Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Notes from a Losey double-header

M and The Big Night were only two of three dark films (along with The Prowler) that Joseph Losey made in the year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death; Lefty Losey himself would be exiled from Hollywood before their funeral. M is, of course, a remake of Fritz Lang's witchhunt classic, and (other than Jim Backus's nearly vaudevillian turn as a photo op-hungry mayor) faithful enough throughout so that the last half hour's detour into Peter Brooks territory is exhilaratingly jarring. Losey's trope of throwing a disruptive outsider into an already-fissured community is present here, but the scrim of noir means that these outsiders are going to be helpless against the surroundings that they've disrupted. And so Ernest Laszlo's camera fixes patiently on windows and stairwells while David Wayne's child-killer hopelessly walks, then runs, in and out of frame, eventually guiding a tour through Angel's Flight, the Pacific Ocean Pier, and the Bradbury Building. Laszlo also holds on glasses of milk, a balloon, and a ball, but these shots are more empathetic: heartbreaking reminders of lives abandoned. The Big Night, unfortunately, has the feel of a teleplay, maybe something from The Elgin Hour or The Goodyear Playhouse, though Preston Foster is a provokingly cast symbol of paternal castration. Seventy minutes culminate with an echo of M: untouched birthday cake as reminder of innocence abandoned.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Ripped From The Headlines

"Every morning you open up the paper, there's another body found on a weed-covered lot."
—Paula (Eve Arden) in The Unfaithful

(Above: Black Dahlia investigation, January 1947)

Vincent Sherman's The Unfaithful was filmed in January and February of 1947. Much of the shooting was on location: in Beverly Hills, in West Hollywood (the pawn shop, miraculously, still stands at 7755 Santa Monica Boulevard), MacArthur Park, the Bradbury Building, and Angels Flight. One sequence that stands out, of course, is the footage of the Hotel Elmar in Bunker Hill.

(California State Library Photo Archives)

Eve Arden's dialogue, above, suggests that Sherman (or his screenwriters, James Gunn and (!) David Goodis) were particular receptive to the Zeitgeist. But there's another, less intentional, resonance with the news of the day. As historian Nathan Marsak noted in his excavation of a Los Angeles Times article, Peewee Lewis and Paul Allen were registered at the Hotel Elmar at this time. On February 21, Lewis attempted to rob Elmer Jackson, sitting in a parked car, with a machine gun. But Jackson, second-in-command of the LAPD Vice Squad, was armed--and shot Lewis in the face with his pistol. Then he tracked down Lewis' partner at the Hotel Elmar. Jackson got some attention in the papers as a hero.

(Above: Sergeant E.V. Jackson; Captain James Hamilton; Deputy Chief Thad Brown; Mayor Fletcher Bowron; Captain Jack Donahue; Chief William Parker; Lieutenant Grover Armstrong; Lieutenant Rudy Wellpot; from Los Angeles Examiner/USC Digital Archives)

Could that be Lewis, or Allen, lingering near Zachary Scott and Steven Geray in the Elmar lobby, enjoying last moments as free men?

What didn't come out until a couple years later—as an indirect result of recordings by wiretapper Jimmy Vaus—was that Peewee Lewis knew exactly who he was robbing. At the time of the holdup, the Daily News reported, Jackson was in the car with his girlfriend, Hollywood Madam Brenda Allen, with whom he had a nice little shakedown system going. Lewis was hoping to rob them of their shakedown money.

After Lewis was buried, and Paul Allen was imprisoned, news of Brenda Allen and the corruption of the police force was a big story in 1949—

—and Sgt. Elmer V. Jackson got his face in the papers once more.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"The best-looking swimming pool in the west"

Two months after 711 Ocean Drive had so much trouble with its location shooting, the crew of The Victim moved into Palm Springs. Like 711 Ocean Drive, elements of The Victim—which would eventually be retitled The Damned Don't Cry—were based on the lives of Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill. Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) leaves behind her marriage, and poverty, and moves to New York, where she snares accountant Martin Blackford (Kent Smith). When the opportunity arises for him to get a job with syndicate boss George Castleman (David Brian), he declines, but she notes his low salary as an honest 9-to-5er, and persuades him to go for the big bucks. Her affections quickly turn from Blackford to Castleman, and they're soon married. But Castleman, all business, sends his wife to the west coast to keep an eye on Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), the California representative of the syndicate's wire set-up. He figures her feminine wiles can do him some good.

