Life and Death in L.A.: August 2023

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Wild Man of Hollywood Played Raucous, Rage-Filled Human Steamrollers Onscreen, and His Offscreen Life Was Nearly as Outrageous

Lawrence Tierney, "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" (1947).

By Paul Parcellin

In a career that spanned over 50 years, Lawrence Tierney played mobsters, tough guys and cold blooded killers, among an assortment of other roles. His on-screen persona communicated a sense of unrestrained intimidation behind a dead-eyed stare. The characters he portrayed were capable of stunning, sadistic violence, and his performances were often jagged and crude but were always credible. New York Times film critic David Kehr called him "the hulking Tierney" and "not so much an actor as a frightening force of nature.” Author and poet Barry Gifford went a step further in describing the dark force that seems to propel the actor forward, observing, “There is absolutely no light in his eyes.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 15, 1919, Lawrence Tierney was the son of an Irish-American patrolman with the New York aqueduct police force. A star athlete at Brooklyn's Boys High School, he won a sports scholarship to Manhattan College. He dropped out of school after two years to work as a laborer on the New York Aqueduct, and labored at various odd jobs. His penchant for acting led to him join the Black Friars theatre group and the American-Irish Theatre. A scout for RKO Pictures saw one of his performances and signed him to a contract in 1943. A versatile actor, he appear in films noir, westerns, and crime dramas.

His big break came in 1945 when he starred in “Dillinger,” playing notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Following that he acted in a string of notable film noir roles, including “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” (1947), “Born to Kill” (1947) and “The Hoodlum” (1951).

Offscreen, Tierney showed himself to be as gritty as the roughnecks he played in films, but his reputation began to have a negative effect on his career. A dozen arrests between 1944 and 1951, mostly for public drunkenness and brawling, led to a 90-day stretch in jail and a stay in a sanitarium. By the end of the 1940s he was being offered only supporting roles. 

Tierney in a 1951 arrest.

In the 1950s, his alcoholism and erratic behavior got him blacklisted by Hollywood for a time. But he continued to work in television, including “The Untouchables,” “Gunsmoke" and “The Twilight Zone,” as well as in independent films.

There were occasional roles in feature films, including that of Gena Rowlands' attorney husband in John Cassavetes' "A Child Is Waiting" (1963). But Tierney's continued brushes with the law tested the good will of casting agents and producers. He moved to Europe for a period, where he married and reportedly had several children. He returned to the United States in the late 1960s, only to go back to his old career-killing ways.

In 1973, he was stabbed during a bar fight, and police questioned him about a 1975 incident in which a woman he was visiting leapt to her death from a fourth-floor window. During this period, Tierney made ends meet by working as a bartender and driving a hansom cab in Central Park. 

After swearing off alcohol later in the decade, he played a significant number of characters in films and television, often elderly but still dangerous criminals, cops and other streetwise types. A small role as New York's chief of police in John Huston's "Prizzi's Honor" (1985) kicked off a revival that lasted for over a decade.

In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino cast Tierney in a film that would become a cult classic, “Reservoir Dogs” (1992). Tierney starred as gang leader Joe Cabot, who masterminds a diamond heist. But what should have been a cake walk toward juicier roles was scuttled by the actor’s on-set behavior. According to Tarantino, Tierney was very antagonistic during the filming and he was not very fond of Tarantino’s conversational screenwriting. Tarantino claimed that directing Tierney was the most challenging part of making the film. 

“Tierney was a complete lunatic," said Tarantino. "He just needed to be sedated.” 

When the actor was arrested for allegedly firing a shotgun at his own nephew at his Hollywood apartment his fate was sealed. In order to continue the production, he was released from jail for a day but by then Tarantino had made up his mind to never work with the actor again.

Even Tierney's manager admitted that at 75, he remained as irascible as he was a decade before when his drinking was at its peak. Similar stories ran throughout Tierney's final years, including his being ejected from the Tarantino-owned New Beverly Cinema for urinating into a soft drink cup during a screening of "Reservoir Dogs," and strong-arming his way into a discussion after a showing of "Born to Kill" at the Egyptian Theatre. 

However, in a strange turn of events, his cantankerous reputation seemed to open the doors to new roles. Between 1995 and 1996 he appeared in 10 projects, including an episode of "The Simpsons" in which he was the voice of a security guard who caught Bart shoplifting a video game. However, Tierney terrorized the show's staff with threats and bizarre behavior, including refusing to say certain lines if he didn't understand the humor. Additionally, there was the now infamous confrontation on the set of "Seinfeld," which cost Tierney a recurring role playing Elaine's father.

Despite the many difficulties he experienced throughout his working life, Tierney's career ended on a high note with an uncredited turn as Bruce Willis' father in the blockbuster "Armageddon" (1998). He made one last screen appearance in "Evicted" (2000), a low-budget drama starring and directed by his nephew, Michael Tierney. 

His tumultuous life came to an end on Feb. 26, 2002, when the 82-year-old Tierney died in his sleep at a Los Angeles area nursing home.

He left behind an impressive list of films and TV programs in which he played a variety of indelible characters. Here are some of the crime films that featured Lawrence Tierney:

Anne Jeffreys, Lawrence Tierney, "Dillinger." 

"Dillinger" (1945)

Tierney portrays notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who is released from prison in 1933 and quickly falls in with a group of hardened criminals who begin a wave of bank robberies. The FBI, led by Melvin Purvis (Brian Donlevy), pursues them. Dillinger is a charismatic and popular figure who becomes a folk hero. The public sees him as a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But he’s also a ruthless killer with several murders under his belt. The film culminates in a shootout between Dillinger and the FBI. Dillinger finally meets his match, but his legend lives on.

