Life and Death in L.A.: 2022

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Casual Malice: Ascots in Crime Films

Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, 'Beat the Devil' (1953).

What’s in an ascot, you ask? Quite a lot, actually. The loosely tied neckwear that’s tucked inside an open-collared shirt (for hardcore cases, tucked into a smoking jacket) says a lot about the character wearing it. 

Choosing an ascot is a ticklish matter. It can make you appear rakish, roguish and maybe sleazy. It sometimes adds a whiff of foreign intrigue — or at least that’s what the wearer might like you to think. At worst, it’s a bum fashion choice made by a square trying to look like a swinger.

In films, ascots are often worn by slick operators, gigolos, the idle rich and a few crime fighters. Here’s an assortment of the sporty characters and misfits who wear them. 

Robert Walker
Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
Bruno is a confused fellow who mistakenly thinks he’s made a murderous pact with pro tennis player Guy Haynes (Farley Granger). A man of leisure who sponges off his wealthy parents, Bruno has lots of time to dream up fantastical, dangerous schemes. His lounging attire: a dandyish ascot and smoking jacket robe. We’d expect nothing less from him.

Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman,
Patricia Hitchcock.
Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll) “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
For some reason U.S. Senator Morton speaks with a British accent — or is that an Ivy League mid-Atlantic brogue? He wears a robe and ascot to an impromptu late-night family conference because, we assume, that’s the way posh dads dress in Washington, D.C. 

Gina Lollobrigida, Humphrey Bogart.
Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) “Beat the Devil” (1953)
Billy is an American traveling overseas with a motley group of cutthroat business associates. At ease on the European continent, he dresses like the locals — his jacket and ascot give him an unstudied, casual air. He’s the antithesis of the ugly American even if some of his travel companions are the scum of the earth.

John Cazale
Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) “The Godfather II” (1974)
The Corleone family shunted their second eldest son Fredo off to Las Vegas to keep him out of harm’s way. Now under the dubious tutelage of casino boss Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), Fredo dresses like a strip club barker and an ascot does little to improve his image. A hipster he’s not.

Al Pacino
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) “The Godfather II” (1974)
Unlike his brother Fredo, Michael seems relaxed and stylish in an ascot. But, despite his unflappable appearance he's a man who is never fully at ease. Ever on guard, he watches for the next foe to make his move. All the while he’s dressed impeccably.

Edward Fox
The Jackal (Edward Fox) “The Day of the Jackal” (1973)
A hired assassin known as “The Jackal” is every bit the steely killer that his moniker implies. He’s the picture of cool as he attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. The ascot affords him a suave, relaxed look that allows him to blend into his environment. But there’s nothing casual about the Jackal — he’s all business.

Cary Grant

John Robie (Cary Grant) “To Catch a Thief” (1955)
Let’s say you’re a retired jewel thief luxuriating on the French Riviera. You’re obviously going to wear an ascot, as does ex-cat burglar John Robie — it’s practically mandated by law. Someone is pilfering expensive trinkets from the fabulously wealthy and the gendarmes think that Robie’s the one behind it all. He’s got to corner the real burglar to prove that his hands are clean. In the meantime, he’s busy romancing Grace Kelly, as retired jewel thieves do. 

Jeroen Krabbe

Gen. Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) “The Living Daylights” (1987)
Renegade Soviet Gen. Koskov tries to manipulate the British into assassinating his rival, Gen. Pushkin. Yes, this is a spy story, not a crime film. But let’s remember it’s not just any spy flick, it’s a Bond movie — albeit one that was chosen at random. It belongs to a film dynasty with a decades-long relationship with the ascot. It would be unseemly to ignore that connection.  


Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas) “Too Many Crooks” (1959)
Billy’s wife is kidnapped by bumbling hoodlums and they’re holding her for ransom. No dice. He’s been carrying on with his secretary and would be delighted to have wifey vanish permanently. His red and white polka-dotted ascot is practically the international banner of rakes worldwide and he wears it with pride.

Roddy McDowall

Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) “Evil Under the Sun” (1982)
Writer Rex Brewster finds himself smack dab in the middle of a murder mystery. The deceased woman refused to sign a release document, which tripped up Rex’s plans to publish a tell-all biography of her life. Is he the lout who felled the quarrelsome lady? Beware, Rex sports a red and white polka-dotted ascot. Say no more.

Michel Piccoli

Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), “Topaz” (1969)
Spy ring leader Jacques Granville (yes, it’s another spy movie) is the picture of urbane sophistication in his ascot and crimson smoking jacket. The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds as Westerners scramble to gather evidence of Soviet nuclear missiles positioned on the Caribbean island just south of Key West. Meanwhile, Granville lights up an excellent Cuban cigar. The fate of Western civilization may hang in the balance, but those concerns should never interrupt the enjoyment of a good smoke.

Gene Barry

Capt. Amos Burke (Gene Barry) “Burke’s Law” (1963-’66, ABC-TV)
Suave, sophisticated Amos Burke is a multi-millionaire who lives in a mansion and is chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce limousine. Somehow, he’s also an L.A. homicide detective who solves a tricky murder case each week. After a challenging day of rounding up killers he relaxes at home, as do most lawmen, with a pitcher of martinis and wearing immaculately tailored suits that are often complemented by an ascot.

