Life and Death in L.A.: 2013

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Smile For the Camera: A Mugs Gallery From the 1920s

There are mug shots, and then there are mug shots. They've become a standard feature on gossip websites, such as TMZ, where actors, pop singers and other Star Trailer trash get their dirty linens aired.
But mug shots from the olden days tell a different, more engrossing story. Here are some tough characters in the 1920s who got their pictures saved for posterity. It may be just the primitive photographic technology of the day that brings out each subject's most sinister characteristics, but these hombres look like they'd kill you for a Hershey's Candy Bar. Speaking of primitive, the police photographers of that era seemed to take a casual approach to their jobs. There are just a couple of standard poses -- standing and sitting; hat on and hat off.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any information about these perps. Just use your imagination and assume the worst. Chances are you'll be pretty close to the mark.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Behind the Scenes of 'The Conversation'

I first saw "The Conversation" at the Brattle Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., and I remember it was one of those landmark films that stood out even among the Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman works that the theater routinely scheduled. The Watergate-era film had Gene Hackman's astonishing performance as Harry Caul, the electronic surveillance expert who finds himself in hot water, and Francis Ford Coppola's spare script and spot-on direction. Check out some little seen production pictures that were snapped at San Francisco locations where the film was shooting.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Crime Writer Ripped Hitch for ‘Flabby Mass of Clichés’

Farley Granger and Robert Walker in 'Strangers on a Train.'

Alfred Hitchcock at work.
A number of celebrated writers have had tortured relationships with Hollywood. Take Raymond Chandler, the writer whose work is closely associated with Los Angeles (he detested the city), and whose crime fiction elevated the genre to an art form.
Chandler was lured to the screen trade during a brief period in movie history when the studios thought that great novelists could automatically write great scripts. Some did, but the majority failed and soon slunk back to the burgs from whence they came.
Others hung around L.A., growing increasingly despondent and bitter toward the philistines who run the movie business. That was certainly the case with Chandler, who gave us outstanding crime novels, including “The Big Sleep,” “Farewell, My Lovely” and “The Long Goodbye.” He also helped knock off one of the all time greatest film noir scripts, “Double Indemnity.” 

Then he lost his touch and his life and career did a slow fade. Before the frame went black, Chandler crossed paths with Alfred Hitchcock and worked on the screenplay for the British director’s “Strangers on a Train.”

Raymond Chandler
It was six years after Chandler’s collaboration with director Billy Wilder on “Double Indemnity,” which proved to be a fine, if difficult, partnership. But Chandler’s pairing with Hitchcock was a match made in hell.

Below is a letter Chandler sent to the director out of frustration over changes made to his script. A heavy drinker who years earlier lost his job as an oil company executive over his excessive use of alcohol, Chandler could be blunt and thin skinned, as his letter to the director suggests. Clearly, working in a collaborative medium was not his thing.

Source: The Raymond Chandler Papers (2000)
Dec. 6, 1950

Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a "far less brilliant mind than mine" to guess what they were.
 Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I'm not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They'll know damn well I didn't. I shouldn't have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn't. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It's no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.

Raymond Chandler

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Booze, Blood and Bombs of 'Boardwalk Empire'

Here's a link to an article I wrote for Creative Screenwriting Magazine on "Boardwalk Empire" showrunner and former "Sopranos" writer and producer Terence Winter. We chatted about killing off cast members without mercy, growing up in Brooklyn -- he once worked in mob boss Paul Castellano's butcher shop, and "Boardwalk Empire" executive producer Martin Scorsese -- the man has a mind like a steel trap. Winter also wrote the screenplay for Scorsese's upcoming feature film, "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Women of Crime Stand by Their (Hit) Men

THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS IS TOPS in publishing lurid crime photos, and its photo essay on gangster molls does not break with that tradition. This group of 24 vintage shots betray fierce
loyalty, insouciance under duress and utter contempt for authority. For the most part, these women were gun carriers, holdup lookouts and general crime accomplices who refused to rat, and many of them paid a price for their actions. You'll have to click through the one-photo pages; online publications do that to increase their page views, and as annoying as that can be, this is one of those rare photo essays that is worth the time to browse.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Taste of Death on Hollywood Boulevard

A visit to the Museum of Death in Hollywood doesn't sound like a particularly cheerful take-in ... and believe me, it isn't.
But if serial killers, mass suicides, autopsy photos and vintage mortician devices are your thing, you will enjoy a thoroughly absorbing hour or so at this humble 6031 Hollywood Blvd. showroom of the macabre.