Step by Step” (1946)

Johnny Christopher (Tierney), a former Marine who has just returned from active duty in the Pacific, meets Evelyn Smith  (Anne Jeffreys) at the beach. Evelyn, a secretary to U.S. Sen. Remmy (Lowell Gilmore), is working on a top-secret project that involves monitoring fugitive Nazi spies. Johnny and Evelyn share a mutual, but their relationship is complicated by the fact that Johnny is also involved in the Nazi spy investigation. When Evelyn is kidnapped by the Nazis, Johnny and his dog, Bazuka, come to her rescue. Johnny and Evelyn are then forced to go on the run, with Nazis and police in hot pursuit.

San Quentin” (1946)

San Quentin Prison Warden John Kelly (Harry Shannon) takes three model prisoners to a press event in San Francisco. One of the prisoners, Nick Taylor (Barton MacLane), is actually a dangerous criminal who is using the prison's Mutual Welfare League to advance his nefarious activities. During the trip to San Francisco, Taylor escapes and kills the warden's driver. The warden then enlists the help of Jim Roland (Lawrence Tierney), a former convict who is now a member of the Mutual Welfare League, to bring Taylor back to justice. Roland tracks Taylor down to a waterfront bar, where he is hiding out with his girlfriend, Betty Richards (Marian Carr). A dramatic showdown ensues.

"The Devil Thumbs a Ride" (1947)

Charming sociopath Steve Morgan (Tierney) robs and kills a bank patron. He hitches a ride to Los Angeles with unsuspecting Jimmy 'Fergie' Ferguson (Ted North). On the way they stop at a filling station and pick up two women. When they run into a roadblock, Morgan persuades the group to spend the night at a vacant beach house — a mistake on their part. "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" is a classic noir and is one of Tierney’s most powerful performances.

Claire Trevor, Elisha Cook Jr., Lawrence Tierney, "Born to Kill" (1947).

"Born to Kill" (1947)

In a fit of jealous rage, Sam Wilde (Tierney) kills the girl he’s attracted to and her boyfriend. San Francisco socialite Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), fresh off a divorce, discovers the bodies in the Reno rooming house where she’s been staying. Rather than report the crimes she boards a train for her home city, where she meets Sam, unaware that he’s the one behind the killings. They share a mutual attraction. But Sam’s hopes of wedding a rich lady are dashed when he finds she’s engaged to a wealthy man she doesn’t love. Instead, he woos Helen’s half sister in an attempt to tap into the family's newfound wealth. And it’s soon apparent that Sam finds it all too easy to kill again.

Bodyguard” (1948)

Police detective Mike Carter (Tierney) is fired from the LAPD for insubordination. Fred Dysen (John Litel), nephew of meatpacking heiress Gene Dysen (Lane), offers him $2,000 to protect Gene, whose life has been recently threatened. Carter takes the job and investigates the threats against Gene. He soon discovers that there are several people who would benefit from her death, including her ex-husband, her business partner and her own brother. As Carter gets closer to the truth, he finds himself in danger. He is eventually framed for murder and must clear his name and protect Gene before it’s too late.

Shakedown” (1950)

Unscrupulous newspaper photographer Jack Early (Howard Duff) is sent to take a picture of racketeer Nick Palmer, who doesn't like to be photographed. Palmer takes a liking to Early and asks him to frame his henchman Harry Colton (Tierney), but Early double-crosses Palmer and informs Colton that his boss had planned to frame him. Shortly afterward, Palmer exacts revenge and Early becomes famous for snapping a photo of the event. But the photographer finally discovers that his luck has run out.

Kill or Be Killed” (1950)

Wrongly accused of murder, Robert Warren (Lawrence Tierney) must elude capture while trying to track down the real killer. Along the way, Warren is assisted by the beautiful Maria Marek (Marissa O'Brien). Her jealous husband (Rudolph Anders) and his henchman (George Coulouris) put Warren in even deeper trouble.

The Hoodlum” (1951)

Habitual criminal Vincent Lubeck (Tierney) is on parole from prison. He’s a violent and unpredictable man, and he quickly begins to spiral out of control. Lubeck seduces his brother Johnny’s (Edward Tierney) fiancee Rosa (Allene Roberts). He becomes interested in an armored car that makes regular stops across the street from his service station job. It goes without saying that a crime spree ensues.

The Steel Cage” (1954)

Ruthless convict Chet Harmon (Tierney) plans a breakout with help from brothers Al (John Ireland) and Frank (Charles Nolte). A gun is planted and Chet is almost successful, taking Warden Duffy (Paul Kelly) hostage, but Al has second thoughts after his brother is seriously wounded.

Female Jungle” (1955)

Police Det. Sgt. Jack Stevens (Tierney) is called to the scene of a murder. The victim is a young woman who has been strangled. Stevens is immediately suspected of the crime — he was the last person seen with the victim. The investigation leads him to Candy Price (Jayne Mansfield), an artist's mistress, and to gossip columnist Claude Almstead (John Carradine) who was with the victim that night. But is he the real killer?

Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

Veteran criminal Joe Cabot (Tierney) recruits a gang of hardened criminals to execute an audacious jewel heist. Unbeknownst to the band of thieves, an undercover officer has infiltrated their ranks. More troubling, still, one of Cabot’s recruits is a psychopathic killer, and his hair-trigger reactions will turn the heist into a scene of carnage.

Tierney, "Reservoir Dogs" (1992).

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Ripped From the Headlines, Part III: True Stories About Dangerous Characters, Corrupt Officials and Gangs of Criminals Who Hold the Public at Bay

John Dall, Peggy Cummins, “Gun Crazy” (1950).

