Life and Death in L.A.: Ripped From the Headlines, Part II: A Feast of Murder, Robbery and Exploitation

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.

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