Joan Crawford, Jack Palance

Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) “Sudden Fear” (1952)
Lester, a classic noir cad, is an unsuccessful actor who gloms onto noted playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford). They get hitched, but Lester and longtime lover Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) cook up a dark plan for Myra. However, Myra has a few ideas of her own. Lester’s neckwear marks him as a smoothie, but Myra will prove a challenging match for him.

If you yearn to get ahead in a field such as burglary, casino management, law enforcement or espionage consider wearing an ascot. It could help pave the way to a new, exciting career.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

‘Eddie Coyle’ Introduced Us to ‘Boston Noir’

Robert Mitchum in 'The Friends of Eddie Coyle' (1973).

How Boston labor union muscle
terrorized Hollywood film crews

No one was quite ready for the grittiness of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” when it arrived in theaters in 1973. 

It didn’t look like most films that Hollywood turned out — it had a certain rawness in each shot that probably wouldn’t pass muster in Tinsel Town, and there’s not a single hint of glamor in the crumbling urban landscape in which the story unfolds. 

What’s more, it’s a tale of low-level hoods, about as far as one can get from the top echelon mafioso of “The Godfather” (1972).

All of those elements could and did work in various films set in the big, shiny, bustling American metropolises, but not so much in Boston. Sure, there was “The Boston Strangler,” a ripped-from-the-headlines police procedural that used then-fashionable split screen montages. But that was a psychological study, not nearly as unapologetically raw as “Eddie Coyle.” 

Lacking in Allure
You had “Mean Streets,” “The French Connection,” both New York stories, and even “Get Carter,” set in London and Newcastle, England. But, my God, this was Boston, a backwater with an abundance of colleges and universities and a depressed economy. 

City folks had been moving out to the suburbs in droves at least 10 years prior. As movie locations go, it was no New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. 

Labor Pains
To make matters worse, labor unions presented a major problem for film crews working in Boston in those days. A production could get shut down by a guy with a broken nose and a blackjack in his back pocket. The Teamsters labor union held Boston film productions in a hammerlock, according to Boston film critic Ty Burr

Teamster truck drivers smashed windshields and beat up crew members if they didn’t get what they wanted. It appears that the “Eddie Coyle” crew didn’t have significant difficulties with the union — could it be because the Teamsters were Robert Mitchum fans? 

A Familiar Kind of Criminal
Despite the drawbacks, British-born director Peter Yates liked Boston as a filming location and remarked that the criminals in Boston were like those in London. They wouldn’t harm others so long as they got the loot they were after — a criminal ethic of a bygone era, he wistfully declaims on the “Eddie Coyle” DVD commentary track.

What changed the perception of Boston as a lackluster setting for a crime story was George V. Higgins’s novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” on which the film is based. The book was so highly regarded that it not only put Boston on the crime film map, it inspired a sub-genre of fiction and crime movies — Boston noir, if you will. 

Novel Influenced Writers
The novel was a big influence on writers local to his area as well, such as Robert B. Parker (“High Profile,” “Valediction”) and Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River,” “Gone, Baby, Gone”). Elmore Leonard, who was based in Michigan, said “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was the best crime novel he’d ever read, and it was an inspiration in his own writing. 

When Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” into the film “Jackie Brown,” he changed the lead character’s name from Jackie Burke, as it was in the novel, to Jackie Brown in homage to George Higgins’s book — one of Eddie Coyle’s gun-running cohorts is named Jackie Brown. 

A Dialogue Driven Novel
What made Higgins’s book stand out, unlike other crime novels of that era, is that it’s around 80 percent dialogue and the dialogue beautifully defined the story’s characters. Higgins, born and raised in the Boston area, had a sharp ear for the way people talked. He knew their accents and inflections. 

Before embarking on a writing career, he was an assistant prosecutor who helped bring a number of Boston-area gangsters to trial. Then he went into private law practice and defended them. He knew how they spoke and how they thought and was skilled at getting the nuances and details of their speech down on paper. 

The Rich and the Poor
But what makes “Eddie Coyle” the cornerstone of Boston crime novels and movies is its depiction of two separate but intertwined worlds that are endemic to the city. There’s the Harvard-educated upper class and the struggling working class. 

The dingy areas in which Eddie Coyle travels are shown in marked contrast to the glimpses we get of bankers’ comfortable suburban homes. Prior to Higgins’s novel we’d not seen Boston portrayed in such a divided state, at least not in crime novels.

The story takes place in the late 1960s or early ‘70s when the city was especially down at its heels. Director Peter Yates shot the least photogenic sides of the city, unlike “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), which presented a tourist’s view of Boston. 

The City's Rough Edges
“Eddie Coyle” shows the places that the chamber of commerce didn’t want outsiders to see, the tacky strip malls, dingy bowling alleys, dive bars, seedy cafeterias and the like — where working-class folks circulate. For that it has an authentic, unvarnished look. 

Shots are efficient, blunt and not as conspicuously composed as are other films of the genre in that era. It has none of Martin Scorsese’s artfully designed, meticulously lit scenes that somehow make desolation look beautiful. “Eddie Coyle” is as often as not lit by the greenish glow of fluorescent tubes and flickering neon Narragansett Beer signs.

Peter Boyle as Dillon, and Mitchum.

Adding Up the Pieces
We see meetings between gangsters and sometimes between gangsters and cops. The story’s episodic nature leaves us to piece together the facts and figure out what’s going on. Eddie Coyle is in only about half of the film. 

