Monday, August 23, 2010

Criminal Minds

The PFA recently concluded a 4 week, 8 film series called Criminal Minds.

Criminality has its allure. It’s like a felonious pheromone, offering pure exudations of unfettered will. No wonder then that the guilty exhilaration of watching “real-life” outlaws pursuing base purpose has kept movie audiences collared for decades; they present a kind of feral freedom, a life spent outside of social restraint. The crime film, with its usual subsets—mob movie, police procedural, gumshoe comedy, heist film, serial slasher, prison drama, courtroom conflict, etc—surfaced in the silent period and has never gone into hiding. But it’s the “true-crime” genre that remains most suspect, and which Criminal Minds hauls in for interrogation. Ripped from the headlines, these films look at real-life mobsters, lowlifes, and killers. Like a crime investigation, each work searches for clues to the origins of bad behavior, offering up its era’s own bruised psychology as evidence. In many cases, the social impact of crime, the lawlessness and disorder, is cross-examined as well. Legs Diamond, Caryl Chessman, Boxcar Bertha, Leopold and Loeb, Barbara Graham, Albert DeSalvo, Jack the Ripper, and Al Capone: Criminal Minds presents a line-up of our most wanted. - Steve Seid, PFA Video Curator

I caught 6 of the 8 films.

The Lodger starring Laird Cregar and Merle Oberon; (1944)
The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and George Kennedy; directed by Richard Fleischer; (1968)
Compulsion starring Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman; with Orson Welles; directed by Richard Fleischer; (1959)
Boxcar Bertha starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine; directed by Martin Scorcese; (1972)
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond starring Ray Danton; directed by Budd Boetticher; (1960)
Al Capone starring Rod Steiger; (1959)


Criminal Minds was as a tremendously enjoyable series from my standpoint. I had not previously seen any of the films and I would recommend all of them, with the exception of The Lodger.

Al Capone might be my favorite of the bunch for the pugnacious performance of Rod Steiger. Steiger seems to have a penchant for playing Mafioso. Also in August, Steiger portrayed the lead in Francisco Rossi's Lucky Luciano. Steiger also played Sam Giancana, one of Capone's successors as Chicago mob boss, in the miniseries Sinatra. I haven't seen those other films but Steiger seems a natural to play "Scarface."

Al Capone is less of a psychological examination as some of the other films in the series. The plot unfolds almost like a documentary. There is a certain detachment from Capone's behavior. He goes from being a loutish bouncer to a hot-headed Mob boss with flashes of Machiavellian brillance. We never quite understand what motivates Capone to pursue his ambitions at such high personal costs. Feelings of inadequacy play a part but Steiger largely plays Capone as a simple-minded man with single-minded determination. Perhaps it is a one-trick pony but what beautiful pony. Steiger transforms himself physically into Capone with his bulldog face and stocky build. Steiger's mannerisms such as speaking with his mouth full of food, add to the illusion. The plot had enough factual accuracies to make me believe Steiger was Capone.


The Boston Strangler was at the other end of the spectrum. The film focused on the psychology of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis). More accurately, the film crescendoed with the psychosis of DeSalvo laid bare. DeSalvo is not on-screen for much of the film. The film begins by documenting the murders, the police investigation and the public's growing hysteria. In the second half of the film, DeSalvo appears as slightly morose laborer. The audience follows DeSalvo as he commits his murders in a fugue. The climax features Henry Fonda, as the chief investigator, interviewing DeSalvo. Fonda's character uses each inconsistency in DeSalvo's recounting to coax out the truth from his repressed mind.

Director Richard Fleischer made extensive use of split screens. In many instances, it was the same scene shot from two different approaches; frequently one from the corpse's aspect. I thought the effect was overused.

George Kennedy as the cop and Henry Fonda as the learned lawyer pressed into service as head of the Strangler Bureau gave restrained performances which served them well when dealing with the flamboyant sexual deviants they interrogate as part of the investigation. George Voskovec steals his only scene as the psychic Peter Hurkos. Sally Kellerman has a small but memorable role as one of DeSalvo's victims.


Boxcar Bertha was an early Scorcese work which was infamous for the sex scene between David Carradine and Barbara Hershey. They later recreated the scene for Playboy magazine. The film was set in the American South during the Depression era. There seemed to be a lot of movies set in the South during the Great Deptression in the 1970's - The Sting, Bonnie & Clyde, Paper Moon, etc.