Photos, videos, newspaper clippings and other assorted memorabilia such as human and animal skulls, caskets, and at least one mummified severed human head, are also there for the viewing.

I toured the MOD today with English music journalist Nina Antonia, who is visiting from London. After studying the exhibits, one must agree the museum offers a unique welcome to the City of Angels.

A chilling display of
John Wayne Gacy's art.
It's hardly great art, but the drawings, paintings and essays by famed mass murderers, including John Wayne Gacy and Lawrence Bittaker are among the first items you'll encounter in the museum, after passing though a room of vintage funerary accoutrements. Gacy's self portrait in clown makeup and costume -- he was a children's entertainer -- is one of the more notorious pieces.

In case you're wondering, Museum of Death owners Cathee Shultz and J.D. Healy came about the original artwork by corresponding with imprisoned serial killers, and sending them art supplies, stamps and $10 money orders.

There are also records and photos documenting the crimes of serial killers Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas and others.
Those who decide to visit should be strongly cautioned, however. There is a good deal of extremely rough stuff there --  at times it was a struggle to keep the morning's huevos rancheros down.

An instructional video on embalming showing all the gory details plays continuously in one room. Color, posed snapshots of a couple dismembering a man whom they murdered -- what happens at Fotomat doesn't always stay at Fotomat -- are also on display.

An entire room is devoted to Charles Manson, and among the news clippings, coroner's reports and police bulletins are autopsy photos of some Manson Family victims.
The 1997 Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide, the O.J. case, the JFK assassination and the Black Dahlia killing all figure prominently in the museum's exhibits.

If you're expecting a highly polished presentation of the materials contained in the MOD you will be disappointed. The pristine, exhaustively curated  L.A. County Museum, it's not.
Newspaper pages with barking headlines that seem to have been ripped from a daily edition are posted on walls with black office clips holding them up. Most exhibits are chock-full of memorabilia. In short, the galleries seem like an approximation of what a serial killer's bedroom might look like -- odd talismans of the killer's obsessions plastered on the walls and stuffed into every available surface. And here, that makes sense.

Tickets are $15 apiece and parking is free. Don't forget to visit the gift shop -- there really is one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leonard's Page Turners Also Lit Up the Screen

Novelist Elmore Leonard created characters that were violent, frightening and hilarious, often all at the same time.
The larger than life personalities in his books frequently made their way to the big screen. I'm mainly thinking about his gangsters, including Chili Palmer and Ray "Bones" Barboni ("Get Shorty"), and Ordell Robbie ("Jackie Brown") to name but a few.
Leonard, who died this week at the age of 87, started his career writing western novels, and his short story, "3:10 to Yuma," was twice adapted to the screen, most recently in the 2007 film starring Russell Crowe.
Let's look back at Ray Barboni, below, in a classic scene from 1995's "Get Shorty," where Miami gangster Barboni (Dennis Farina, who passed away last month) comes to L.A. and terrorizes film producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman).

Monday, August 19, 2013

A B Picture That Profoundly Influenced Martin Scorsese

Whenever I see him in interviews, Martin Scorsese never fails to amaze me with the breadth of his film knowledge.
Click on this link to see a short video in which he talks about a crime movie that had a profound effect on the way he perceived, and later, made films. It's called "Murder By Contract," and you've probably never seen it. Above, you can watch a couple of scenes from the movie.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Tarantino's Twists and Turns Add Up Perfectly

Vincent, left, and Jules settle a score.
Some may quibble with “Pulp Fiction”’s herky jerky storyline. It dodges back and forth from the past to the present without warning. The trouble is, at first it’s challenging to figure out exactly what is happening in the present and what took place in the past.
You have to watch it more than one time before the sequence of events starts to make sense – and it does. There is really no “present” in the film. Each sequence, no matter where it fits into the story, past, present or future, is the only present you have to pay attention to.
The Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction” screenplay is so skillfully written that you barely notice its complex time shifts. You just surf the narrative wave from beginning to end, and come in for a soft landing at the end of a fairly wild ride – is it just a coincidence that the opening music is Dick Dale’s surf guitar blast, “Miserlou”?