The rest of the time we witness his so-called friends, their machinations and the jockeying they do to get what they want. The title is ironic — Eddie has no friends, only acquaintances and crime associates on whom he’s come to depend and obviously shouldn’t. 

A Page Right Out of the Novel
The film retains the novel’s local flavor due largely to the screenplay’s loyalty to Higgins’s dialogue. Entire scenes are transcribed verbatim from the book, which works because the book often reads like a film treatment. 

In the end, the job of adapting the novel to a screenplay was given not to Higgins but to veteran TV writer Paul Monash who had worked on shows as varied as “The Untouchables” and “Peyton Place.”

The Low Man
It’s the dialogue that pulls us into the life of the title character, Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), an almost flat broke gangster who sells guns to criminals. He’s on the bottom rung of the crime syndicate ladder and he doesn’t get much respect from his peers. 

Eddie is a family man who lives in a cramped apartment with his wife and three kids in a blue collar town on the outskirts of Boston. The family is his only ray of sunshine in the bleak world that he inhabits. He’s facing a criminal charge that means jail time and he’s desperate to avoid that. 

Not only because his family will have to go on welfare, but because people are beginning to wonder if he’s snitching to the police. Once inside prison it would be easy to have him done away with.

Made for the Role
Mitchum is a natural fit for the role of Eddie, the hard-luck gun runner whose life is in a state of increasing turmoil. He was first approached to play the role of Dillion, a bartender whose saloon Eddie frequents to sip draft beer and commiserate. 

But Mitchum read the script and decided he wanted to play the title character. As it turned out, his sleepy eyed, world-weary demeanor was made to order for the role. 

A 'Noir God' 
And what qualifications he had — a bona fide film noir god who in real life did time for a pot bust in the 1940s, further cementing his bad boy credentials. Other actors’ careers would have been devastated by the publicity. For Mitchum, it was merely good press.

He’d recently starred in David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) playing against type as a cuckolded Irish schoolteacher. Although the film was a financial success the critics eviscerated it. His career was at a lull and he needed a role that would put him back in a favorable light, and Eddie Coyle was just such a role. 

A Night on the Town
Peter Boyle ended up playing the shifty bartender Dillon and handled the part magnificently. He was a shoulder for Eddie to cry on, and even gave the gun runner a night on the town prior to his sentencing. But beware of hoodlums bearing gifts.

Bank robbers use the guns Eddie provided to them.

To prepare for his role, Mitchum wanted to hang out with notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger

A Word to the Wise
Actor Alex Rocco, who plays a bad guy in the film — he was also Moe Green in “The Godfather” — had a real-life history of association with Boston criminals having grown up in the city and gotten into scrapes with the law. 

Rocco gave Mitchum sound advice. “You don’t want to hang out with Whitey.” Instead, he introduced him to Howie Winter, a local gangster with whom Mitchum eventually spent time, all in the name of research.

An Insider's Pointers
Speaking of authoritative advice on the ins and outs of organized crime, Yates found that working in Boston, even with the hassles of dealing with thuggish union men, had its advantages. He recalled attempting to direct a scene depicting a gang hit, and he wasn’t sure how to stage it authentically. 

A Teamster truck driver piped up, saying he knew others who did such things, and he offered some advice which the director ended up following. It was at that point that Yates realized that the driver had probably done exactly what he was advising the on-screen talent to do.

That brought a greater sense of realism to the screen — much greater than anyone would have anticipated. And that's what you don’t learn in film school.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Grifter Aims to Separate a Widow from her Fortune

John Garfield,  Geraldine Fitzgerald and Walter Brennan 
in 'Nobody Lives Forever' (1946).

By Paul Parcellin

As conmen go, Nick Blake (John Garfield) is more likeable than your average grifter. A bit out of practice, he's ready to get back into the flim-flam game. But first, he's got a score to settle.

In "Nobody Lives Forever" (1946), Blake is a wounded G.I. sent home to New York from the war. He keeps his arrival secret to surprise his girlfriend, Faye (Toni Blackburn), who's got a few surprises of her own for him — turns out she's been running around with a mustachioed nightclub owner and the two of them pocketed the cash Blake left with her. 

We've seen the jilted returning soldier theme often in noir, but in this case Blake doesn't waste time fretting over his lady friend's double dealing. He's the jaded sort who takes disloyalty in stride and moves on.

He extracts his dough from the nightclub owner and he and his pal Al (George Tobias) hop over to the West Coast to connect with some old cronies. There's an attractive widow, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), with a large bankroll that the older guys want to fleece. But Blake is the only one in this tired crew who's still dashing enough to pull off the job. Misspent years have taken a toll on the more aged conmen and each has a tale of woe about the big one that got away. 

Blake's pal Pops Gruber (the terrific Walter Brennan) is an elderly grifter who's reduced to stealing drunks' wallets. He sets up a curbside telescope and lets suckers watch the moon and the stars for a dime as he fishes through their pockets. Like everyone else in the racket he wants to score big and get out of it. But he sticks to penny-ante cons because he's hooked on the adrenaline rush it gives him. When he pursues a pack of chiseling kidnappers in his jalopy we see the thrill of the chase in his eyes. Running scams and living outside the law is the stuff that keeps his motor purring.

