ray's noir masterpiece "In A Lonely Place," starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his most masterful performances. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Googie Withers, “The Lady Vanishes,” “Night and the City”

Googie Withers, 94, a British actress best known for her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film “The Lady Vanishes,” died July 15 at her home in Sydney. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Georgette Lizette Withers was born March 12, 1917, in Karachi, then part of British India. She was given her lifetime nickname by her Indian nanny.
Her family moved back to Britain where Ms. Withers began acting at age 12. She was a dancer in a West End production in London when she was offered work in 1935 as a film extra in “The Girl in the Crowd.”
Soon after starting work, director Michael Powell fired one of the female leads and she stepped into the role.
Ms. Withers appeared in dozens of films in the 1930s and ’40s, but was probably best known for her role as Blanche in “The Lady Vanishes” playing opposite Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. She was dubbed by the English press as “the best bad girl in British films.”
She appeared in many other films, including “It Always Rains On Sunday” (1947), in which she sheltered a killer on the run, played by John McCallum, an Australian actor she married in 1948.
Ms. Withers also appeared in several British wartime dramas in the 1940s and played the memorable role of Helen Nosseross in the 1950 film noir classic “Night and the City,” directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney.
In the 1950s, she acted on the British stage before moving to Australia with her husband in 1958. The couple co-starred in 10 popular films together, and Ms. Withers had occasional theatrical roles on Broadway and in England through the 1980s.
Ms. Withers won an acting award for her part as a prison governor in the 1970s British television series “Within These Walls.” She starred in the 1986 BBC adaptation of Anita Brookner’s novel “Hotel du Lac” and in a 1987 BBC production of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.”
Ms. Withers appeared in the well-received 1994 film “Country Life,” directed by Michael Blakemore, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” set in Australia in 1919.
In 1996, she portrayed a writer who furthers the career of pianist David Helfgott, played by Geoffrey Rush, in the popular film “Shine.”
When she was 85 in 2002, Ms. Withers shared the stage in London’s West End with her husband and Vanessa Redgrave in Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”
McCallum died last year at 91. Survivors include three children.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Touring The Scene of the Crime (Film) III

Left, detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) chats with ex-con Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) in a scene from 1975's "Farewell, My Lovely." Note the vintage Skee-Ball tables in the background. The same ones, below, are still there, in the Playland Arcade on the Santa Monica Pier, where the scene was filmed. The pier is featured prominently in the Raymond Chandler novel on which the movie is based, although Chandler thinly veiled the location, Santa Monica, as "Bay City." The pier was the place you'd catch a speedboat out to the gambling ships anchored off the coast up until the late 1930s.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

'Switch' Gets Some Things Right, Some Not So Much

Written by its director Frederic Schoendoerffer and crime novelist Jean-Christophe Grange, the French thriller Switch is part "Strangers on a Train," part "The Fugitive."

PARIS — A tightly wound French thriller that avoids some, but not all, of the genre’s pitfalls, Switch reps a solid fourth feature from writer-director Frederic Schoendoerffer (Secret Agents), making him one of France’s more worthy purveyors of kinetic, Hollywood-style fare. Although local box office won’t be spectacular, the Franco-Canadian co-production should find takers throughout Europe, while a Stateside studio might consider switching this into an English-language remake.

Doing a decent job in justifying some of its more dubious plot points (most of which are held back till the last reel), and keeping the pace turned up throughout, Switch is the kind of barebones, wrong man (or, in this case, woman) thriller that serves its purpose without trying to win awards or change the world.

Co-written by Schoendoerffer and crime novelist Jean-Christophe Grange (The Crimson Rivers), the script’s pitch is part Strangers on a Train, part The Fugitive: When Quebecoise fashion designer Sophie (Karine Vanasse) swaps her humble Montreal ranch house for a hôtel particulierin Paris, she’s hoping the change of scenery will boost her spirits. But after a day visiting various City of Lights landmarks, she wakes up the next morning with the police breaking down her door, behind which they find the decapitated corpse of an unknown male.