By Paul Parcellin

It only takes a couple of desperate, determined outsiders with a gun to start a crime wave. At times, a single perpetrator can do the work of two — or more. That’s what happens in several of the films based on true stories that make up this, the third and final part of the True Crime Noir series. Many more films could have been added to the roundup, and we may look at some of those at a later date. 

Included here, among bonafide noir fare, is a neo-noir. Some might say that the neo-noir movement/genre/style (or what have you) begins in the 1970s — to that sort of hair splitting I say, “Balderdash!” A film’s mood, story and message are the determining factors that tell us if it’s a noir, neo-noir, or something else. Therefore, the last film mentioned in this essay is decidedly noir despite its 1960s pedigree. Besides, it was shot in glorious black and white.

So, here is another handful of films based on true crimes. Some show how politics, corruption and unbridled malevolence conspire to unleash a wave of terror upon an unsuspecting public. And they often leave us with a picture that is unsettling, to say the least.

Some spoilers are scattered throughout, so you might want to see the films before reading the article. 

Peggy Cummins, John Dall, “Gun Crazy.”

Gun Crazy” (1950)

The film “Gun Crazy” (1950) is not based on a single specific true story, but it is inspired by a number of real-life cases of couples who went on crime sprees.

One of the most famous cases is that of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who were active in the 1930s. The young couple robbed banks and other businesses, and became folk heroes to some. Director Arthur Penn made “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), a hugely successful adaptation of the larcenous pair’s story that helped open the door to Hollywood’s golden age of the 1970s.

The case of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, known as the "Lonely Hearts Killers" also inspired “Gun Crazy.” The pair met through a lonely hearts club, began a relationship and went on a crime spree, killing several victims. Their story was later made into the film, The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

“Gun Crazy” also draws inspiration from the life of George "Machine Gun" Kelly, a notorious gangster who was active in the 1930s. Kelly was known for his love of guns, and he was eventually arrested and convicted of murder. 

A cautionary tale, “Gun Crazy” warns against the dangers of all-consuming obsession. The trigger-happy Bart Tare (John Dall) and sideshow sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) are both obsessed with firearms and are willing to do anything to get their hands on them. The doomed couple’s string of armed robberies leads them to commit murder, and finally, they come to a violent end.

The film is seen by some as a critique of American culture and the glorification of violence and guns. “Gun Crazy” is highly appreciated for the cinematic craft employed to make such an impressive and durable cinematic work that was shot for comparatively little money. One of the standout scenes is that of a holdup. Director Joseph H. Lewis positioned a camera in the back seat of the getaway car and shot a long take of the robbers making their escape. The creative camera placement influenced many directors. Quentin Tarantino has said that “Gun Crazy” is one of his favorite films and has cited it as an influence on his films “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Martin Scorsese has also cited “Gun Crazy” as an influence, and has said that he was inspired by the film's stylish cinematography and its depiction of violence.

Dana Andrews, “Boomerang!”

Boomerang!” (1947)

“Boomerang!” is based on the true story of Harold Israel, a 20-year-old army veteran who was accused of the 1924 murder of a priest in Bridgeport, Conn. In the film, Assistant District Attorney Thomas B. Wade (Dana Andrews) is assigned to prosecute Israel, renamed John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) in the film.

The real case began on the night of Feb. 25, 1924, when the Rev. Hubert Dahme, a popular parish priest, was shot and killed on a busy street corner in downtown Bridgeport. The police quickly arrested Israel, 22, who had a history of petty crime. He confessed to the murder, but later recanted, claiming that he had been coerced by the police.

The prosecution's case against Israel was circumstantial. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder, and the only physical evidence linking Israel to the crime was a gun that was found near the scene of the crime. However, the gun had not been fired, and there was no way to prove that it was the murder weapon. Israel’s confession came after a long police interview. The accused said he confessed because he wanted the grueling interrogation to end.

The defense argued that Israel was innocent and that he had been framed by the police. They pointed out that Israel had no motive for the murder, and that he had no history of violence.

Homer Cummings, state attorney for Fairfield County, said that the case against Israel looked perfect. But on May 27, 1924, just 15 weeks after authorities charged Israel, Cummings walked into a Bridgeport courtroom and shocked everyone present by declaring the murder charges against Israel would be dropped. Cummings, after meticulously reviewing the case against Israel, found it seriously flawed.

In the film, we see the machinations of corruption taking place behind the scenes. Those with political ambitions vigorously sought a conviction. One well-placed official involved in a crooked land deal is desperate to cover that up. A guilty verdict would ensure that the right people stay in power and shield him from prosecution.

Wishing to avoid negative publicity, Bridgeport, Conn., officials refused to let director Elia Kazan film in that city, where the crime took place. Instead, Stamford, Conn., stood in for Bridgeport. The film won two Academy Awards: Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Richard Murphy and Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden. 

Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, Edmond O'Brien, “The Hitch-Hiker.”

The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)

In 1950, Billy Cook murdered a family of five and a traveling salesman, then kidnapped Deputy Sheriff Homer Waldrip from Blythe, Calif. Cook ordered his captive to drive deep into the desert, where he bound him with blanket strips and took his police cruiser, leaving Waldrip to die. Waldrip got loose, however, walked to the main road, and got a ride back to Blythe. Cook also took hostage two men who were on a hunting trip.

“The Hitch-Hiker” is based on that real-life murder spree. The film follows the story of two friends, Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), who are on their way to Mexico for a fishing trip. They pick up a hitchhiker, Emmett Myers (William Talman), who turns out to be a dangerous psychopath. Myers forces the men to drive him to Mexico, and along the way, he murders a gas station attendant and a police officer.