Reluctant to get involved with the widow at first, Blake finally pursues the monied lady and is able to put up a false facade that fools her and her business manager. Like many a grifter, he disarms his targets with charm, temporarily transforming himself into the person the dupe wants him to be. He convinces Gladys that he's an entrepreneur running a deep sea salvage operation and entices her to invest. 

The trouble is, he falls for her and all bets are off. Instead of robbing the widow he wants wed her. It reminds us a bit of of Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run," in which he finds love at first sight, and after 20 minutes gives up on the idea of stealing her handbag.

That doesn't sit right with Doc Ganson (George Coulouris), who dreamed up the widow scam and has been on the sidelines waiting for a slice of the lady's fortune. He thinks that Blake is faking his romantic attachment to the lady and he's not about to let him walk the widow down the aisle and take possession of her wealth.

As Blake, Garfield is his typically driven, anti-hero self. He's self-assured, romantically smitten and able to change course with little worry about the consequences. The question is, will the prospect of true love be the ingredient that makes him change his grifting ways. We never doubt that his feelings for Gladys are sincere, but it's worth mentioning that she's got two million smackers in the bank — that alone might be incentive for anyone to abandon a life of petty crime.

It's a bit hard to swallow that Gladys continues to have faith in Blake, even after she learns that he's not who he pretends to be. That's fine for Blake because he needs all the support he can get when others in the gang turn on him for scuttling their plans. 

In the end, he and Pop Gruber go after Doc's gang, who have kidnapped Gladys and are holding her against her will. The tension is high as our outnumbered good guy go up against tall odds. This Garfield performance may not have the fiery eroticism of his pairing with Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which premiered the same year, but it's a taut thriller with a touch of romance that maintains a satisfyingly brisk pace throughout.

The title, "Nobody Lives Forever," is Blake's wistful throwaway line uttered at the film's conclusion after he and his two cohorts have faced a punishing ordeal. His jaded outlook has melted away, and we can rest assured that for him, life will never be the same.

Based on a 1943 W.R. Burnett novel of the same title.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Hazy Memories of Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Mike Moh, 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'

Ever since it hit the screen in 2019 there’s been a lot of talk about Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood,” especially the fight scene between stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Their fictitious on-screen dustup ruffled some feathers, particularly among Lee’s kin and the actor’s fans, who say that he was unfairly maligned. On the surface, the fight scene does makes Lee out to be a delusional windbag. While Moh’s portrayal is decidedly bizarre and probably a highly exaggerated portrait of Lee, Tarantino’s intention, I think, is not to disrespect Lee but to make us wonder about the reliability of Cliff’s recollections of events and to cast doubt on whether or not certain events actually took place. 

We see the scene filtered through Cliff’s recollection of it, which makes us wonder if he merely remembers Lee in the least flattering terms possible because of animosity between the two. Some say that the real Bruce Lee had a rough relationship with movie stuntmen, whom he didn’t respect. Rumor has it that he’d intentionally hit stunt actors rather than pull his punches, leading some to refuse to work with the actor.  

Cliff and Lee’s fight, a sparring match, actually, is seen in flashback. And to make matters all the more complicated, it’s followed by yet another flashback. The sequence starts when Cliff is fixing a rooftop TV antenna for his buddy and employer, TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). His mind wanders to an encounter with Lee on the set of TV series “The Green Hornet” (1966-’67). In the flashback, Cliff, nattily dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a silly pompadour hairpiece, gets into a verbal scrap with Lee, who happens to be the show’s co-star. Lee is holding court with a gaggle of fawning crew members, and proclaims that he could beat Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) in a fight. Cliff snickers, and that leads to a round of fisticuffs; two falls out of three wins it; no hitting in the face. Before the action starts someone clues Lee into the rumor that Cliff murdered his wife, which gives the confident martial artist a moment’s pause. Things come to a head when Cliff deflects Lee’s kick and sends the martial artist careening into a parked Lincoln Continental, leaving a huge dent in the body. Stuntman Randy (Kurt Russell) fires Cliff for messing with the actor and damaging the vehicle. 

While this seems like straightforward storytelling there are strange and subtle activities percolating in the background. Crew members sit comfortably as they take in the action. But just before Lee is tossed into the car the spectators are suddenly gone. It seems like a continuity error in editing the film, not unlike those that were intentionally placed in Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” (2007), where Tarantino mimicked sloppy mistakes endemic in cheapo grindhouse exploitation films of the 1960s and ’70s. But, in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” the disappearing spectators suggest we’re seeing a highly subjective recollection of the facts, or perhaps a total fabrication of events. And, what about that smashed car door? It’s a big, gaping dent, as if the car was hit by a slow-moving 18-wheeler. The impact would surely be enough to kill a man.

Odder still is the flashback within a flashback, in which Cliff remembers himself on a boat with his now dead wife. She’s lambasting him about their crappy vessel among other things. Cliff sits impassively, a spear fishing gun in his hands. Did the browbeaten husband finally snap and skewer his furious wife? Their tense encounter on the ocean reminds us of a real-life Hollywood death when actress Natalie Wood drowned under suspicious circumstances while yachting with her husband Robert Wagner. The sequence ends, and Cliff does not fire a spear at his beloved, but we can’t help but suspect it’s on his “things to do” list.

