Life and Death in L.A.: January 2023

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

'Highway 301': There's a Killer on the Road

Wally Cassell, Steve Cochran, Richard Egan, Edward Norris,
Robert Webber, 'Highway 301' (1950). 

It’s a wonder that anyone gets through the first few minutes of "Highway 301," a noir based on the true-life crime wave perpetrated by an outfit called the Tri-State Gang. The film is a taut little thriller that starts off with wooden speeches by three, count ‘em, three state governors, the honorable gentlemen of  North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, where the real Tri-State Gang did its dirty work. Their turgid preambles are the same: Crime doesn’t pay, kids. It’ll make you roll your eyes and, depending on where you are, either change the channel or head for the snack bar.

But don't be put off. You might assume that the rest of the movie is just as cringe-worthy as the opening sequence but you’d be dead wrong. The action whips up to a furious pace as we follow a gang of bank robbers led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran), who seldom hesitates to squeeze the trigger whenever someone gets in his way — and that “someone” can include any of the gang members’ women who are traveling with them. He’s got pure Freon coursing through his veins and a thousand-yard stare that could stop a freight train. This being noir, the film admirably avoids giving us a fancy psychological profile explaining how he ended up this way. Bad childhood? Obviously, but who cares? He’s a B-movie killing machine. Enough said.

The rest of the hoods are a good deal less trigger happy than their boss and are quite subservient to him — who wouldn’t be? The guy’s nuts. They include Herbie Brooks (Richard Egan), Bobby Mais (Wally Cassell), Bill Phillips (Robert Webber) and the driver (Edward Norris). 

Steve Cochran, Gaby André.
French-Canadian Lee Fontaine (Gaby Andre), newly wed to gang member Bill Phillips (Robert Webber), hangs out with the band of henchmen not realizing that she’s sitting on a powder keg. Bill tells her that he and his buddies deal in women’s apparel and furs. Legenza’s girlfriend Madeline Welton (Aline Towne) who offers a bit of sarcastic comic relief, scoffs at the naive Lee. “Furs that fell off the back of a truck,” she sneers. Tension mounts as Lee finally gets the full picture of what’s going on. She knows too much, which is a surefire way to end up in a landfill. 

Voiceover narration by head investigator Det. Sgt. Truscott (Edmon Ryan) sets up each sequence, giving the film a documentary feel which fits well in this true crime drama. The cops want desperately to stop the gang’s wave of murder and robbery which Truscott characterizes as terrorism.

Director Andrew L. Stone keeps the action flowing and the tension wound as tightly as a two dollar watch. He plays with the audience’s emotions and expectations the way a conductor directs a symphony. Particularly good are his action sequences that include car chases and shootouts. One standout sequence moves from the interior of an apartment building to a park and finally to city streets and ends with a stunning twist. He also ramps up the jitteriness in a chase scene involving elevators and staircases. The tension of watching the elevator floor indicator dial move as a killer approaches his victim is heart-stopping. The unintended corker is that the elevator operator witnesses a particularly vicious murder and seems barely moved by it — maybe that’s business as usual in the elevator game. 

The film boasts the use of real-life locations, but most of it was shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. The studio rushed it into production to capitalize on the success of “White Heat,” in which Cochran co-starred with James Cagney. Like his role in the Cagney film, Cochran again fits perfectly into the part of a deadly lothario who acts with chilling brutality. It’s understandable that audiences in 1950 would be shocked by the level of violence depicted here — which probably helps explain the outsized concession that allowed the three governors the chance to hijack the first few minutes of the film.

Even so, we’re apt to concede that, yes, crime doesn’t pay, as the three stuffed shirts tell us, but it can also be pretty entertaining, and that’s why it’s worth watching. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

When Tinsel Town Turns the Camera on Itself

Rod Steiger, 'The Big Knife' (1955).

Face it, scandals make good news copy and the Los Angeles entertainment industry produces a bumper crop of the stuff that keeps gossip writers in business. 

From Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle to Harvey Weinstein the press has never been at a loss for words when it comes to movie industry playboys who can’t control their libidos. An occasional murder, drug overdose or sexual assault crops up now and then and the public can’t get enough of the lurid details.

The gossip that follows a large public display of dirty laundry is especially enticing because it puts the Hollywood elite in a harsh spotlight that’s different from the radiant glow of positive press-agent-generated fluff that we normally see.

