Life and Death in L.A.: May 2012

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Punks, Thugs Rule the City in 'Crime Wave'

One of the better rediscovered crime films of the past few years is "Crime Wave." Remember James Ellroy's top 10 favorite crime films, which we discussed here a few posts ago? As you may remember, "Crime Wave" made the list, and for good reason.

It should have come as no surprise when I got ahold of the DVD and put on the commentary track it was none other than Ellroy along with author and crime film aficionado Eddie Muller giving the blow-by-blow at ringside. First off, I admire Ellroy, even when he's a bit overbearing on the commentary track. This is a film that's worth viewing. It's got many scenes of vintage L.A. architecture, circa 1952 when the film was shot, even though it wasn't released until '54. Both Ellroy and Muller are fountains of information, so the commentary track is a must once you've viewed the film without it.

Crime wave was shot during the "Dragnet" days, when Jack Webb engineered a cozy relationship between the film and TV industries and the LAPD. That gave filmmakers access to the inner workings of the force like you couldn't dream of these days. They even film in the old L.A. Police Detective Bureau, which used to be located in City Hall. Also, keep an eye out for the many identifiable L.A. landmarks that turn up, like the original Bob's Big Boy in Burbank.

The films stars Sterling Hayden (above) as no nonsense Detective Lt. Sims. Muller comments, and I have to agree, that Hayden WAS Bud White, the fictional L.A. Police detective in Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential," who was played by Russell Crowe in the screen adaptation of Ellroy's novel. Hayden was the real thing, a "knock your teeth down your throat if you give me any lip" LAPD detective.

Also playing a small supporting role is a young Charles Buchinsky, who became better known later as Charles Bronson.

It's not the greatest story ever told, but check out the camera work and all of those L.A. locations. Director André De Toth filmed this strikingly gorgeous portrait of L.A. that makes you forgive and forget the occasional weakly written scene.

Once again, this is a low-budget Warner Bros. knockoff, that almost starred Humphrey Bogart -- De Toth fought for Hayden -- and was shot in 14 days. This might be the only film I've ever seen that I'm grateful did not have Bogie in the cast. It's perfect the way it is.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Crime in the New Wild West

A lot of people say that "No Country for Old Men" is Joel and Ethan Coen's best film so far. I'd find that a difficult choice to make. But I'll say that "No Country" is one of my favorites.

Javier Bardem has gotten all the kudos for his portrayal of devil incarnate Anton Chigurh -- he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But people talk less about Josh Brolin's turn as Llewelyn Moss, the brush hunter who one strange day on the range find's he's no longer the hunter, but the hunted.

My favorite is Tommy Lee Jones (above, right), whose Sheriff Ed Tom Bell couldn't be more natural and less affected. He's an old-timer who admires the old guy sheriffs. Particularly the ones like him who never carry a gun.

Jones is a native of West Texas, where the story is set, and his performance ranks above all others in that film, and that's no minor compliment. He doesn't seem to act, he merely IS Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

Brolin is wonderful as Moss, the backwoodsman who stumbles upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. The story takes place in 1980, just when the U.S.-Mexico drug war is starting to become exceedingly violent. The movie is also appropriately bloody. In the end the body count is as big as the West Texas sky.

Scenes of graphic carnage are offset with black humor. You can chuckle at a setup that leads to mayhem, then gasp at the blood-letting that follows. As is usual with the Coens, you laugh and then wonder why you just laughed.

The director brothers get high marks on their visual storytelling skills in most of their films, and this one hits a high water mark. They let those big, barren Texas landscapes tell the story. There's just enough information in each scene to move the story along. You have to watch closely to keep up.

Yet this tale couldn't be simpler -- it's a cat and mouse chase that rises way above typical brainless "action" movies. There's real character development setting NCFOM apart from 99 percent of the crap out there.

Overall, it's sort of a modern day cowboy, crime, action, comedy -- or something like that. Stark as a lone cactus in the desert. And just as dry as the landscape there.

Monday, May 21, 2012

True Crime: Beverly Hills' Dark, Dark Past

Lana Turner home, where Johnny Stompanado got it.
Sunday afternoon is a time for barbecuing and lazing around in the hammock ... for some people. Yesterday, I took a self-directed walking tour of a scary little town called Beverly Hills. In an area of just a handful of blocks there have been some of the most notorious crimes on the books. If you decide to visit on your own, don't be fooled by the neighborhood's sedate appearance.

Johnny and Lana.
Movie industry people and gangsters just naturally go together. Take Lana Turner and mobster Johnny Stompanado (right), an enforcer for L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen. Johnny and Lana had a tumultuous relationship, until April 4, 1958, when Lana's daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed and killed Johnny as he was attacking Lana. Stroll past the scene of the crime, at 730 N. Bedford Drive (above), and you'll see the house that looks much the same as it did on that day in 1958.

Bugsy's last stand.
Then there was Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who has appeared in these dispatches previously. Bugsy, an operative for the Genovese Crime Family, met an untimely demise on the evening of June 20, 1947, as he sat in his girlfriend Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home, at 810 N. Linden Drive (left). Walk by the front of the house, where the living room is located, and you just might see inside, where Bugsy took some bullets to the head fired by an unknown sniper.

Last but not least is the former home of the Menendez family. Sons Lyle and Erik were convicted of the shotgun murders of their parents, Jose and Mary "Kitty" Menendez. On August 20, 1989, the brothers gunned down both parents in the living room of the home at 722 North Elm Drive (below). They ditched the shotgun on Mulholland Drive and bought tickets to a movie, "License to Kill," as their alibi -- bad movie choice for an alibi.