When the flashback sequences end, things get weirder still as Cliff, still on the rooftop, notices a scruffy, bearded dude down below on the street — Charles Manson, as it turns out, who has just paid a call on the home next door. Manson gives Cliff a big smile and a courtly wave (howdy, partner) to which Cliff looks on with suspicion. His instincts about the weird little character would prove prescient — the house next door is the residence of actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski and was the scene of one of the most notorious multiple murders in the city’s history. 

That encounter weighs heavily on us as we watch the story continue to unfold, expecting the worst, holding our breath, and waiting for the inevitable. But, as anyone who’s seen “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) knows, Tarantino has a way of playing with historical facts when he weaves fictional threads into his non-fictional tapestry. And just as we can’t really be sure about the veracity of Cliff’s encounters, factually, Tarantino’s tale of Hollywood at a historic crossroad is a malleable as wet papier mâché. In the end, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is a fairytale. Not the kind you’d read to kids at bedtime, but a nostalgia-tinged farewell to a time and place that now exists mostly in our highly unreliable memories.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

‘L.A. Confidential’: Wounded Cops Take On the System

From left, Det. Ed Exly (Guy Pearce), Det. Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey).
From left, Det. Ed Exly (Guy Pearce),
Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey).

"L.A. Confidential" just had its 25th anniversary and that makes us look anew at the astounding saga of police corruption in the City of Angels, circa 1953. A quarter of a century later the film’s authentic retro look, snappy musical soundtrack and motley selection of characters still make the story hum.

Two of a Kind
Deep wounds make great characters, and two of the film's protagonists, Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exly (Guy Pearce), are both emotionally scarred, yet polar opposites. 

White is a thug who beats up bad guys when enlisted to do so by his boss, Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). But he's also a staunch protector of women. Turns out his dad used to beat his mom, so Bud has a soft spot in his heart for battered females, but not for much else.

Exly is a self-consciously ethical cop who wants to follow in his father's rather large footsteps. His dad was a policeman killed in the line of duty, allegedly by a purse snatcher. But given the corruption and lawlessness of the L.A. Police Department in that era, the story of the senior Exly's demise is questionable. Was he bumped off for not turning a blind eye to his fellow officers' malfeasances? In a telling moment Smith tells Exley to get rid of his steel framed glasses, saying he can't think of another man in the department who wears them — another way of warning him to not look too closely at the goings on around the station house. 

Both White and Exly are flawed characters, too. White pummels out-of-town gangsters looking for a foothold in L.A. and looks the other way when unsavory activities take place. Exly is a polished social climber who never misses an opportunity to advance himself. He's more than willing to rat out brutal cops who beat up Mexicans being held in the station jailhouse. But in return for his testimony he demands to be bumped up to lieutenant. He knows that he’ll be hated by the other cops, but that doesn’t matter to him. He’s like the smart nerd in high school who gets tripped and wedgied in the hallways, but takes solace in the fact that he’ll someday be his antagonists’ boss.

Jack the Joker

There’s also Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the police consultant on “Badge of Honor,” a TV show that is a stand-in “Dragnet.” Police brass removed him from the show as payback for bad behavior and he hopes that solving a nasty murder case will put him back in the department’s good graces. But his freelance investigation takes a high toll on him. A bit of a jokester, a gag he plays on his boss turns out to be a genius bit of black humor that also plays a major role in the plot. 

As Exly and White begin to understand how corrupt the department is, it's their wounds that make them want to rout out the rot of lawlessness that surrounds them. In White's case, he's become involved with a call girl, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who belongs to a cadre of ladies of the night who have been given plastic surgery to make them resemble movie stars — she looks like Veronica Lake. She's in danger of being chewed up by the corrupt men pulling the strings who routinely use and discard people who have outlived their usefulness. White is intent on protecting her, and to do that he must bring down the big boys.

A Substantial Sacrifice
Exly has been cited for bravery in killing a group of alleged kidnappers and rapists, but he later learns their guilt is questionable and proof exists that they were framed. Then a plot to bump him off goes awry and he’s convinced it’s time to act. By calling out the corrupt forces within the department he will lose the prestige he’s earned and perhaps his lieutenant bars. Despite his political instincts, he’s willing to tear it all down “with a wrecking ball.”

There are a number of plot twists that grab us, all of which lead to an extended shootout in a decrepit abandoned motel on Victory Blvd. It’s the perfect setting for the wrap-up. It’s the place where Dudley Smith takes undesirables and Bud White beats them. The building’s shabbiness reflects the systemic rot that dominates the police department. It’s also a relic of California’s tourism boom. Unlike the sunny picture postcards shown as the opening credits roll, the state’s image as a windswept paradise is a phony public relation gimmick, and like the motel, is rotten on the inside.

The conclusion manages to avoid crime film clichés. Instead, we see the grim choices that one faces when taking on institutionalized corruption. It’s not a clean sweep of bad guys, but a blow to departmental abuse of power — at least in this instance. Of course, there’s a coverup of what actually took place behind the scenes, and that’s to be expected. It’s a story about the L.A. Police Department, after all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Noir Directors and their Eyepatches

An eyepatch can make a director look like a badass and that's a good thing in the famously brutal movie biz. Sure, a lot of them are scary enough without a patch, but put a piece of black fabric over an eye and your game is automatically upped exponentially. 

Cranky, spoiled actors, pushy studio execs and slacker crew members might think twice before tangling with a guy who looks like a buccaneer. The presence of an eyepatch opens the door to wild speculation. "Did he lose it while dueling, or something?"