The film, a suspenseful thriller, explores themes such as fear, paranoia, and the dark side of human nature. Ida Lupino, one of the few female directors working in Hollywood at the time, helmed this film and co-wrote the screenplay. She brought a unique perspective to the film, exploring the characters’ psychology and the dynamics of the relationship between the two friends.

“The Hitch-Hiker” was a critical and commercial success and it is considered one of the more thrilling and well-crafted noirs. Solid performances by O'Brien, Lovejoy, and Talman, as well as Lupino’s hard-hitting direction make it stand out in the pantheon of American noir.

The film is also notable for its realistic depiction of violence — the murders are graphic and disturbing, and they reflect the brutality of Cook's real-life crimes.

John Larch, Edward Andrews, “The Phenix City Story.”

"The Phenix City Story” (1955) 

True events surrounding the rampant corruption and organized crime that plagued Phenix City, Alabama, during the mid-20th century were inspiration for “The Phenix City Story.”

Set in the 1950s, the film paints a disquieting picture of a town beset by illegal gambling, prostitution, and political corruption. The story follows courageous local attorney Albert Patterson (John McIntire), who stands up to the powerful criminal syndicate that holds Phenix City in a hammerlock. Patterson's resolve to clean up the city and bring justice to the community drives the suspenseful narrative forward.

The real Phenix City was a den of corruption during this era. The town had earned a notorious reputation as a haven for criminal enterprises, attracting a range of illicit activities that were openly operated by the underworld. The film accurately captures the climate of fear and intimidation that pervaded the city, with citizens and officials alike living in constant danger.

The turning point in the true story, as depicted in the film, came with the assassination of Albert Patterson in 1954. His murder shocked the nation and galvanized public opinion against the criminal elements controlling Phenix City. Patterson's tragic death led to a massive outcry for reform and an end to the corruption that had plagued the town for years.

The subsequent events that unfolded closely mirror the events depicted in the film. The Alabama National Guard was brought in to restore order, and a determined effort was made to rout out and prosecute those responsible for the criminal activities. A series of trials resulted in numerous convictions, dealing a significant blow to the criminal syndicate.

Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, “In Cold Blood.”

In Cold Blood” (1967)

“In Cold Blood” is a fictionalized account of the true story of the Clutter family murders, which took place in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. 

The film stars Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard "Dick" Hickock, two ex-convicts who rob and murder the Clutter family.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on Nov. 15, 1959, when Herb and Bonnie Clutter, their teenage daughter Nancy and their 15-year-old son Kenyon were found brutally murdered in their home. The Clutters had been shot and stabbed to death, and their bodies had been mutilated.

Hickock and Smith had been planning the robbery for months. They believed that the Clutters kept a large amount of cash in their home, and thought that the robbery would be easy. However, murder was not part of the plan. Hickock and Smith killed the Clutters in a fit of rage after they discovered that the family did not have as much money as they had thought.

The murderous duo were eventually arrested and convicted of the homicides. They were both sentenced to death and were executed in 1965.

The film's protagonist, Perry Smith, is a complex and troubled character who is struggling with his own demons. Although he comes off as a sympathetic character, he’s also capable of great violence. In time, we see what circumstances in their younger lives brought the two killers to their fate. We may not sympathize with them, but we understand how they came to follow such a destructive path. In the end, Smith says he wants to apologize for his crimes. Tragically, the victims are all deceased and there’s no one left to hear his words of contrition. 

“In Cold Blood” was praised for its realism and its psychological insights. It also helped raise awareness of issues surrounding crime and violence in America.

The Clutter family murders, one of the most notorious crimes in American history, were the subject of a best-selling non-fiction book by Truman Capote, who spent several years researching the case.

The Richard Brooks directed film was praised for its realism and insight into the killers’ psychological motivations. It serves as a disturbing reminder that those who are driven by their inner demons may be capable of committing acts of unspeakable horror.

You can also read Ripped From the Headlines Part I and Part II

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Ripped From the Headlines, Part II: A Feast of Murder, Robbery and Exploitation

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield, Lana Turner,
“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946).

By Paul Parcellin

As you’ve probably gathered by now, the 1940s and ’50s saw a bumper crop of sensational tales ready-made for the screen. It was an era when Hollywood greedily harvested stories from news tabloids' front pages.  

In the last post, we looked at noirs that were inspired by true crime stories, and here’s a second helping of the same — those fact-based films that translated, and perhaps reshaped, crime stories that captured the public’s imagination. 

Murder, grand larceny, police corruption, along with the news media running amok, obsessed with chasing down the latest hot item, are integral parts of the movies listed below. 

Although these noirs tell tawdry tales it doesn’t mean they all came directly from scandal sheets. Fact-based novels are also a frequent source of inspiration for crime films. Movies based on books by celebrated American authors James M. Cain and Theodore Dreiser make the list, as well.

Lana Turner, Leon Ames, John Garfield,
“The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

In “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) falls in love with Cora Smith (Lana Turner), the wife of a middle-aged businessman Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). 

Frank has a checkered past. He can be charming and charismatic, but is also impulsive and reckless. Cora is a beautiful and sensual woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage. She’s ambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to escape her situation. Nick, the wealthy businessman, is cold and controlling. He is a possessive husband who is suspicious of Cora's relationship with Frank.

Frank and Cora conspire to kill Nick and collect his insurance money, but their plan goes awry.

The dialogue in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is sharp and witty. The characters speak in quick, clipped sentences and their words often have double meanings, creating a sense of tension and suspense. The viewer never quite knows what the characters are really thinking or feeling. 

