Budd Boetticher’s 'The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond' (1960), charts the meteoric rise of the ruthless 1920s thug, from New York’s Hotsy Totsy Club to syndicate kingpin.

Crime on the Mind

Sura Wood July 29, 2010

Our attraction/repulsion to celluloid criminals and the seemingly insatiable appetite for films about heists, prison breaks, mobsters, murderers, thieves, low-lifes, and other transgressors shows no signs of abating. It's perhaps time for a session on the analyst's couch, or a visit to the Pacific Film Archive, where the series Criminal Minds: True Crime Cinema screens through August 13. The series frames a subset of movies based, often rather tenuously, on the ripped-from-the-headlines exploits of real-life gangsters and killers.

Distinctive from noir films in that this sub-genre isn’t wholly fictional, "true crime" dates back to the very beginnings of cinema. It surfaced in the silent period, when scandalous crimes, re-enacted for the camera, would hit theaters mere weeks after the actual crimes were committed. The notoriety of the main players enhanced the sensational aspects of true crime films and provided audiences with ready made emotional access to a familiar narrative and “cast” of characters.

“At some level, they were a substitution for newsreels, but audiences were eager to see criminality played out,” Steve Seid, PFA Video Curator, explained to me over email.

But what’s behind this guilty pleasure that has tantalized both filmmakers and audiences? “Certainly the desire to make films about criminals springs from an era’s popular sentiment, and sometimes these films serve as a mode of problem solving from afar,” speculated Seid. “Hard times may also demand compensatory thrills. Prohibition generated a great deal of criminality because vices will be served. The '50s, which had its own repressed behavior, found prohibition-era gangsters an intriguing lot. Social catastrophes such as the crack-cocaine epidemic and large-scale financial collapse have also been raw material for many feature films. The villains have been reviled for causing mass social wreckage but adored for their uninhibited, adrenalin-powered pursuits.”

Among the films on the Criminal Minds docket is Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959), based on Meyer Levin’s novel about the sordid Leopold and Loeb affair. The crime, which involved the cold, calculated abduction and murder of a teenage boy, shocked the country in the 1920s. (Rope was Hitchcock’s obsessive, tightly wound version of a similarly creepy scenario.) The infamous thrill killers, here called Straus and Steiner, are portrayed as diabolically arrogant, Nietzsche-spouting co-dependents by Bradford Dillman as the prime mover and Dean Stockwell as the submissive. In an extended courtroom monologue Orson Welles, playing an attorney in the Clarence Darrow mold, inveighs against capital punishment in high oratorical style. (After he was sprung from jail, Leopold tried and failed to halt production of the film.)

Shifting his attention to yet another unsavory murder case, Fleischer, the son of cartoonist Max Fleischer, delves ever deeper into human compulsion. In The Boston Strangler (1968), he applies a semi-documentary style to a suspenseful procedural in which Henry Fonda is brought in to organize the hunt for and capture of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), a murderous monster seething inside the body of an innocuous working man. If one serial killer isn’t enough for the evening, John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944) shares the double bill. Laird Cregar, as the mysterious boarder with strange proclivities, heads a stellar cast with Merle Oberon and George Sanders in a film that trails a self-styled Jack the Ripper, masquerading as a pathologist when he’s not slitting the throats of unsuspecting actresses, cutting a swath through Victorian London’s fog-shrouded streets and alleyways.

The final night of the series features a prohibition-era double header with lead characters that were born bad and got worse.  Shot by Lucien Ballard, Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), charts the meteoric rise of the ruthless 1920s thug, from New York’s Hotsy Totsy Club to syndicate kingpin. A sociopath who preferred beating up adversaries to chatting, Legs (Ray Danton) was something of a ladies man. Go figure. (A young Dyan Cannon, in her first movie role, plays one of his molls.) “This film creates a charged environment where distrust and betrayal rule,” wrote Seid. “He (Legs) is the definitive cinema criminal because he always loses out to his baser instincts. There’s great enjoyment to be had in watching Legs kick and club his way to the top.”

Richard Wilson’s Al Capone (1959), starring Rod Steiger, whose volatile performance emphasizes Capone’s megalomania and hair-trigger temper, captures the Chicago gangster’s mounting paranoia and rage as he advances toward his inevitable downfall. According to Seid, Steiger may be the “first method mobster.” A truly repugnant, sadistic psychopath, Capone has nonetheless been a subject of endless movie fascination; he’s been played by at least half-a-dozen prominent actors in as many films.

“There is a bargain many of us strike between ourselves and society,” observed Seid. “That is, to prosper we give up the more reptilian side of ourselves, the free-spirited, anarchic side, and dive gloomily into the workaday world. Outlaws constitute those people who refuse to bargain. They hold on to their asocial instincts and visceral pleasures. We find tantalizing enjoyment in (these) films that look [toward] outlaw behavior . . .  for inspiration. It’s a chance to vicariously experience a life untethered, a life free of restraint.”