André de Toth, Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang and John Ford all sported eyepatches at one time or another. Most were the heavy-drinking he-men types who ruled the set with a heavy dose of intimidation.

Lack of depth perception be damned, these directors soldiered on and made classic cinema. Tough, like the characters in their movies, they cut a striking figure — the eyepatch added to the their' mystique and forever after enhanced their legend.

Here are a half dozen noir directors who plied their craft wearing an eyepatch and made it look damned exciting:

Director Raoul Walsh

Word has it that Raoul Walsh lost his right eye when a jackrabbit leaped through his windshield. He was perhaps the first with an eyepatch on the Hollywood scene and may have unintentionally started a trend. His noir and gangster films include "They Drive by Night" (1940), "High Sierra" (1941) which helped bridge the gap between gangster films and noir, "White Heat" (1949), "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), "The Enforcer" (1951) and "The Man I Love" (1946).

André de Toth
de Toth

Hungarian born director André de Toth was monocular and had no depth perception, though he directed one of the first 3D movies, "House of Wax" (1953). He was known for his hard edge pictures and for depicting violence in a realistic manner that Hollywood was still squeamish about in the 1940s. Some of his better known noirs include "Pitfall" (1948), "Guest in the House" (1944), "Dishonored Lady" (1947), "Crime Wave" (1953), "Dark Waters" (1944) and "Hidden Fear" (1957). 

Fritz Lang

No one ever accused Fritz Lang of being a softie. The German born director was known for browbeating and intimidating his casts to get their best performances. His work includes influential noirs "The Big Heat" (1953),  "Scarlet Street" (1945), "Fury" (1936), "You Only Live Once" (1937), "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943), "Ministry of Fear" (1944), "Human Desire" (1954), "Clash by Night" (1952) and German Expressionist masterpiece "M" (1931).

Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray not only directed some of the most moving noirs, he was married to noir diva Gloria Grahame. Their marriage didn't end so well. Among Ray's masterpieces are “They Live By Night” (1948), “In A Lonely Place” (1950), “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) and campy western/noir "Johnny Guitar" (1954) as well as "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955).

Samuel Fuller
Firebrand independent director Samuel Fuller started out working in the tabloid press. Dramatic stories and garish headline were his stock in trade, which lent itself nicely to his noir and crime films, including "House of Bamboo" (1955), "Scandal Sheet" (1952), "Pickup on South Street" (1953), "Shockproof" (1949), "The Racket" (1951), "Gambling House" (1950), "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) and "Underworld USA" (1961), among others.

John Ford
John Ford isn't usually thought of as a noir director — his westerns are legendary. But a number of his films fit in neatly with the genre as either pure noir or noir influenced, including "The Informer" (1935), "The Long Voyage Home" and "The Grapes of Wrath" (both 1940), "The Fugitive" (1947) and "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960). And, yes, Ford was a tough customer, too. Just watch filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich try to interview him during a break in shooting.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

Driving a Stake through Swinging London’s Heart

Turner (Mick Jagger), left, keeps watch over
Chas (James Fox) in 'Performance' (1970).

Just another a drug-induced,
decadent, rock ’n’ roll-tinged noir 

Performance” isn’t on many “best neo-noirs” lists — absolutely zero that I could find, honestly. Some might say it shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the 1960s crime films that pay homage to black and white noir classics of the 1940s and ’50s, but allow me to disagree.

The Mick Jagger-co-starring cult film has preoccupations we sometimes find in noir, including the fluidity of, and confusion over, identity. Many a noir anti-hero and heroine develop amnesia or hijack another’s identity, only to learn that posing as the other one can run great risks. In “Performance,” the story is all about a thug’s unexpected search for his identity within the confines of an appropriately shabby mansion in the bohemian part of 1960s London.

The film toggles between a drug-induced hallucinatory tale and a blood-splattered gangster flick. East London mobster Chas (James Fox) elbows his way into the abode of washed-up rock star Turner (Mick Jagger), and it becomes abundantly clear that Chas has crossed the threshold into a world over which he has little understanding and even less control.

Turner (Mick Jagger) in his lair.
First Choice: Brando
Aside from the film’s violence, “Performance” is a good deal more exotic in tone and risqué than other crime films of its era. Donald Cammell, who made his directorial debut with “Performance,” originally conceived it as a film about an American gangster hiding out in London. He intended to cast his pal Marlon Brando as Chas, but plans changed and James Fox took the role. Nicolas Roeg, who later directed British supernatural horror classic “Don’t Look Now” (1973), co-directed “Performance,” taking charge of the look of the film.

Hardly 'Swinging London'
At its first screening, the film gave movie execs the heebie-jeebies — the paean to “swinging London” they were expecting turned out to be a blunt depiction of sex and drugs that was far more edgy and dangerous than anticipated. Its first reviews were not flattering. One commentator disparagingly observed that it’s as if “Performance” was penned by Mickey Spillane trying to write like Harold Pinter. Upon witnessing the eyebrow raising antics depicted in the film, a Warner Brothers executive’s wife allegedly vomited. Richard Schickel of Life magazine said “Performance” is “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.”

