The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond
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The immense popularity of the TV series The Untouchables (1959-1963), which followed Special Agent Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) each week as he battled organized crime figures in Prohibition era Chicago, led to a brief revival of gangster pictures in its wake, many of them set during the same time period. Among the better known efforts are Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), Portrait of a Mobster (1961), Mad Dog Coll (1961), Studs Lonigan (1960) and King of the Roaring 20's: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961). Yet, possibly the best of the bunch, was Budd Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), a vivid, energetic B-movie melodrama rendered in swift, bold strokes with style to burn. It even managed to garner an Oscar® nomination for Best Black and White Costume Design.
Like most Hollywood movie biographies, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is a mixture of fact and fiction but Boetticher streamlines the important details into a lean, mean narrative that has little sympathy for its protagonist, who is nonetheless a compelling, heartless piece of work. The story opens in New York City in the 1920s as petty thieves Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) and his brother Eddie (Warren Oates) plot a jewelry store robbery. Using Alice (Karen Steele), a naive dance instructor as a cover and his brother as an alibi, Jack makes off with a priceless necklace but is later captured and sentenced to jail for the crime. After he's released, he hatches a new scheme - to rob from rival gangsters, because they wouldn't report it to the police for obvious reasons. Diamond's mercenary nature soon earns him an underworld reputation and he eventually muscles his way into working for Arnold Rothstein, one of the most notorious and successful crime bosses in New York City's history. Diamond not only has designs on stealing Rothstein's mistress (Elaine Stewart) but taking over his boss's businesses as well. Through double crosses, murder and intimidation, Diamond eventually reaches his goal and ends up controlling the bootleg liquor trade in the city, but it's only a matter of time before his kingdom will topple.
There are conflicting reports of how the real "Legs" Diamond got his nickname; some say it was due to his skill as a dancer but others attribute it to his fleet-footed expertise as a thief. Boetticher's biopic also suggests that Diamond murdered Arnold Rothstein, though most accounts of the crime state that the Jewish mafia don was murdered for not paying gambling debts. A suspect, George "Hump" McManus, was arrested but later released for lack of evidence; another theory intimates that gangster Dutch Schultz shot Rothstein in retaliation for the murder of a close associate, Joey Noe. One fact that is generally agreed on by almost everyone is that "Legs" Diamond was a cold-blooded, ruthless killer with a grandiose ego. Boetticher once told director Bertrand Tavernier that his film was "a hoax," and that "In real life Diamond was a son of a bitch, probably the worst man who ever lived."
After Boetticher agreed to direct The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, he began to have second thoughts. "As I progressed in my research," he recounted later, "I realized I couldn't possibly make a film out of it, and I didn't want to. I'd seen the crowds of films like Scarface (1932) and I decided the public would be sick of all those mass killings and bursts of machine-gun fire. So I decided to make a comedy about Legs Diamond and Alice; I mean that inside a serious framework I adopted a comic style and a comic tone, treating tragic scenes in quite a light manner, with gags." While Boetticher may be overstating his case in this regard, the movie does take an almost gleefully cynical approach to the events and Diamond as a character.
Boetticher and his cinematographer Lucien Ballard also took great care to make sure The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond would capture the look of its era and with its striking black and white art direction it conjures up a noir universe of gambling dens, back alleys, mobster penthouses and death in the bright sunshine. Despite this, Milt Sperling, Boetticher's producer on the film, was aghast at what he saw. "So at the first day of rushes," the director recalled, "here came my producer, and he said, 'Budd, I thought you said that Lucien Ballard, was a good cameraman?' and I said 'Quote me correctly; he's a great cameraman.' He said, 'Well my god, this stuff looks like it's been shot in 1920.' So how you gonna win?"
Initially there had been rumors that actors as diverse as George C. Scott, Martin Landau, James Drury and Robert Vaughn were being considered for the lead, but Ray Danton won the part and is well cast in the role. He was an actor who excelled in playing handsome but reptilian sociopaths in such crime dramas as The Beat Generation (1959) as a serial rapist and The Big Operator (1959) as Oscar "The Executioner" Wetzel. The supporting cast of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is also notable and includes Warren Oates in one of his first substantial parts as Diamond's sickly, doomed brother, prolific character actor Jesse White as Diamond's arch rival Leo Bremer and Dyan Cannon, billed here as Diane Cannon, in a brief bit as a bubble-headed gangster moll. Karen Steele, who plays Diamond's long-suffering mistress and eventual wife, was romantically involved with Boetticher at the time of filming though their volatile relationship would end after the making of this film. On the rebound, the director would meet and marry actress Debra Paget after an introduction by his cameraman Lucien Ballard.
At the time of its release, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was considered as little more than a B-movie gangster film and generally overlooked by most of the major critics. And even though Boetticher's reputation as a distinctive auteur director was already being touted in some cinema circles, it took a long time for this 1960 film to find its champions and admirers. For example, Carlos Clarens, author of Crime Movies: An Illustrated History, admired Boetticher's "taut, minimal Westerns" but found this "a joyless film about one of the most colorful personalities of the twenties." In Clarens' opinion, "Ray Danton was more Vegas than Broadway, his early chutzpah and later moaning intonations being peculiarly inappropriate for the wild Irishman that Diamond is reputed to have been. But even more frustrating was the misuse of the real Diamond story...A crack shot who dominated New York nightlife for a decade, he survived enough shootings to earn the nickname of the Clay Pigeon, supported a loving wife and a string of mistresses, and was finally killed - presumably on orders from Dutch Schultz...In an improbable, downbeat ending, the film makes Legs a victim of the newly formed Syndicate, which regards him as an outmoded embarrassment."
Boetticher's status as a filmmaker and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond enjoy a much more lauded assessment today with David Thomson proclaiming, "The career of Boetticher is one of the most interesting ever confined to B pictures" and Geoff Andrew of the TimeOut Film Guide calling The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond "a ferocious gangster biopic [that] indulges in none of the nostalgia for the Depression or glamorisation of its anti-heroes so prevalent in most such movies....With superb noir photography from Lucien Ballard, the tone is almost existential: wisely, Boetticher defines his protagonist not through psychology but through action. Indeed, the very form of the film mirrors the speed, intelligence, and amoral cunning of its hell-bent mobster."
Producer: Milton Sperling
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Joseph Landon
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: Leonard Rosenman; Howard Jackson, William Lava, Max Steiner (uncredited)
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: Ray Danton (Jack 'Legs' Diamond), Karen Steele (Alice Shiffer), Elaine Stewart (Monica Drake), Jesse White (Leo Bremer), Simon Oakland (Lieutenant Moody), Robert Lowery (Arnold Rothstein), Judson Pratt (Fats Walsh), Warren Oates (Eddie Diamond), Frank DeKova (Chairman), Gordon Jones (Sergeant Cassidy).
by Jeff Stafford
"Ride Lonesome: The Career of Budd Boetticher" by Sean Axmaker, www.sensesofcinema.com
Warren Oates: A Wild Life by Susan Compo (University Press of Kentucky)