Knocked Off-Balance
Director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino’s non-linear storytelling – he co-wrote the script with Roger Avary – is hardly the artifice some make it out to be. In fact, the darting and weaving storyline serves a purpose, other than keeping the audience slightly off-balance, and the film would not be nearly as effective without it.
Honey Bunny, left, and Pumpkin.
The beginning and ending scenes are part of the same sequence. On an impulse, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) hold up a diner, but their plan goes awry when they unexpectedly meet up with Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), two mobbed-up hitmen.

Coffee and Handguns
The beginning sequence shows Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, over coffee and breakfast, hatching a plan to rob the diner. They kiss, brandish weapons, then go to work scaring everyone in the joint. Their plan is to clean out the cash register and grab everyone’s wallet without incident.
The scene cuts away to the opening credits, after which we begin meeting the motley cast of characters who inhabit L.A.’s underbelly.
The story plays out, and we're back at the same diner where we started, but Jules and Vincent, as it turns out, are catching some breakfast there, too. The four characters collide, of course, and the result is as anxiety-provoking and hilarious as the rest of the movie.

Ends at the Beginning
When you piece it together, though, the entire diner sequence actually takes place in about the middle of the story. By the time we reach the last scene we don't know how the diner stand-off between robbers and mobsters will end. But we do know what is going to happen after the scene is over, and we have seen everything that led up to it. But why put this out of sequence scene where it is in the film?
Like Kung-Fu Cain.
The answer, I think, is that it firmly establishes both the movie's theme, which is redemption, and the hero of the story, Jules. By the time we reach that fateful scene we learn that Jules has decided to leave his life of crime behind and "walk the earth like Kung-Fu Cain."

The Wrong Choice
Vincent, on the other hand, is going to keep being a mobster, and, because we've already seen the future, we know that he will meet a dark fate due to that unwise decision.
The actual ending, sequentially, is the death of Vincent and the triumph of Butch (Bruce Willis), the corrupt prizefighter who double-crossed the mob. But the film ends with Jules and Vincent, who are about to part ways as crime partners, exiting the diner into the blinding L.A. sun. It’s a new day, and Jules has found redemption. It’s the perfect place for the film to end.

A DIFFERENT WHITEY FROM BOSTON -- Warner Bros., the studio with a storied history of gangster film production, has tapped James Grey ("We Own the Night," "The Yards" and "Little Odessa") to write and direct "White Devil," inspired by the true story of Dorchester (Daw-chest-ah to the locals) native John Willis, who was adopted by a Chinese family and allegedly rose to the top of the Asian mob in Boston. His nickname? You guessed it: White Devil.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

It Took Two Directors to Tell the Murder, Inc. Story

Humphrey Bogart as Dist. Atty. Martin Ferguson
"The Enforcer" is one of the lesser appreciated Bogart films, but it deserves more attention than it gets. Granted, it's no "Maltese Falcon." It would be a tall order equaling "Falcon" director John Huston's artistry. But "Enforcer" directors Bretaigne Windust  and Raoul Walsh (uncredited) pull off an impressive feat in keeping the complex story in balance. Walsh directed the suspenseful -- translation: best -- scenes. Windust was primarily a Broadway director, and perhaps needed help putting the action sequences, including story's conclusion, on film.
The story centers around a crusading district attorney -- aren't all district attorneys crusaders in the movies? Bogart ably fills that role, but it's not much of a stretch for the veteran actor. A taut script, bristling dialog and neatly directed scenes keep this thriller on track, no matter how complex the yarn becomes. It's all based on the real-life Murder, Inc., syndicate that provided hitmen for hire.
The film's structure is complex. Flashbacks within flashbacks are liberally sprinkled throughout. They do the job that they're supposed to do, and just when the film veers perilously close to being a gab-fest -- there's no way around using dialog-driven sequences -- Windust and Walsh pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat with credible and unexpected plot twists or just plain bone-crunching action. Check out the scene with Rico (Ted De Corsia) inching his way across a lofty ledge on a building's facade. Windust/Walsh keep the tension excruciatingly high throughout. It takes a while before we finally meet the heavy, Mendoza (Everett Sloane), and when we do, he's spectacularly unassuming -- until finally we see him serve up the product his syndicate delivers for cash.
Zero Mostel also does a fine turn as the nervous hitman who quickly realizes that he chose the wrong profession.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

British Invasion: Boorman Uncorks Psychedelic Noir

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and Carroll O'Connor
in 'Point Blank' (1967).
Why is L.A. the location of choice for so many crime films and stories about the dark side of life? Maybe it’s just because the bulk of all film production is done in Hollywood and it’s cheaper to shoot in your own backyard.
But that doesn’t explain why so many of the great crime novels take place in the City of Angels. A writer can set his story anywhere in the world without a thought of budgets, weather or union constrictions.