 With Damien Chazelle’s marathon tribute to decadent early Hollywood, “Babylon,” fresh in our collective memories, it’s a good time to consider some of the movies that Hollywood has made about itself over the years. Some of the best are noirs, or noir influenced, that examine the decadence and depravity of the movie making capital of the world.

‘Sunset Blvd.’ (1950)

William Holden
Films noir that savage the entertainment industry got their start with the granddaddy of Hollywood takedowns, “Sunset Blvd.” Young screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) has hit a career dead end and is about to leave Los Angeles. Broke and unemployed, he meets delusional former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who is self-exiled in her dilapidated mansion and is girding herself for a showbusiness comeback — although the industry wants nothing to do with her. 

“Sunset Blvd.” is a darkly comedic parable of youth obsessed Hollywood, whose older guard preys upon the vitality of the young fresh faces that migrate there with high hopes and naïve understanding of the parasitic society they’ve entered. Norma is a washed-up former star who cannot cope with no longer being the ingénue. She’s hit the half-century mark and there’s no one less wanted than an aging woman in Hollywood.

She latches onto Gillis and puts him to work rewriting a putrid script she scratched out on what we may darkly imagine is parchment made from human tissue. She expects this extravaganza, a retelling of the story of Salome, will be the vehicle for her big-screen comeback. Gillis plays along because he’s at the end of his rope financially and believes he’ll pocket some sorely needed cash. 

But Norma is too sharp for the rookie scribbler. When it finally dawns on him that he has become a fellow inmate in her Gothic nightmare of a home along with her dedicated man servant, Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), it’s too late to wriggle free. By the time he gets around to making a run for it, Gillis completes his journey through the depths of Hollywood depravity with an unscheduled dip in Norma’s pool and a couple of slugs of lead in his back. 

‘In a Lonely Place’ (1950) 

Humphrey Bogart
Dixon Steel (Humphrey Bogart) is a former A-list screenwriter whose career tanked. His last hit was before the war. He’s an alcoholic with a hot temper that occasionally flares up into violence. His inner rage, perhaps the result of war related post traumatic stress syndrome, causes him pick fights with the mean-spirited jokers he encounters. 

He gets into a barroom punch-out with a lout who degrades an old, washed up actor who lives from one drink to the next. Turns out the lout is the son of a studio chief, but Steele is far beyond worrying about how the brawl might hurt his career.

Based on the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same title, “In a Lonely Place” is a study of Dixon Steele’s insecurities and tendency toward self-sabotage. It’s also an indictment against toxic environments present in the Hollywood studio system. His handlers tolerate Steele’s artistic temperament, all right, and they’d probably be perfectly willing to look the other way and cover up any transgressions. When one of their own uses his star power to take advantage of a woman it’s just business as usual. 

When he brings Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a naïve coat check girl, to his apartment it’s clear that he’s no predator. She’s going to tell him the plot of a novel he’s supposed to have read so that he can decide whether or not he wants to adapt it to the screen. He changes into a robe to get comfortable, which startles Mildred at first until she realizes that he doesn’t have any hanky-panky in mind. She tells him about the book. But as she describes the plot he realizes that the novel is trash and sends her home in a taxi. 

But after Mildred is discovered strangled and left by the roadside Steele’s world begins to come apart. A few friends have a nagging suspicion that he may have done something terrible. His agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith), is set with an escape plan to Mexico. We can only wonder how many times he’s helped other clients avoid the consequence for their bad behavior.  

When Steele is identified as a person of interest in the murder investigation we see the paranoid delusions that begin to cloud his brain. There’s no telling what’s liable to send him into a rage and as suspicion begins to coalesce around him his erratic behavior increases. His friends wonder whether or not he killed the young girl, and so do we. 

‘The Big Knife’ (1955)

Ida Lupino, Jack Palance
Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is a movie star under contract with a major studio and he wishes he wasn’t. He lives in big house and has all of the comforts that a load of cash and celebrity can provide. But the film industry is ruining his life. He’s alienated from his estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), who can’t stand being married to a drunken womanizer who has compromised his ideals. 

Charlie would like to quit the business but the snag is that his melodramatic boss, studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), won’t let him off the hook. Charlie’s contract is about to expire and Hoff is determined to make him sign another. 

