Life and Death in L.A.: December 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.