The police bought their innocent act at first, but when they went on a million dollar Rodeo Drive spending spree soon after the killings, law men took another look. They were later convicted of the twin murders and sentenced to life in prison. They're still there. And so is the house where the murders occurred.
Chez Menendez.

You can also view the home that was the scene of actress Lupe Velez's suicide ( 732 North Rodeo Drive), chronicled by Kenneth Anger in "Hollywood Babylon." However, Anger's version of the suicide was debunked recently by the Huffington Post. And there's the home at 600 Cañon Drive, where Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood lived when Natalie accidentally drowned during a party on the couple's yacht. That's a case the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept. recently re-opened.

There are plenty more infamous Beverly Hills sites much like these, and they deserve a visit on another day. After a busy afternoon of hoofing it around to crime scenes it was time time to get out of that bad area.

Coincidentally, it was the afternoon of a solar eclipse. That explains why the sky got dark all of a sudden in the middle of a sunny California day.
Or does it?
Maybe there's something about that neighborhood that makes it seem especially shadowy.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood's former residence at 600 Cañon Drive.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Their Mileage May Vary: Thundering Down 'Plunder Road'

I took James Ellroy's advice -- it didn't come directly from him, you understand -- and checked out "Plunder Road," one of his all-time favorite crime films that was included in Monday's post.

It's a great-looking, pared-down gritty drama made in 1957, obviously on a small budget. The cast includes the great Elisha Cook Jr., as well as lesser known actors Gene Raymond, Jeanne Cooper, Wayne Morris, Stafford Repp and Steven Ritch.

"Plunder Road" starts with a train robbery that takes place in a driving rain. There's little dialog for the first 10 minutes or so, and what there is starts out with each robber's thoughts expressed in voice over. It's one of "Plunder Road"'s few unconvincing moments, and fortunately it doesn't go on for long.

The heist itself is carried out just about wordlessly, as any good heist ought to be. Then the gangsters split into three groups, each driving a truck with a third of the loot packed inside. It doesn't take long for things to go wrong, which is inevitable in a heist movie -- if the crooks got away without a hitch there would be no story.

They point their trucks toward California, which is 900 miles away, and split up rather than travel together. The crooks try to blend in with everyday traffic, which works for a while. The great irony is that while the escaping robbers are barreling down the open road toward California -- a trip that for many Americans is the very symbol of freedom -- they're trapped in a claustrophobic journey that is likely to have no good end.

The final twist in the gang's getaway plan -- a way to smuggle the ill-gotten wealth out of the country -- helps lift this film above others in this genre.

Like "Detour" and "DOA," two exquisite, low-budget noir road movies, "Plunder Road" gets a lot of mileage out of a simple but well constructed story. You can stream it on Netflix.

Monday, May 14, 2012

James Ellroy Names His Top 10 Crime Movies

Crime Fiction writer James Ellroy says these are his favorite 10 crime films. His opinion is worth paying attention to because he knows a thing or two about what makes a good crime story.

The first one on his list is based on one of his novels -- not exactly a humble position to take, but "L.A. Confidential" is a very good movie.

I'm not sure why he chose "Godfather II" and not "Godfather I." I've heard many say that they prefer the sequel to the original, but I have to hold Part I in higher esteem.

I haven't seen many of the rest, but that's the point of putting together top 10 lists. You'll perhaps find a good film you might never have seen otherwise. Time to log into Netflix and put some on order.

Here are Ellroy's top 10:

L.A. Confidential (1997)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The Prowler (1951)
Crime Wave (1953)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
The Killing (1956)
Plunder Road (1957)
The Lineup (1958)
711 Ocean Drive (1950)
Vertigo (1958).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wooden Detectives Somehow Remain Appealing

Against all odds, "Dragnet" lives on.

It's on DVD, of course, and you can stream some of it on Netflix, which is true of a lot of TV shows. Frankly I've always enjoyed the show, no matter how wooden the acting was, regardless of how embarrassingly hokey the story might have been. And, man, it gave new meaning to the words wooden and hokey.

Shot in documentary format, it's the least lifelike 30 minutes of police drama TV you're ever liable to see.

It's hard to pin down the Dragnet appeal. Others tried to do something similar, but never quite equaled the Dragnet mystique. There was Broderick Crawford in "Highway Patrol," but that didn't grab the mass market/cult following that the Jack Webb-created police drama had, and continues to maintain. Ditto for private detective Peter Gunn, or the 1960s series "77 Sunset Strip" and "The FBI," both with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Could it be the terrible lighting that makes it so stupidly appealing? In the 1950s Dragnet was in black and white, and it looked like a noir crime drama. Then the show made a comeback in the 1960s and it looked like a set the Partridge Family could walk onto and not appear out of place. You can always spot a Jack Webb-produced police drama (Dragnet 1967, Adam 12) because every scene is lighted like a sitcom -- bright, no shadows.

Dragnet 1967 worked to erase any trace of doubts about the L.A.P.D. There were no shadowy figures, except for the shady characters and scum that Webb and Harry Morgan always brought to justice.

Residing in the "so bad it's good" category for decades, Dragnet appealed to the portion of its audience who took it at face value, and those who laughed up their sleeves at the clench-teeth, over the top drama of it all.

It was especially good whenever Jack Webb, as Joe Friday, would tell off the punks and ne'er do wells he so loathed. Or, in voice-over how he'd rattle off an unintentionally hilarious roll call of supposed slang names for various illegal drugs -- did anyone ever call LSD "The Hawk"? C'mon, Jack, get real.

My first reaction to Dragnet was that it stinks. But it's so funny and strangely compelling that I kept watching. And I still am. Officers Joe Friday and Bill Gannon are the most reliable, upright citizens you're ever likely to meet in Los Angeles, and that's oddly reassuring.

Somewhere, Jack Webb is having the last laugh.