If you missed it: Whitehead is a little bit of Virginia Hill (impoverished small-town girl takes up with New York gangsters before heading out west to spend time with the guy running California). George Castleman is a little bit of Joe Adonis (the N.Y. gangster who was involved with Hill before she left town), and a little bit of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (who sent Bugsy Siegel out to California in the first place). But Mickey Cohen had been sent out to L.A. by Lansky to keep an eye on Siegel, so Whitehead has a little Mickey in her DNA as well.

Prenta's mostly Siegel, but he's got trace amounts of Cohen, too: Castleman asks "Why do they string microphones all over your house and plant that bug in the fireplace?"; Prenta's response is, "You know something? I planted one on them!"

Whitehead meets Prenta at the Shadow Mountain Club in Palm Springs and, naturally, falls in love with him.

And, as with 711 Ocean Drive's Mal Granger, Palm Springs means the beginning of the end. She gets a note to meet the jilted Blackford—Castleman's proxy, visiting from New York—at the Lone Palm Hotel. Blackman grills her on her betrayal of Castleman, but he's got his own reasons to be bitter as well. She's the reason he's working for Castleman in the first place.

Before long, Castleman shows up at Prenta's desert home—

—where bullets fly.

You may recognize Prenta's place as the home of Frank Sinatra. He reportedly loaned it to the production for shooting because he owed someone a favor (the specifics of this arrangement, sadly, are lost to time). While the cameras rolled at his place, he kept the company of his brand-new girlfriend, Ava Gardner—another noir love story just beginning.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Time wounds all heals."

Sixty years ago this week, 711 Ocean Drive rolled into theaters accompanied by a television commercial campaign, a pioneering strategy undertaken by Columbia Pictures. But the real hype was courtesy of producer Frank Seltzer, who had testified to Congress about his troubles in making a film (originally entitled Blood Money, and originally starring Victor Mature) about the wire racket, and then, when it was time for the big promotional push, took his story to the papers. To the legendary labor-beat columnist Victor Riesel, Seltzer recounted a mysterious phone call he'd received, before shooting commenced in the autumn of 1949:

"So you're the guy who's going to make Blood Money. Well, you're not going to make it. You're not going to shoot it in Las Vegas. You're not going to shoot the picture. That's all."

Seltzer flew to Las Vegas, where a member of the Chamber of Commerce told him, "Just inject a few lines saying we don't like Eastern hoodlums, and that gambling here is on the level, and you can shoot what you want." Riesel's account continued:

The cost of recreating certain locations came to $77,000, Seltzer later complained. But he got his money's worth when it came time to testify before the Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. Seltzer exploited the conflict at every turn. "A newsreel company interviewed the congressmen afterward and they gave me glowing endorsements," he told another columnist, Virginia MacPherson. Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley even appeared onscreen to introduce the film. "And that's not all. I have their permission to reprint these remarks in my newspaper advertising for 711 Ocean Drive. This is the first time any movie's ever had anything like that."

711 Ocean Drive tells the story of telephone lineman Mal Granger (Edmond O'Brien), who's offered a chance to cash in on his technological ingenuity...by working for the mob. The wire service in L.A. wants to step up the efficiency of its scams, and Granger has just the skills, and the ambition, they're looking for. He moves into a Malibu beach house, and enjoys the easy life. Before long, though, he gets a big head, grabs too much, and draws attention from the boys who run the "National Wire Service" back east. Trouble comes in the form of Larry Mason (Donald Porter), accompanied by his wife Gail (Joanne Dru). Mason wants a bite out of Granger's take, and Granger wants a taste of Mason's wife.

Here's where the fun begins: the film is like a mash-up of all the stories you've ever heard about 1940s organized crime on the West Coast. Granger echoes Bugsy Siegel—a California kook, running the wire service, who needs to be reeled in by the East. Gail echoes Virginia Hill, jumping the gangster circuit from bed to bed.

Naturally, these comparisons would have been too incendiary for Seltzer to acknowledge, even three years after Siegel had died. "One of our subsidiary characters is shot through the window of his Beverly Hills home," Seltzer told Harrison Carroll, "but the other circumstances are not the same as in the Siegel killing."