One of main attractions of “The Big Knife” is the three-ring circus Charlie’s living room becomes when all of the hangers on converge like sharks around a drowning man. Hoff, the lead shark, has a conniption when the Charlie balks at signing a new contract. Steiger’s performance as Hoff is, shall we say, over the top, even for an actor known for occasionally chewing the scenery like a chainsaw. 

“The Big Knife” is the story of a corrupted actor who has sold out to the Hollywood machine, gets caught in its gears and is about to be torn asunder. He’s sacrificed his artistic integrity for the monied life of a film star but it’s an empty existence that’s brought him little happiness. But why does Hoff have so much power over the actor? A dark secret lurks in Charlie’s past and because of it he’s doomed to walk the Hollywood treadmill for eternity. 

In movieland, depravity is contagious, and even a naïve palooka like Charlie can’t help but be drawn into it. It’s easy to become corrupted when everyone around you is ethically bankrupt and willing to cover up your embarrassing and felonious transgressions when you land in hot water. And Charlie is in it up to his neck.

‘Barton Fink’ (1991)

John Turturro 
A noir-tinged comedy set in the 1940s, “Barton Fink” tells the story of the titular character, played exquisitely by John Turturro, an up-and-coming playwright with a politically progressive bent — a thinly veiled stand-in for Clifford Odets. 

His socially aware dramas are taking the New York theater world by a storm. But Fink, irritated by the nitwits and hangers on who plague his existence, has high ideals and an even higher opinion of his own artistic merits. Lured to the West Coast by the promise of piles of cash, he has to twist himself into knots justifying his transition from the stages of Broadway to the backlot of Capitol Pictures, his new employer. 

But move there he does, and from his first day in Los Angeles Fink finds himself in a Kafkaesque nightmare. His hotel is extra creepy, the studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) kills him with spooky kindness, assuring him that the writer is king at Capitol Pictures — a deceptive reading of the facts, if there ever was one. 

His next-door neighbor at the dilapidated Hotel Earle, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), is a too friendly, in-your-face bumpkin with some peculiar habits. Fink meets one of his idols, author W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a thinly disguised William Faulkner, who, like Fink, has been lured to the shores of “the Great Salt Lake” by the promise of riches.

The darkly humorous conceit that runs throughout “Barton Fink” is that Hollywood is hell. Fink failed to read the sign posted at the gates of the city: “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here.” It’s a warning that fools ignore, because, after all, they know better.

‘Hollywood Story’ (1951)

Richard Conte
If “Hollywood Story” has a familiar feel, that’s because it’s is based on the real-life murder of film director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922), a crime that remains unsolved. 

In this fictionalized account of the Taylor case, New York theatrical director Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) comes to Hollywood to direct his first picture with longtime pal Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). 

O’Brien’s agent, Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), persuades him to direct a film at a disused movie lot that thrived during the silent film era. The director becomes obsessed with a murder of a silent era director, Franklin Ferrera, that happened on the same movie lot more than 20 years before. 

It’s not of the same caliber as the above-mentioned films, but “Hollywood Story” needs to be added to the list when discussing noir’s cold, hard look at the entertainment industry. Perhaps most significantly, it was directed by B-movie maven William Castle, who produced many thrillers on the cheap and promoted them with gimmicks. 

For his film “Macabre” (1958), he came up with the idea to give every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies with hearses parked outside the theaters.

It may not have been promoted with flashy attention-getting hokum, but “Hollywood Story” is, like other Castle films, a bare-bones production, ginned up with cameos by a number of silent film era actors and a few location shots. He knew how to stretch a production budget dollar. 

After O’Brien decides to do a film about the murder he meets resistance from his producing partner, his agent and the deceased director’s heirs who would rather let the matter rest. But then someone fires a bullet at O’Brien, warning him to drop the film. Of course, he doesn’t, and we’re left guessing the killer’s identity until the conclusion.

A forced happy ending tacked onto “Hollywood Story” no doubt calmed the nerves of studio execs and investors who feared a dark wrap-up would result in thin box office returns. Those concerns were probably unnecessary. Few things are more appealing to B-movie audiences than the sight of a Hollywood meltdown, preferably with a hack screenwriter floating face down in the pool.