Clockwise from top left, Lee Marvin,
Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn and John Vernon.
It might be that L.A. is different from most American cities, especially those that were built long before the two World Wars. They project stability and tradition, while L.A. is still considered part of the Wild West — a desert outpost full of transients, dreamers and hucksters. The city is branded as uncontrolled urban sprawl with a casual atmosphere that fosters a variety of lifestyles and eccentricities. In other words, it’s what the rest of the country thinks is wrong with America. Be that as it may, the city might just be the perfect laboratory in which to examine 20th century mores.

So, it’s no wonder that British director John Boorman begins "Point Blank" in San Francisco and moves it to the City of Angels. San Francisco may be one of the country’s cradles of personal liberty, but it still has the look and feel of a city built on the bedrock of traditional values.

Staged as a sort of brutally real saga that slips into vaguely hallucinatory passages, "Point Blank" is the sort of altered reality you’d expect to see in a 1967 film, but the director is too good to let meaningless psychedelic spectacle overpower the story.

Walker is double-crossed by his ex.
Lee Marvin’s Walker, the career criminal who wants what is rightfully his, is cool and avoids the obnoxious pleased-with-himself vibe that a lesser actor would bring to the part.  He’s down to earth, deadpan, resourceful and unstoppable.
Some conclude that the entire story is merely Walker’s dream. He’s left alone to die after being double crossed, but of course he gets back on his feet and goes after the ones who did him wrong. 

Keenan Wynn plays Yost, the mysterious agent who always seems to appear on the scene whenever the action is about to be pumped up. Throughout the film, he and Walker never make eye contact — could the agent be a mere figment of Walker’s imagination? But stranger events occur when Walker finds his two-timing wife. Check out the scene with the disappearing furniture – and the disappearing corpse. 

Prior to "Point Blank" Boorman directed only black and white television and the film, "Catch Us If You Can" ("Having a Wild Weekend" in the U.K.), starring The Dave Clark Five. He says that he liked shooting "Point Blank," his first color movie, in the dark because it makes the color palette monochromatic. Trivia fans will want to note that, at one point, the action moves to a house with a swimming pool in Hollywood Hills. It’s the same house that the Beatles lived in during their first tour of America.
Bright yellows and golds prevail in Angie's scenes.
Despite his emphasis on darkness, Boorman uses color as an expressive element throughout the film, and carefully controls the range of tones filling each scene. The film begins in washed out grays and blues, progresses to yellows and golds, especially in Angie Dickinson’s scenes, shifts to greens, and as the action heats up toward the end, reds and oranges prevail. Walker, wearing a red-brick colored jacket seems to fade into the walls as the film comes to its conclusion.
You could call Point Blank a revisionist noir, because it’s in color and is not dialog driven. Perhaps the film's (then) modern-day take on the genre might be the missing link between black and white crime dramas of yesteryear and the sun-drenched Technicolor world of neo-noirs such as "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential."

Color aside, "Point Blank" is thoroughly character driven. Walker is relentless in his pursuit of the money he’s owed, but his doggedness only grows more intense even when the money becomes unimportant. He’s driven to get to the bottom of the mystery that has been plaguing him. His world is in shambles, but without this maniacal game of cat and mouse he’s initiated there’s nothing left in his life. Once the battle is over, there will be nothing to celebrate, but he continues because he has no other choice.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Sopranos' was Groundbreaking Television

It's hard to overstate how important "The Sopranos" was to television and to crime fiction. Before "The Sopranos," was there any show that could make such a morally corrupted character as Tony Soprano, if not likeable, understandable and approachable to a broad audience?

For all of his violence and treachery, we always wanted Tony, the New Jersey mob boss, to somehow get by without getting whacked by rivals or arrested. Maybe it was because James Gandolfini was so entertaining to watch that even though we knew Tony was bad, we couldn't bear to lose our ringside seat at one hell of a sideshow.