Like the dialog, the title itself is a bit of a poetic riddle. It suggests that fate may play a role in our lives, and that we cannot escape our destiny. Frank and Cora receive delayed punishment for their crimes. The postman, representing justice, rings once and that may be ignored. But fate will step in to ensure that the second will be answered. Just as Frank and Cora are fated to commit murder, their destiny demands that they will pay for their misdeeds. 

Part I of this three-part post talks about “Double Indemnity” (1944), which was adapted from the 1943 James M. Cain novel of the same title. The film “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) was adapted from Cain’s 1934 novel. Both novels used the same true-crime source material, although “Postman” wasn’t based on a single true story, but was inspired by several real-life cases. As a journalist for the Baltimore Sun in the 1920s, Cain covered a number of sensational trials and got a firsthand look at the dark side of human nature. He would later incorporate his observations into his fiction.

The 1927 murder of Albert Snyder by his wife Ruth Brown Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray served as source material for both Cain novels. Snyder and Gray were both convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.

Another possible source of inspiration for the “Postman” novel was the 1932 murder of waitress Agnes LeRoi, 32, by her husband, Albert, a truck driver with a history of violence. He had an assault and battery conviction and Agnes accused him of domestic violence on several occasions.

On the night of the murder, Albert and Agnes were arguing in their Los Angeles home when Albert became enraged and strangled Agnes. In an effort to make it appear to be an accident, he staged the crime scene to look like a robbery. However, police quickly determined that it was a murder and he was arrested.

Albert was convicted of first-degree murder, was sentenced to death and was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in 1933.

Walter Sande, Montgomery Clift, Fred Clark, “A Place in the Sun” (1951).

"A Place in the Sun" (1951)

Based on Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy,” the film and book were inspired by the true homicide case of Chester Gillette, who was convicted of murdering Grace Brown in 1906. 

The Gillette case began July 19, 1906, when Brown's body was found floating in Big Moose Lake in New York. Brown had been strangled and her body was weighted down with stones.

Gillette was a 20-year-old factory worker who had been having an affair with Brown. Brown was pregnant with Gillette's child, and Gillette promised to marry her. However, he was also involved with another woman, Eleanor Mills, who was from a wealthy family.

Gillette and Brown went on a boat trip together on Big Moose Lake. During the trip, Gillette strangled Brown and threw her body overboard. Gillette then returned to Mills and told her that Brown had left him.

Gillette was eventually arrested and charged with Brown's murder. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and was executed in the electric chair in 1908.

The film “A Place in the Sun” stars Montgomery Clift as George Eastman, the character based on Gillette. Eastman, a poor young man is entangled with two women: Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), who works in her wealthy uncle's factory, and the other, beautiful socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Eastman murders Tripp, and the film explores the consequences of his actions.

The film was a critical and commercial success and it won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. George Stevens won the Best Director award for the film.

“A Place in the Sun” takes a hard look at Eastman’s obsession with social mobility and the lengths to which he will go in order to achieve it. In the end, his desperate pursuit of The American Dream brings about his downfall.

Kirk Douglas, “Ace in the Hole” (1951).

"Ace in the Hole" (1951)

“Ace in the Hole” is a fictionalized account of the true story of Floyd Collins, 37, who was trapped inside Sand Cave, Kentucky, following a landslide in 1925.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on Jan. 30, 1925, when Collins was exploring Sand Cave and a rockslide trapped him underground. Collins was only about 150 feet from the cave's entrance, but was unable to free himself.

The news of Collins's plight spread quickly, and soon reporters from all over the country descended on the small town. News hawks camped out near the cave and competed for the most sensational coverage.

Collins's family and friends were hopeful that he would be rescued, but the days turned into weeks, and his chances of survival began to dwindle. Meanwhile, the reporters continued to exploit the story and Collins's plight became a national media circus.

Trapped in Sand Cave for 18 days, Collins died of starvation and exposure on Feb. 16, 1925. His death was a national tragedy, but it also exposed the dark side of a highly exploitive media.

The film “Ace in the Hole,” directed by Billy Wilder, fictionalizes Collins’s grim story. The protagonist, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), is willing to do anything to get a big story, and in doing so he exploits the plight of the trapped man, renamed Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) in the film. That Tatum is so deeply concerned with his own personal gain is stunning and almost laughable — he embodies our darkest fears about the news media, showing us he couldn’t care less about Minosa's survival.

The film was a critical and commercial success, and it was praised for its dark humor and sharp social commentary, hitting hard at media exploitation.

Jack Elam, John Payne, “Kansas City Confidential” (1952).

"Kansas City Confidential" (1952)

“Kansas City Confidential” is a fictionalized account of an armored car robbery that took place in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950. The film stars John Payne as Joe Rolfe, an ordinary man who is framed for the robbery by a group of corrupt cops.

The events that inspired the film began on Feb. 13, 1950, when an armored car was robbed of $1.2 million in cash and bonds in Kansas City. Four men were arrested for the robbery but were all acquitted at trial. The cops who were suspected of being involved in the robbery were never charged. However, there is evidence that they took part in this and other criminal activities.

One of the acquitted men, small-time gambler and hoodlum Tony Romano, claimed that he was framed by the police. He claimed to know the names of the real robbers, but refused to testify against them because he feared for his life.

In the film’s fictionalized account of the story, Joe Rolfe, a mild-mannered delivery driver is framed for the armored car robbery by a group of corrupt cops. Rolfe is eventually cleared of the charges, but he is left with a deep sense of injustice.

The film, directed by Phil Karlson, who created a string of powerful noirs in the 1950s, was praised for its gritty realism and suspenseful plot. The film also helped raise awareness of the issue of corruption in among law enforcement officers.