From Woodstock to Altamont

Warner Brothers panicked and shelved the film for a couple of years. Of course, the swinging London era of mods and rockers was hopelessly passe by then and a darker, more decadent atmosphere had taken hold. The counter culture's touchstone event, Woodstock, took place in August of 1969. But so did the Manson Family murders, and four weeks later the Stones organized a free concert at Altamont Speedway in California that saw four fatalities, including the murder of an audience member by Hell's Angels security personnel. “Performance” was already in the can by the time all of these events occurred, and if the film was not exactly prescient, it was at least an indicator of the period of hipster despair and dissolution that was to follow. Of course, Mick and the Stones had earlier recorded and released a hit song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968, an ode to the prince of darkness, himself, so the band’s nod to the demonic was already in plain sight and should have come as no surprise. 

As for the fictional Turner, we meet him when he’s experiencing career lag, but his prospects are about to be changed by an unlikely alliance as he and the psychotic Chas cross paths. 

Johnny Shannon as
crime boss Harry Flowers
Flowers the Mobster
It turns out, the brutal mobster routinely squeezes pound notes out of the locals who are unfortunate enough to be caught in crime kingpin Harry Flowers’s (Johnny Shannon) grip. Chas pours acid over one target’s spotless Rolls Royce, smashes things and brutalizes others. He’s a domestic terrorist serving a brutal criminal regime that seems to operate with impunity.

Chas eventually falls out of favor with his boss and barely escapes a gangster home invasion with his life. He’s desperately in search of a safe haven, and when he overhears a conversation about a recently vacated basement room he lands on Turner’s doorstep.  

Creative Atmosphere
At first he’s not well received but he browbeats the eccentric rocker, claiming he needs to live in a creative atmosphere — he’s a juggler, he maintains. Reluctantly, the singer and his live-in female companions, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton), who are the other two-thirds of the singer’s live-in ménage-a-trois, take in the rogue gangster. Turner realizes that Chas possesses something he lacks — a gangster persona, which is an essential element for a rock ‘n’ roll star, you see.

Identities become fluid
in 'Performance.'
The creative atmosphere — and later, some psychedelic mushrooms — have an effect on Chas. He dyes his hair the color of a bucket of rusty nails, trying to blend in to his new outré sanctuary, and in hopes of evading the gangsters he’s trying to dodge. It’s not a particularly effective disguise, but it’s the first sign of a transformation — and he is one sorely in need of a behavioral transformation.

Fun with Psychedelic Fungus
Earlier in the film we see him having a sadomasochistic encounter with a woman, which fits in with his brutal manner. But after Pherber encourages him to release his psychological demons by exploring the female side of his personality, Chas, fully blitzed on ’shrooms, has a psychological breakthrough as he hallucinates Turner as his crime boss performing the song “Memo from Turner.” It’s classic a moment as neo-noir takes a surreal turn, melding noir with 1960s gender-bending drug culture. 

A gangsters' painting party.
Godard Connection
Perhaps the film of that era most similar to the chemically induced psychedelia of “Performance” is “Point Blank” (1967), with Lee Marvin as a gangster trying to collect money he is owed. “Point Blank” delves into the hallucinatory, but its surrealistic elements are the product of a dying man’s feverish nightmare rather than hallucinations of the drug-induced variety. It does, however, share a raw, jump-cut induced nervous energy with “Performance,” both of which are kindred spirits with the French New Wave of the 1960s. We see that when an apartment where Chas is doing his dirty work is sprayed and splashed in blood-red paint. The scene is reminiscent of Jean Luc Godard’s color-drenched anarchic “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) — perhaps not so coincidentally, Godard directed a documentary, “The Rolling Stones: Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), the same year that “Performance” was shot. 

Confusion, double meanings
When “Performance” finally wraps up, we see a thorough blending of identities among the inhabitants of Turner’s decadent pad.  The film’s denouement confused the movie executives at its jaw-dropping debut, and, no doubt, many others continue to walk away wondering if they’re missing something. Like “Point Blank,” whose ending is open to interpretation, “Performance” uses noir tropes but also upends them with its elusive, not readily explainable, ending.

Mergers, Acquisitions
Turner has apparently merged with Chas, but exactly how did this transformation come about? Don’t strain yourself looking for answers. “Performance” is a mind-bending, occasionally incoherent experience, and you’re welcome to put whatever spin on it you’d like. If you’re curious about that era, this is one film that provides a bracing if somewhat unsettling journey into the past. It may appeal to the nostalgically inclined, those who missed out on the scene entirely, and of course, the ones who were there but, for the life of them, can’t seem to remember any of it — you all know who you are.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Hey, College Boy, Wanna Rob a Casino?

Four vets attending college on the GI Bill and a
cabaret singer try to rob a Reno casino and 
pull off the perfect crime. 

‘Five Against the House’ (1955):
Part soap opera, part screwball comedy,
with a heist tacked on at the end


quartet of Korean War veterans studying at college are best buddies. While they’re older than the average college kid, some are in their second childhood. They chase girls; a couple of them haze a freshman and make him their personal slave. This is supposed to be all in fun but on today's campuses it would break the needle on the creepy meter. All of which has little to nothing to do with the heist that they’ll eventually plot.

The foursome goes to Harold’s casino in Reno, Nev., for a quick shot of gambling before they must turn around and get back to campus. Pop culture enthusiasts may be interested to learn that the film was shot on location at Harold’s, which long ago met with the wrecking ball, as aging casinos do.