The show was also of huge importance to HBO, the cable network that brought the program to millions. It was a huge hit whose popularity would be hard to replicate now. It must have taken guts to present a program that portrayed crime in raw, unfiltered terms, and yet allowed the star to be, at times, quite vulnerable. Also, a lot of Italian-American viewers were less than thrilled with the prospects of another program about Italian mobsters.

When news of his death came yesterday, it brought shock and regret. He was only 51, and a fine actor who won a place in our hearts. And we would never see if he could somehow top his performance as Tony in another series -- maybe one that had nothing to do with crime.
Tony tears into Dr. Melfi.

That question will go unanswered, and James Gandolfini will forever be most remembered as Tony Soprano, the troubled mob boss who sought solace in weekly meetings with his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

The Writer's Guild of America recently voted "The Sopranos" as the best written TV show of all times, and with good reason. But it would never have been as good without Gandolfini. He and the writers continually amazed us over the show's 10 year run by creating TV that went far beyond what others achieved. We won't see that again for a long time.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Should Have Killed You Yesterday

Leonetti: Not a fan of Whitey.
Philip Leonetti, author and former underboss of the Philadelphia/Atlantic City mob, has never been a fan of James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston crime boss who's cooling his heels in a Massachusetts jail.
Leonetti penned a missive about the former head of the Hub's Irish mob in the Huffington Post. He crossed paths with Whitey years ago and sized him up as a lowlife drug dealer whom he did not want to do business with. Furthermore, he recommended that the Providence R.I.-based Patriarca crime family give Whitey the big sleep.
Leonetti's story is fascinating reading. It was no secret that Whitey and the Italian mob were anything but paisanos, but it's still a bit enlightening to learn the Genovese crime family's low opinion of Bulger. Read all about it here:

Killing the Myth of Whitey Bulger and Why I Suggested Killing Him 30 Years Ago

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shot in the Rear End: Mickey's Close Shave with Destiny

Michael "Mickey" Cohen needed a new bulletproof Cadillac for several reasons: His home was bombed in February 1950 and his previous Cadillac acquired some bullet holes outside Sherry's Restaurant, 9039 Sunset Blvd., on July 20, 1949. Mickey didn't get hit. He bent over to inspect a scratch on his Cadillac when they began shooting.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 18, 2013

This Scarface is in Chicago, Not Miami

Living dangerously, Tony Camonte muscles in on his boss's girlfriend.
"Scarface" (1932) is one of the seminal American gangster films of the 1930s, along with "Little Caesar," "The Roaring Twenties" and "The Public Enemy." Each one tells the story of a gangster's rise in the bootlegging business and his assent to the top of a powerful crime syndicate. After tasting success, each of the crime lords has a precipitous fall back to earth due to errors in judgment and his own hubris. 

The films are a study in how criminal empires are built on the sale of whisky, gin and beer to a willing Prohibition-era public. The 1930s "Scarface was remade in 1983 with Al Pacino in the title role. Both films tell similar stories but could hardly more different in content, tone and style. The Pacino "Scarface," directed by Brian De Palma, is a good deal more graphically violent and involves cocaine trafficking rather than rum running.

Howard Hawks directed the original and Ben Hecht wrote the break-neck paced script that is as witty as his screwball comedy, "His Girl Friday" — Hawks directed that one, too.  

Hawks's film had to sit on the shelf for two years after its completion. The studio was reluctant to release it because of the violence it depicts. But compared with the Pacino film, the original "Scarface" is almost a Sunday school picnic. Although Hawks's film is hardly violence-free it seems mild compared with the bullet-riddled 1983 film, which contains, among other atrocities, a chainsaw murder. 

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

Tony flirts with his boss's girlfriend and talks of taking over the North Side of Chicago's bootlegging business that's run by a powerful rival gang — both actions suggest a death wish at the core of his being. But pretty soon he makes good on his ambitions.

Tony (Paul Muni) likes the feel of a machine gun in 'Scarface.'
Despite his penchant for deep-sixing his rivals, Tony has a goofy side that might have seemed out of place in such a dubious movie hero, but here it doesn't.

The newly rich Tony shows off his fancy new digs to the girl he's taken a shine to and she tells the vocabulary-challenged mobster it's sort of gaudy, which he takes as a compliment.