You can also read Noir True Crimes Part I and Part III.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Ripped From the Headlines: True Crimes Explode onto the Screen in Noir Movies

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, “Double Indemnity” (1944)

By Paul Parcellin

It’s no wonder that Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s scooped up lurid true crime stories and made hard-hitting, gritty dramas out of them. Following the war, the public’s appetite for rough textured tales could not be surpassed. Cold, savage murders that bled off the front page of tabloid scandal sheets was the stuff that fueled screen dramas full of deceit, adultery and homicide — in other words, film noir. 

The pulse of noir is driven by morally complex characters who land in deep existential trouble sometimes by accident, other times due to hubris and their own unsavory choices. The line between truth and fiction is not always cut and dried in fact-based noir. But the characters who inhabit the real world often have a lot in common with classic noir anti-heroes. Both live in a shadowy world of crime, mystery and ethical ambiguity. Miscreants caught up in true crime stories and those in fictional film noir fit together like bullets and a revolver.

More compelling still, fact-based noirs may seem more plausible than purely fictional yarns because in the back of our minds we know that the tale we’re watching is, at least in part, objectively truth based. Real people made these choices, acted reprehensibly and perhaps paid for their misdeeds. The weight of that knowledge helps keeps us engaged until the end. We want to see the protagonist’s fate play out even if we already know the “true” facts — will Hollywood’s version agree with the sensational headlines, garish news photos and breathlessly recounted real-life courtroom dramas that the media beamed across the nation for mass consumption? The answer is often yes and no. Exaggerations, embellishments and rewriting of the facts are not unheard of. Usually this is done in the spirit of enhancing dramatic tension and clarifying the story. See if you agree.

Here’s a sample of films based on pulp fact, usually with a chaser of fiction served up on the side — or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, “Double Indemnity.”

"Double Indemnity" (1944) 

Claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) has a theory about the murder plot that drives "Double Indemnity” and it fits together like a watch, he says. The same is true of this film. It’s crafted and assembled like the movement of a fine Swiss timepiece. In it, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) trick Phyllis’s husband into signing an accident insurance policy. They plan to do him in and collect the proceeds, but things don’t go exactly as planned.

The film was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same title, which was loosely based on the 1927 murder of Albert Snyder. The real-life case involved a devious collaboration between Snyder’s wife, Ruth Brown Snyder, and her lover, Judd Gray.

Ruth and Albert’s marriage was on the rocks. She wanted money and financial independence, so she hatched a plot to murder her spouse and claim a big insurance payout. Much like the film in which Phyllis seduces Walter, Ruth manipulated Gray, persuading him to help kill her unwitting husband.

They chloroformed Albert, rendering him unconscious, staged his murder as a burglary gone wrong and positioned the body to mimic an accident. Like Phyllis and Walter, they were after a larger payout allowed by a double indemnity clause in the accident policy.

But the police saw through inconsistencies in Ruth and Gray’s stories. Evidence began piling up against them and the couple was finally arrested.

Unlike the film, they were tried and the proceedings became a media sensation. They were both found guilty and sentenced to death. 

In 1943, director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler adapted Cain’s novel into a screenplay. The film cleverly intertwines facts from the original case and adds layers of suspense, psychological tension, and intricate character development. Fred MacMurray’s portrayal of Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s embodiment of Phyllis Dietrichson further immortalized the characters inspired by Ruth and Gray.

The convergence of reality and fiction in “Double Indemnity” made an indelible mark on American filmmaking and helped set the pace for noirs that came after it.

Burt Lancaster, “The Killers.”

"The Killers" (1946)

Based in part on the 1927 short story of the same title by Ernest Hemingway, the film focuses on an insurance detective's investigation into the execution by two professional killers of a former boxer who was unresistant to his own murder.

A pair of hitmen, Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw), enter a small-town diner in search of ex-prizefighter Ole “Swede” Anderson (Burt Lancaster). They manhandle the locals to squeeze information out of them and finally leave, only to locate their quarry and shoot him dead.

The next day insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien) arrives in town to investigate Swede's death. He interviews the diner's patrons and staff and tracks down Swede's girlfriend, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), but no one knows much about the murder. Reardon's investigation eventually leads him to mobster "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker). We learn in flashbacks about a payroll robbery that Swede took part in. When it was time to divide the loot Swede realized that others were trying to grab his share.

Hemingway’s short story, on which the film is based, was modeled after a real-life killing ordered by the Chicago mob. Popular boxer Andre Anderson, who once defeated Jack Dempsey, was the target. His killer, Leo Mongoven, went on the run and was captured following a traffic collision that killed Chicago banker John J. Mitchell and his wife Mary Louise.

Apart from its compelling story and strong performances, “The Killers” is notable for its dark, moody photography — shadows and light create a deep sense of unease and dread. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell, who also shot classic noir “Phantom Lady” (1944), fills the frame with inky black shadows that project a palpable atmosphere of doom. 

In addition to its classic noir status, “The Killers” helped usher in the filmic era of the hitman, echos of which can be heard in films such as “Murder By Contract” (1958), “Murder, Inc.” (1960), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and many others.

James Stewart, “Call Northside 777.”

"Call Northside 777" (1948)

“Call Northside 777” is a fictionalized account of the true story of Joseph Majczek, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1932. 