By chance, a couple of the guys witness one of the all-time dumbest robbery attempts at the cashier’s window. The would-be holdup man gets caught, but that’s when Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) gets the idea to pull a stickup of his own. He’s a rich kid who doesn’t need the money, but wants to prove he’s smart enough to rob the joint without getting caught (shades of Leopold and Loeb). 

The idea is to leave the stolen loot where the casino can recover it. It’s meant to be a prank. But Brick (Brian Keith), who suffered a head wound in the war, is a wild card in this shaky spectacle. This gimmick recalls William Bendix’s shell-shocked Buzz Wanchek in “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), who may or may not have committed a murder.

The most serious-minded of the group, Al Mercer (Guy Madison), whose on again, off again relationship with Kay (Kim Novak) takes up a chunk of the film’s first 40 minutes or so, plans on a career in law and the prank is clearly not his cup of tea. But he's tricked into going along with the group.

That a band of such well-scrubbed lads would flirt with arrest and possibly deadly consequences is a stretch. The whimsical tone shifts to somber when we realize that there's a deranged maniac among the lads who’s been waiting to show his cards.

We never feel that this band of preppies is up to the task of pulling off such a hoax, but never mind. The film’s final minutes are what makes it worth watching, assuming that you can hang in there that long. The guys employ a clever but highly improbable homemade machine which they hope will make a successful robbery possible — but then things go wrong. 

With a bigger helping of hijinx, or a more disciplined approach to the caper, “Five Against the House” could have been a winner. Instead, it runs low on chips toward the middle, and just about folds before the game really gets underway.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

What, Another Insurance Man is Out to Beat the System?

Charles McGraw holds a gun on
worrying Peter Brocco in 'Roadblock.'

On the face of it, “Roadblock” (1951) is a tall tale filled with absurdities. An insurance investigator who can’t conceive of how easily he might get caught if he robs one of his employer’s clients. He’s the same guy who catches perps who rip off the customers, and ought to know better. Added to that is an inveterate gold digger who changes her stripes midstream when the underpaid insurance investigator falls for her.

But it’s not all bad news, in fact, there’s a lot to stick around for.

A clever twist at the beginning gives a hint about where the story is headed. Insurance investigators Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) have a way of tripping up thieves with carefully laid traps. It’s this subterfuge that gives us a clue about Joe’s inner world. He’s skilled at pulling the wool over crooks’ eyes. But, clearly, it won’t be long before his penchant for theatrical misdirection takes him down a different path.

Joe is a straight arrow, but once he meets hot tamale Diane (Joan Dixon) his morally upright resolve begins to crumble. Diane, he quickly learns, is no slouch at working a scheme or two of her own. She hustles a discounted airline ticket, which conflicts with Joe’s moral standards, or so it seems. Beneath his mask of ethical superiority lies a con man wannabe. In Diane he sees a pretty face and perhaps a kindred spirit and, a bit too quickly, he goes goo-goo-eyes over her.

Diane (Joan Dixon).
For her part, Diane is laughably mercenary in her pursuit of fur coats and golden baubles. She sidles up to gangsters and sharpies in her quest for minks and sables — a man-eater lusting after scalps. She’s as self-obsessed as any femme fatale we’ve met and she doesn’t care who knows it.

Joe is in a downward spiral, although he’s not aware of it, and soon she’ll be on the upswing. Somehow, they’ll meet in the middle and connect. Unexpectedly, and inexplicably, things begin to change with Diane once the two couple up. Could it be that beneath her materialistic exterior lies the heart of a woman yearning for true love and the simple life of an insurance inspector’s wife? How that transformation comes about is not quite clear. Without warning, she seems to join the ranks of the exceedingly small sorority of femmes fatale who experience the curative powers of romance. 

But all is not well with the smitten Joe. His gangster cohort soon convinces him that she’ll tire of the simple life, and he becomes convinced that he must take drastic action. He devises a plan to score a large cache of loot.

For a film that tears at the fabric of believability, the story moves forward quickly enough to keep us from noticing or caring too much about how little sense much of it makes. It might be called a weak sister to “Double Indemnity” (1944), which is about another insurance man scamming the system in order to hold onto a gorgeous babe.

Doomed by the choices he makes.
But lapses in logic somehow make “Roadblock” more substantial in unexpected ways. Emotions have a way of clouding our judgment, and the seemingly off-kilter decisions that characters make seem true to human fallibilities and life’s unpredictability. As in true crime TV, the most human elements, at times, are the utterly illogical choices people make when their lives begin to spiral into a crisis. How many times in true crime stories would factual occurrences be considered too coincidental, illogical or outlandish to be included in a fictional story? With that in mind, “Roadblock” gives us plenty of barely credible elements to chew on.

Joe’s foray into criminal enterprise is a leading example of emotions overwhelming logic. His rookie entry into the world of crime is doomed, and pretty soon the couple ends up on the lam. He aims to get himself and Diane to Mexico where they can live outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement. The finale takes place in the Los Angeles River bed, a dry concrete gulf that Joe desperately detours through with the police in hot pursuit — in today’s Los Angeles the chase would undoubtedly be telecast live to boffo ratings. 

Despite it all, don’t be deterred. This low-budget RKO production, shot for around $200,000, doesn’t show the thread-bare trappings of many a cut-rate endeavor. Like a handful of other cheapo productions, “Roadblock” is gritty, a bit slap-dash, but somehow keeps us watching. Just think of it as a savory tidbit for times when you’re not in the mood for a heavy meal.