Boxcar Bertha does not look like future Scorcese films. There are no flamboyant Mafioso or beautiful obscenity. It's set in rural areas and it's a road picture. The star is female - Hershey looks strikingly different than I recall her from The Last Temptation of Christ or Beaches. Bertha looks like an ingénue commits murder and armed robbery.

Boxcar Bertha was a family affair. Carradine and Hershey were romantically involved at the time of the film. John Carradine, David's father, plays the antagonist of the film.

The film has a slightly comedic touch for much of the film but has a memorable ending. Carradine's character is literally crucified to the side of a train with railroad tie spikes. As the train pulls away, Hershey chases after it but cannot match the speed of the train. It was at that point in the film that I recalled that Hershey performed in another Scorcese film 15 years after Boxcar Bertha. I am referring to her role as Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ. Maybe I am attributing too much foreshadowing in Scorcese's career but at that point in the film, I had a Eureka! moment - Boxcar Bertha is basically the Mary Magdalene character in a different setting. Both were prostitutes at the feet of their devoted during crucifiction. Of course, that would put Carradine's Big Bill character in the Christ-like role. Big Bill was certainly devoted to his union with Christ-like fervor and was largely selfless in his actions. Obviously, the coupling of Bertha and Bill presage the depiction of Magdalene & Christ in The Last Temptation.

The film was entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking. Hershey excels in her role. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film.


Compulsion was also a taut film. Disguised as a procedural, the film follows two young men, Straus and Steiner (Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). The story is almost a point-for-point retelling of the Leopold and Loeb murders in the 1920s. I'm not sure why the producers changed the names. As an aside, I can recommend a fascinating recount of the Leopold and Loeb murders. Simon Baatz wrote For the Thrill of It whcih went it great detail about the murder, the families of Leopold and Loeb and the relationship between the two men. I was surprised at how many details Compulsion incorporated. The stolen typewriter, lost eyeglasses, Nietzsche's concept of supermen, etc.

One detail that was not mentioned was the sexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb which probably would have been too much for audiences in 1959. Baatz's book states that Leopold was sexually obsessed with Loeb. Although Loeb reciprocated, it was more perfunctory than passionate.

Another detail that I recall from the book which I thought was brilliant in its simplicity. When planning the murder of the kidnap victim, Leopold & Loeb originally intended to strangle the boy. The would loop a rope around the boy's neck and both would hold one end of the rope. If one of them lost their nerve, the rope would slip of the boy's neck. Even if one individual was applying the force, just the act of holding the rope would make the other complicit. In actuality, they killed the boy in a different manner which was partially responsible for their downfall.

Dillman and Stockwell were outstanding in their respective roles. Orson Welles gives an eye catching performances as the rumpled but skilled lawyer based on Clarence Darrow, who defended Leopold & Loeb. Welles' voice was perfectly modulated for the courtroom oratory. In my opinion, Welles' voice stands as one of the most effective in cinematic history. Burt Lancaster's voice was similarly well-suited for film.


I didn't really enjoy The Lodger. The Lodger was Laird Cregar's penultimate film. His final film was Hangover Square which played at the 2008 Noir City. I preferred that film to The Lodger.

Cregar's performance in The Lodger implies his character is Jack the Ripper. The film is a bit slow moving for me as director John Brahm lovingly layers on Victorian atmosphere and allows Cregar screen time to demonstate the psychological pathology of the character.

I can't fault the film except it dragged a little and it was Hangover Square in which a svelte Cregar played a similar character.


The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was an entertaining if somewhat lightweight film. Star Ray Danton seems to be enjoying himself in the lead role. Legs Diamond was a real-life, 1920s, New York gangster. As portrayed by Danton, Diamond was a manipulative and cold-hearted schemer who moved up the food chain through double-crosses and abandoning everyone who cared for him. Hard to kill and cruelly detached, Danton's Diamond turns his crippled brother out to the street, drives his wife to alcoholism and throws his mistresses to the street and wolves when their usefulness has ended.

Karen Steele as Diamond's first and most poignant victim (as well as his wife) stands out. Dyan Cannon (credited as Diane Cannon) makes her screen debut in the film.


The two films in the series I missed were Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) and I Want to Live (1958). I saw I Want to Live at the Castro a year or two ago. It starred Susan Hayward as convicted murderer Barbara Graham. Hayward won an Oscar for her performance in the film. The scene where they prepare the gas chamber for Graham stands out in my memory.

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