In the film, crusading reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) risks his life to prove Majczek's innocence — Majczek is renamed Frank Wiecek in the film and is played by Richard Conte. McNeal is at first reluctant to pursue the story, believing that the convicted man probably is a cop killer. But his boss, Chicago Times city editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), prods the skeptical McNeal to dig deeper into the case. After chasing down down witnesses and attempting to interview uncooperative police officials, McNeal becomes convinced that the wrong man was imprisoned, and so begins his crusade to undo the injustices suffered by an innocent victim.

Veteran director Henry Hathaway, who previously shot many westerns, action pictures, war movies and thrillers, employed a documentary-style opening sequence for the film, much as he did with “The House on 92nd Street” (1945). Paying great attention to detail, he filmed most of the scenes at or near sites where the true events took place. A side note: the film is credited with being among the first to include the use of a fax machine, cutting edge technology at the time, which plays an important role in the plot.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on Dec. 9, 1932, when Officer William Lundy was shot and killed during a robbery at a delicatessen in Chicago. Two men, Joseph Majczek and Ted Marcinkiewicz, were arrested and convicted of the murder. However, there was significant evidence that pointed to their innocence, including eyewitness testimony that placed them elsewhere at the time of the crime.

Majczek's mother, Tillie, was convinced of her son's innocence and spent years trying to clear his name. In 1944, she placed a classified ad in the Chicago Times offering a $5,000 reward for information about the real killers. The ad caught the attention of Times reporter J. Watson Webb Jr., who began investigating the case and soon uncovered evidence that Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were innocent.

Webb's investigation led to the reopening of the case and in 1946 Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were exonerated. The real-life P.J. McNeal was a major factor in their release, and he was even present in the courtroom when they were finally declared innocent.

“Call Northside 777” was a critical and commercial success and it helped raise awareness of wrongful convictions. The film also earned James Stewart an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, “Rope.”

Rope” (1948) 

“Rope” is a fictionalized account of the Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb case, a cold, senseless murder that took place in Chicago in the early part of the last century. When the perpetrators were caught, a sensational, highly publicized trial followed. 

In the film, philosophy professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) is drawn into the world of two wealthy young men, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), who, unbeknownst to Cadell, have committed the “perfect murder.” The professor is initially fascinated by the two young men but eventually realizes that they are dangerous.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on May 21, 1924, when 14-year-old Bobby Franks was found strangled in a vacant lot in Chicago. Franks had been lured to the lot by Leopold and Loeb, who had planned the murder as an intellectual exercise.

The two were brilliant young men who were fascinated by Nietzsche's philosophy of the √úbermensch, or "superman." They believed that they were superior to other people and that they had the right to kill anyone they deemed inferior.

The pair were eventually arrested and convicted of the Franks murder. They were sentenced to life in prison, where they both died.

“Rope” was a critical and commercial success and was praised for its suspenseful plot and its psychological insights. The film was also controversial because it appeared to be filmed in a single take. Director Alfred Hitchcock cleverly choreographed camera movements, which allowed continuous filming of scenes up to 10 minutes in duration. Stage hands silently moved scenery and furnishings during filming to accommodate cast and camera movements. When spliced together the film, which takes place in a single location, appears to unfold in real time, much like the stage play on which it is based. James Stewart acknowledged that few director besides Hitchcock would attempt to shoot such an experimental film, however Stewart said he felt that the continuous-shot concept used in “Rope” didn’t really work. Many would disagree. As with any Hitchcock film there are always elements that make it a worthwhile viewing experience.  

This is Part I of True Crime Noirs. Read Part II and Part III.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

He Directed Gripping Noirs … But You May Not Recognize His Name

John Payne, Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand,
Preston Foster,  "Kansas City Confidential" (1952).

By Paul Parcellin

Everything seemed to come together for Phil Karlson in the 1950s. It was an era in which his talent, energy and unique sensibilities were made to order for a  public with an insatiable appetite for raw, gritty crime films. It was in that period that he directed some of the decade’s most essential noirs. Prior to that he’d cranked out dozens of titles beginning in the mid 1940s under the banners of Monogram (he shot several Bowery Boys and Charlie Chan films there), Eagle-Lion and other Poverty Row operations. Some might remember his two lightweight spy spoofs of later years, “The Silencers” (1966) and “The Wrecking Crew” (1968), both starring Dean Martin — although, he’d probably wish that you wouldn’t. He continued to work over several decades but didn’t strike pay dirt until the release of his revenge fantasy “Walking Tall” (1973). It was his biggest and most commercially successful film and it made him rich. Otherwise, he was mostly mired in the B-movie bush league for the remainder of his career. 

But two decades before “Walking Tall,” the Chicago-born Karlson began work on a string of crime movies that would influence future generations of filmmakers.

His uncompromising narratives, short, action filled scenes and great attention to detail helped pave the way for filmmakers seeking to challenge the traditional Hollywood conventions and explore the darker aspects of human nature. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and John Woo have all acknowledged his impact on their own filmmaking careers. Scorsese, in particular, cited Karlson's "The Phenix City Story" (1955) as a major inspiration for his seminal film "Mean Streets" (1973).

Karlson grew up in a working-class family in Chicago and developed an affinity for storytelling and filmmaking at a young age. He attended local film screenings and immersed himself in the world of cinema. His passion eventually led him to pursue a career in the film industry. While studying law he got a job as a prop man at Universal Studios to make ends meet during the Great Depression.

Phil Karlson.

In the 1930s he began working as an editor for various film studios. It was during this time that he gained invaluable experience and insights into the technical aspects of filmmaking. This early exposure would shape his later directorial style and attention to detail.

As Karlson parlayed his editing experience into directing gigs, he brought a distinct sensibility to his films. His works often explore the dark underbelly of society and tell their stories in a blunt, no-nonsense manner that avoids extravagant visuals and focuses on raw emotional impact.

