Life and Death in L.A.: February 2013

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!