Life and Death in L.A.: January 2013

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.