Clearly innocent of all charges, Sophie realizes she’s been set up by her psychotic home-swapping partner, Benedicte Serteaux (Karina Testa), who assumes her identity, traveling to Montreal to clean up any remaining traces. Meanwhile, a barrel-chested but otherwise soft detective, Forgeat (Eric Cantona), attempts to deconstruct Sophie’s various alibis. That is until she gives him the slip, taking along his gun and street cred as she sets out to nab the real killer.

That turnaround scene, where Sophie displays uncanny combat capabilities for someone we previously saw lugging around her design portfolio or, at best, jogging in the park, may not convince viewers looking for explanations behind Switch’s many action sequences, the highlight of which is an extended foot chase throughout a serene French suburb. But Schoendoerffer never takes things too far either, giving his film a gritty and realistic texture, while making fine use of Paris’ narrow streets and apartment hallways to show how the world is closing in around Sophie.

Canadian actress Vanasse (Polytechnique) definitely holds her own, especially when she’s on the run, and her performance is persuasive even when the screenplay itself is not. (Thankfully, the filmmakers do take the time to explain why Sophie doesn’t speak with a Quebecois accent, which likely would have incurred the wrath of French audiences.)

As the sympathetic yet rather incompetent Forgeat, former Manchester United footballer Cantona (Looking for Eric) proves that he can do steady low-key work, although given the cackles heard during a recent public screening, he’s yet to convince local viewers. (Picture, say, Barry Bonds playing a schlubby cop, and you’ll have an idea of what they’re contending with.)

Tech contributions are fine, with cool widescreen cinematography by Vincent Gallot (shooting his first feature), and a score by Bruno Coulais (Coraline) that never overreaches.

Opens: In France July 6
Production companies: Carcharodon, L&G, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Jouror Productions, Tercera Prod.
Cast: Karine Vanasse, Eric Cantona, Mehdi Nebbou, Aurelien Recoing, Karina Testa, Bruno Todeschini, Maxim Roy, Niseema
Director: Frederic Schoendoerffer
Screenwriters: Frederic Schoendoerffer, Jean-Christophe Grange
Producer: Eric Neve
Executive producer: Adrien Maigne
Director of photography: Vincent Gallot
Production designer: Jean-Marc Kerdhelue
Music: Bruno Coulais
Costume designer: Marie-Laure Lasson, Claire Lacaze
Editor: Dominique Mazzoleni
Sales Agent: Pathe International
No rating, 101 minutes

Ripped from the pages of the Hollywood Reporter.

Son of a Satire: 'Chain Gang' Rattles On

I n 1932's "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," Paul Muni stars in the real-life story of a poor schlump who gets roped into years of hard prison labor for no reason at all.

"Chain Gang" is one of the "socially conscious" movies of that time. It was meant to publicize the brutal slave-labor incarceration system in the South.

In 1941, director Preston Sturges did "Sullivan's Travels," which was, in part, a satire of "Chain Gang." In "Sullivan's Travels," Joel McCrea plays a Hollywood movie director who wants to make a socially conscious film, titled "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

He goes on the road to get in touch with "real" people, and gets dragged onto a Southern chain gang. Sturges seems to ask, why make movies that just tell people how bad life is? We all need a laugh instead.

And then in 2000 Joel and Ethan Coen directed a little film called, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

"O Brother" was sort of a satire of "Sullivan's Travels," sort of a witty take on Homer's "The Odyssey."

The Coens' film ended up saying ... hmmmm, still not quite sure what it was saying. But it has a great musical soundtrack of early country, gospel and blues.

So, in essence, we have a parody of a satire of a socially responsible film. Quite an achievement.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Times Mag: New Mexico Meth Yarn a Heartland Hit

The New York Times Magazine did an excellent article on "Breaking Bad" executive producer Vince Gilligan, and the twisted logic that makes the show's characters so enjoyable to watch. It's called "The Dark Art of 'Breaking Bad.'"
If the Times' online subscription technology prevents you from reading it, you can download this PDF file, which has the text but not the photos that went with the article.
The article points out that B.B. is a hit in the heartland of America, namely the Mid-West, but not so much on the two coasts. It's a "Red State" hit, you could say. Besides breaking standard TV taboos -- the heroes are meth dealers -- the writers have canned the heretofore iron-clad rule of series writing: The protagonist's character can never change. He's got to be the same person from beginning to end, or else the show's premise goes out the window. In B.B., our hero, Walt White, is the king of personality and morality disintegration. Yet we can't stop watching him.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