When Tony gets his hands on a Thompson machine gun, the first one he's ever seen, he's delighted with the weapon's raw destructive power. He takes adolescent delight in spraying the room with bullets, but it doesn't take long before he starts training the weapon on human targets.

Tony is devoted to his mother — do all wiseguys have mother issues? He's also a fierce overlord to his younger sister, demanding that she never go on dates with young men. His fixation with his attractive sibling is a bit creepy and ultimately becomes a key part of his undoing.

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

Racked by paranoia, he ultimately finishes off his friends as well as other hoods looking to put out his lights. Alone, he's no longer a force to be reckoned with and he pays the ultimate price for his misdeeds. A fitting end to a strange bad guy who we can't help but like.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Whitey Not a Rat? Shelley Murphy on Whitey Bulger

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

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

'The Crimson Kimono': Big Crime in Little Tokyo

Tawdry newspaper headlines bark out plot twists
in 'The Crimson Kimono' (1959).

Director, producer and writer Samuel Fuller photographs the streets of downtown L.A. stunningly in "The Crimson Kimono," a film that's part mystery, part love triangle and part travelogue. We get to see the downtown exteriors, particularly Little Tokyo as it looked in 1959, with a gleaming City Hall in the background. The City Hall tower is a crucial visual marker in a metropolis whose skyline has few recognizable buildings. It instantly orients the observer, and in "The Crimson Kimono" it serves as a looming symbol of justice watching over the city's mean streets.

Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall).
He started his career as a teenaged crime reporter for New York tabloid newspapers, and it shows in his films. Fuller had a gift for exploiting the tawdry and the sensational. "Crimson Kimono"'s plot involves the search to find out who murdered stripper Sugar Torch, and the characters include the denizens of the urban demimonde plus a number of eccentrics thrown in for good measure — the story takes place in L.A., a city routinely portrayed in crime fiction and movies as kooks central. As the manhunt for the killer proceeds, the two detectives, who happen to be buddies and roommates as well, fall in love with the same woman, and the resulting turmoil is the backdrop to the central murder mystery.

Ziggy plays a small role in the story, but is worth mentioning because much of the rest of the cast, especially Corbett and his buddy, Det. Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) don't have the same air of authenticity about them as does street canary Ziggy. They come across as much too square to be uttering the words that come out of their mouths. Kojaku observes, "Charlie figured bird-doggin' wouldn't appeal to you," and Bancroft admits, "You know, I knocked around an awful lot," and, "Somethin's eatin' him the way he clammed up." 

Wandering through Little Tokyo.
These two ivy league-looking dudes are almost painful to watch when they spout these howlers. Granted, the kind of stylized Runyonesque dialogue Fuller was going for probably never came out of anyone's mouth at anytime in real life. A grittier cast may have turned up the believability quotient a few notches, but, no matter, it's still a bracingly exciting film.

Fuller knew how to open a movie with a healthy dose of hoopla, and his aerial view of L.A. at night and the roaring Gene Krupa-like orchestration behind the soaring camera work perfectly sets the scene. As we view the city from a bat's-eye perspective, the title card tells us it's LOS ANGELES, in case there was doubt.

The greatness behind "The Crimson Kimono" is its ability to turn L.A. into a character in the story, not just a location, and at that Fuller excels. And if you're going to pick a city to play the backdrop for a crime story you could do a lot worse than L.A.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

'Gangster Squad' Ready to Rumble

The Sunday L.A. Times just arrived outside my door wrapped in its usual plastic body bag, but this time it was also wrapped in a faux front-page advertisement touting “Gangster Squad,” the big-deal movie that opens Friday. The four-page L.A. Times ad disguised as a legitimate front page complete with screaming headlines and real photos of 1940s – ’50s gangster boss Mickey Cohen (pictured above) and others of his ilk, is a sure sign that this film is getting the big-time promotional treatment reserved for high-ticket movies such as “The Dark Night.” Warner Brothers, who is releasing the thing, seems to have high hopes that this one is going to be, as the Mafioso would say, a “good earner.” Sean Penn plays the Mickster.

The script was written by ex-L.A. cop Will Beall based on the book of the same title by Paul Lieberman. Apropos to the Time’s four-page advertorial spread, the paper also published a series on Mickey Cohen’s reign over the city, and the secret police squad that skirted the law to break organized crime’s stranglehold on L.A. You can read the series online here: L.A. Noir: Tales from the Gangster Squad.