The ghost of Mickey Cohen, Siegel's former junior partner, is walking around there, too—it was Cohen who destroyed the offices of competing wire services in 1943, just like Granger's men are shown doing. Cohen ran a haberdashery; Granger goes to a tailor shop to hire a hitman. And it was Cohen that gunmen were aiming for at Sherry's on the Sunset Strip, an incident the film recreats for a flickering instant in a montage.

(Los Angeles Mirror, 1949; photograph by Delmar Watson)

(711 Ocean Drive, 1950; photography by Franz Planer)

Moving further down the pecking order: if Granger had a little bit of Siegel, and a little bit of Cohen, he also, in his hi-tech wizardry, bore some resemblance to Jimmy Vaus, the wiretapper who worked for both the LAPD and Mickey Cohen. Cohen had first hired Vaus to sweep his home for bugs, and then to help him record incriminating evidence against crooked members of the LAPD. Vaus started making the papers in the summer of 1949, as Seltzer and director Joseph M. Newman were moving into preproduction. After shooting wrapped, Vaus wandered into a Billy Graham revival, renounced his criminal life, and was born again, a story that was chronicled in the 1955 film Wiretapper. A shot from that film, of course, also echoes the Sherry's crime scene:

"There was opportunity for all in Los Angeles—the races, Hollywood, wartime black markets, herds of money-heavy aircraft workers. The newly arrived mobsters sighed happily, bought gabardine slacks and pastel sports shirts, rubbed shoulders peacefully at Vine Street bars, the baseball games and the Friday night fights at Hollywood Legion Stadium....But last year things began to change. Los Angeles heard rumors of a struggle for power, a merging of talent. Some said Mickey Cohen might end up as the city's No. 1 business man."
Time, Oct. 14, 1946

Seltzer and director Newman (and screenwriters Richard English and Francis Swann) did their homework. They place Granger at a Hollywood Stars baseball game at Gilmore Field...

At the Simon's drive-in at Highland and Sunset (not too far from those Vine Street bars)...

...and, naturally, at a fight at Legion Stadium.

But we know he's on the rise when he makes it out of Hollywood—he buys that beach house, and starts spending more time with Gail in Palm Springs. At, for instance, the Doll House.

Of course, there's nowhere to go from there but down.


The technical advisor on 711 Ocean Drive was LAPD Lt. Willie Burns. He'd been head of the Gangster Squad, but just before shooting on the film began, he resigned in a bureau-wide shakeup precipitated by the departure of Chief Clemence B. Horrall. As recounted in John Buntin's L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, it was the Brenda Allen scandal that sank Horrall. And the man whose recordings unleashed the Brenda Allen scandal? None other than wiretapper extraordinaire—and possible Mal Granger model—Jim Vaus.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Another Side of Splendor

Detroit, 1963: Alberta Hunter, black, and Walter Stovall, white, arrive in town, five days after unsuccessfully attempting a marriage in Ohio, and seven days after graduating from the University of Georgia. At the University, Hunter and classmate Hamilton Holmes had been the two first black students accepted for enrollment, a desegregation that had been covered extensively by Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker. Now, before they themselves settle in New York City, Hunter and Stovall go before a Detroit judge. They're accompanied by a young white couple, Harvey and Karen, who have traveled with them from Cleveland to serve as witnesses.

They are finally wed on June 8. Because of Hunter's history in the newspapers as a civil-rights figure, the marriage, secret for three months, becomes a mini-scandal in September—especially in Georgia, where such a union is illegal. Upon hearing of the marriage, Georgia Attorney General Eugene Cook responded, "We're waiting to put both of 'em in jail."

They never went to jail, of course. Alberta became better known as Charlayne Hunter-Gault; she was the first black staff member at The New Yorker, and a Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning broadcaster. While working at the New York Times, she successfully lobbied to have the paper change "Negro" to "black" in its standard usage. She and Stovall had a daughter before divorcing.

Harvey and Karen, the other young married couple who accompanied Hunter and Stovall from Cleveland to Detroit, were also divorced, in 1972.

Had the couples only met that week, when Hunter and Stovall breezed through Cleveland? There's nothing to suggest why their paths would have intersected, except that Harvey apparently made friends easily with out-of-towners. In June of 1963, he was working odd jobs, collecting records, writing reviews for Downbeat, and talking about comics with another new friend, a recent Philadelphia transplant named Crumb.

(Much of the above information, including the images, is from an extensive article by John H. Britton in the September 19, 1963, issue of Jet magazine.)