'The Mechanic' Is Bronson At His Peak

They don’t make actors like Charles Bronson anymore. No one except Bronson, who shows his grizzled, hard-earned authority in every line in his face, could have played the role of Arthur Bishop in 1972’s “The Mechanic.” For those who haven’t seen it – or have only seen the remake starring Jason Stratham – you owe it to yourself to check out the original. It’s by far the better version.
Bishop is a hitman who pulls off highly planned assassinations, often designed to make the victim’s death seem to be an accident. Bishop is hoping to retire, but in his business that’s not such an easy thing to accomplish. He takes young sociopath Steve McKenna (Jan Michael Vincent) under his wing, and proceeds to teach him the killing business.
For an action movie – and that’s essentially what “The Mechanic” is – the film presents a hefty amount of character development, which is rare in this genre. In the early 1970s, studios had not yet given up on the idea of making good quality, character-driven films, even if they were crime movies. There’s also lots of explosions, gunfights, motorcycle jumping and car chases to offset the more cerebral junk. And check out the opening sequence – there’s no dialogue until 15 minutes and 10 seconds into the movie – for some great visual storytelling.
Bishop is an isolated figure who had a difficult childhood. Now, he seems to shun relationships by choice, and perhaps for professional reasons. His real-life wife, Jill Ireland, known here simply as “The Girl,” makes an appearance in a scene with an unexpected twist. We see that Bishop focuses all of his energy on his work. And he shows remarkable talent and creativity when it comes to wasting people.
It’s hard to talk about the movie without giving too much away, and the surprises in store for first-time viewers are good ones. One of the most exciting aspects of “The Mechanic,” to paraphrase crime novelist Jim Thompson, is that, “nothing is what it appears to be.”
While Bronson the actor did not have a wide range, the roles he played – often the enforcer or the vigilante – were perfect for him. He gives the impression of extreme mental focus on his target, and he maintains a strict code of behavior, usually outside the law. But the world he lives in suffers from moral decay, and we always sense that he’s going to do the right thing, even if he has to break a few rules, and maybe a few limbs and skulls, in the process.
This was the second movie of six that Bronson made with director Michael Winner. Prior to this film they made "Chato's Land" (1972), and after "The Mechanic" they collaborated on "The Stone Killer" (1973), "Death Wish" (1974), "Death Wish II" (1982) and "Death Wish 3" (1985).
“The Mechanic” was retitled “The Killer of Killers” at some point of its theatrical release, but thankfully has been returned to its original title. I suspect the title switch was supposed to show that Bronson only kills guys who need killing. No need to point that out. We already knew it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Scorsese's Favorite Gangster Movies

James Cagney, “White Heat” (1949).
Director Martin Scorsese revisits 
crime pictures that most influenced him

Here are 15 gangster pictures that had a profound effect on me and the way I thought about crime and how to portray it on film. They excited me, provoked me, and in one way or another, they had the ring of truth.

I stopped before the ‘70s because we’re talking about influence here, and I was looking at movies in a different way after I started making my own pictures. There are many gangster films I’ve admired in the last 40 years — Performance, the Godfather saga, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, The Long Good Friday, Sexy Beast, John Woo’s Hong Kong films.

The films below I saw when I was young, open, impressionable.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The shocking, blunt brutality; the energy of Cagney in his first starring role; the striking use of popular music (the song “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”)—this picture led the way for all of us.

Scarface (1932)

[Howard] Hawks’ film is so fast, so fluid, so funny, and so excitingly expressionistic. The audacity of it is amazing. It was finished by 1930, but it was so violent that it was held up by the censors.

Blood Money (1933)

Rowland Brown, a largely forgotten figure, made three tough, sardonic movies in the early ‘30s, each one very knowledgeable about city politics, corruption, the coziness between cops and criminals. This is my favorite. The ending is unforgettable.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

In 1939, Raoul Walsh and Mark Hellinger’s classic was seen as a sendoff to the gangster genre, which seemed to have run its course. But it’s more than that. Much more. It plays like a journal of the life of a typical gangster of the period, and it covers so much ground, from the battlefields of France to the beer halls to the nightclubs, the boats that brought in the liquor, the aftermath of Prohibition, the whole rise and fall of ‘20s gangsterdom, that it achieves a very special epic scale—really, it was the template for GoodFellas and Casino. It also has one of the great movie endings.