One of the defining themes in his films is the exploration of crime and its consequences. He had a keen eye for depicting the complexities of human nature, delving into the psychological motivations of his characters. This was exemplified in films like "Kansas City Confidential" (1952) and "99 River Street" (1953), where he portrayed flawed protagonists grappling with the consequences of their actions.

Karlson had a knack for working with actors and bringing out their best performances. He had a successful partnership with actor John Payne, with whom he collaborated on multiple projects. In addition to his noirs, he worked on a variety of movie genres: romances, comedies, musicals, westerns and war pictures. But it’s his influential noirs, shot between 1952-’57, that inspired new generations of directors making crime films. Here’s a rundown of his work:

"Kansas City Confidential" (1952).
Kansas City Confidential

A masked gang of armored car robbers, identities hidden from each other, frame delivery driver Joe Rolfe (John Payne) for their crime. But Rolfe trails them to their rendezvous point, intending to infiltrate the crew and bust them up. A taut caper followed by a well-paced contest of nerves among desperate characters. Note that the story unfolds in a virtual cloud of smoke. In nearly every scene cigarettes, pipes and cigars are nervously, thoughtfully and dramatically lit and puffed on — a sure sign that we’re watching noir. Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) is thought to be inspired in part by “Kansas City Confidential.”

John Derek, Broderick Crawford, "Scandal Sheet" (1952).
Scandal Sheet

Newspaperman Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) has a past he'd like to forget but his wife won't allow it. He gets into a bind and his reporters begin nipping at his heels — they don't know that the boss is the one they're chasing. Based on a Samuel Fuller novel, “Scandal Sheet” is all about making it big by printing the sleaziest rag in town. News hacks come within millimeters of breaking the law just to get a sensational story. Everyone’s fueled on adrenaline, booze and black coffee, talking at a fast clip and firing off wise-guy rejoinders. Chapman’s paper sponsors a lonely hearts soiree. The cynical, exploitive idea behind the parties is to corner a pair of lovebirds who just met and get them to tie the knot in front of the crowd. Meanwhile, a bit of Chapman’s dirty laundry may be about to be aired and it won’t be pretty. 

Jack Lambert, John Payne, "99 River Street" (1953).
99 River St.

Punched out boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) takes a beating in and out of the ring in "99 River Street." A former heavyweight contender, he drives a cab and is as a doormat for nearly every bully he meets. When his girl turns up dead it looks like he's going to take the fall. As in “Kansas City Confidential,” Payne plays another falsely accused outsider who has been dealt a rotten hand and must redeem himself in society’s eyes. Panned by the New York Times when it was released, the film received more favorable favorable treatment in later years. Martin Scorsese and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum both chose to include “99 River Street” on lists of best and favorite films.

John McIntire, "The Phenix City Story" (1955). 
The Phenix City Story

Crime and vice majordomo Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) has a corrupt Alabama town under his thumb. Local mouthpiece Pat Patterson is urged to run for the A.G. seat, but who wants that job? When violence visits the reformers he reconsiders his neutral position. But the mob doesn’t take kindly to the threat of a law and order attorney general in their midst. Based on a true story, “The Phenix City Story” portrays the struggles of honest folks who wrestle with their conscience and decide to take positive steps despite the threat of violence to themselves and their families. Ever the stickler for detail, Karlson had his actor wear the clothes belonging to the murder victim on whom the story is based. 

William Conrad, Brian Keith, "5 Against the House" (1955).
5 Against the House

Korean War veterans studying at college decide to rob a casino as a lark. Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), a rich kid who doesn’t need the money, wants to prove he’s smart enough to mastermind the perfect crime. It’s all just a prank by overgrown school boys — they plan to leave the stolen loot where the casino can recover it. But Brick (Brian Keith), who suffered a head wound in the war, is a wild card in this shaky caper. The rest of the gang is in various stages of arrested development, picking up where they left off before trudging off to Korea. But they soon find that swiping a casino’s money is not mere fun and games.

Ginger Rogers, Brian Keith,
Edward G. Robinson, "Tight Spot" (1955).
Tight Spot

U.S. attorney Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson) offers good-girl inmate Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) a chance to bust out if she finks on a mobster. Lt. Vince Striker (Brian Keith) acts as her bodyguard — and soon things heat up between them. Rogers gets the chance to play against type in the role of Sherry, the brassy, fast talking blonde trying to get all she can from the prosecutor who wants her testimony. It’s a risky ploy for her. The last witness never made it to the courtroom, and odds are that Sherry won’t do much better. Call this one a noir with a hint of screwball comedy.  

Richard Conte, Patricia Donahue, Jane Easton, 
Richard Bakalyan, "The Brothers Rico" (1957).
The Brothers Rico

The happily married Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) owns a laundry business in Florida and seems to have the world on a string. But his past connection to organized crime as well as family ties threaten to pull him back into the syndicate. A gangster demands that he provide a hideout for a syndicate hitman. Worse news, still, Eddie learns that his two brothers, Johnny (James Darren) and Gino (Paul Picerni), both of whom are still involved with the mob, have disappeared. Prolific Belgian novelist Georges Simenon wrote the book on which the film is based. Studio executives finessed the novel’s downbeat ending and tacked on a happier conclusion, much to the disappointment of the author’s fans and to Karlson, too.

 By the time that “The Brothers Rico” came to the screen it was near the end of the road for the classic noir era. The following year Orson Welles would release “Touch of Evil” (1958), which many consider the final classic noir. Karlson continued to direct films and television thereafter but never equalled the level of artistic excellence he achieved in the 1950s. Still, his handful of films noir made a mark on the genre and continue to influence today’s filmmakers.