Force of Evil (1948)

John Garfield is the mob lawyer, Thomas Gomez is his brother, a numbers runner who’s loyal to his customers and his employees. The conflict is elemental—money vs. family—and the interactions between the brothers are shattering. The only gangster picture ever done in blank verse, by Abraham Polonsky. Truthfully, it had as great an impact on me as Citizen Kane or On the Waterfront.

White Heat (1949)

Cagney and Walsh bit into this movie about a psychopathic gangster with a mother fixation as if they’d just abandoned a hunger strike. They intentionally pursued the madness of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, a psychopathic gang leader with a mother complex. The level of ferocity and sustained energy is breathtaking, and it all comes to a head in the scene where Cagney goes berserk in the dining hall… which never fails to surprise me.

Night and the City (1950)

Desperation, no holds barred. We all loved and admired Richard Widmark from his first appearance in Kiss of Death, but his performance as Harry Fabian marked us forever. As did the rest of this hair-raising picture set in post-war London, the first made by Jules Dassin after he escaped the blacklist.

Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954)

Jacques Becker, who had worked as Jean Renoir’s assistant, made this picture with Jean Gabin, about an aging mobster who is forced out of retirement to save his old partner. The style is elegant and understated, the aura of weariness and mortality extremely powerful.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

A completely unsentimental picture by Phil Karlson that closely follows the true story of wholesale corruption, intimidation, racism, and terrifying brutality in the once-notorious town of Phenix City, Alabama—where it was shot on location… in 10 days! Fast, furious, and unflinching.

Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)

A beautifully made picture, in glorious color and Scope, directed by and starring Jack Webb as a cornet player in the ‘20s whose professional life is infiltrated and turned inside out by a Kansas City gangster (Edmund O’Brien). This kind of situation happened over and over again in the big-band years and later during the doo-wop era. It’s also at the center of Love Me or Leave Me, another tough Scope musical made around the same time.

Murder by Contract (1958)

A highly unusual, spare, elemental picture made on a low budget by Irving Lerner—a lesson in moviemaking. It’s about a hired gunman (Vince Edwards), and it’s from his point of view. The scenes where he’s alone in his apartment preparing for a hit were very much on my mind when we made Taxi Driver, and we studied the haunting guitar score and its role in the action when we were working on the music for The Departed with Howard Shore. For me, an inspiration.

Al Capone (1959)

This sharp, spare low-budget film by Richard Wilson, one of Orson Welles’ closest collaborators, deserves to be better known. Rod Steiger is brilliant as Capone—charming, boorish, brutal, ambitious. There’s not a trace of sentimentality. Wilson also made another striking crime film, Pay or Die, about the Black Hand in Little Italy right after the turn of the century.

Le Doulos (1962)

The French master Jean-Pierre Melville, a close student of American moviemaking, made a series of genuinely great, extremely elegant, intricate, and lovingly crafted gangster pictures, in which criminals and cops stick to a code of honor like knights in the age of chivalry. This is one of the best, and it might be my personal favorite.

Mafioso (1962)

A transplanted northerner living up north with his wife and family (the great Alberto Sordi) goes home to Sicily, and little by little, gets sucked back into the old loyalties, blood ties, and obligations. It starts as a broad comedy. It gradually becomes darker and darker… and darker, and by the end you’ll find the laughs catching in your throat. One of the best films ever made about Sicily.

Point Blank (1967)

This was one of the first movies that really took the storytelling innovations of the French New Wave—the shock cuts, the flash-forwards, the abstraction—and applied them to the crime genre. Lee Marvin is Walker, the man who may or may not be dreaming, but who is looking for vengeance on his old partner and his former wife. Like Burt Lancaster in the 1948 I Walk Alone, another favorite, he can’t get his money when he comes out of jail and enters a brave new corporate world. John Boorman’s picture re-set the gangster picture on a then-modern wavelength. It gave us a sense of how the genre could pulse with the energy of a new era.