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July 10, 2014

The Rise and Fall of "Legs" Diamond

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Budd Boetticher - 1060
Warner Archives DVD

It hasn't happened often, but I ran out of screeners. Part of it was deliberate, as there were some new DVD releases I just didn't care to see, so I passed on those invitations. On the plus side, it gives me the chance to see something that I bought a while back, that had been on the shelf (actually two shelves at two different addresses) for over a year.

I know I had seen "Legs" Diamond at least once, maybe twice on late night broadcast television. The time I do remember was some times in the very early Seventies, when I was starting to get acquainted with the films of Budd Boetticher, and Dyan Cannon, listed as Diane Cannon in this film, was at her peak at stardom. I also recall Cannon mentioning being in this film, her big screen debut, on the "Tonight Show" when Burt Reynolds was the substitute host, with Reynolds making a snarky comment about movies starring Ray Danton.

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Regardless of how one might feel about Ray Danton, this is still an entertaining film. Screenwriter Joseph Landon plays with some of the facts, no matter what the opening titles say, but that's hardly why I've enjoyed this film. Part of it is the zeitgeist, made at a time in the late Fifties and early Sixties when there were a slew of biographical films about Prohibition era gangsters. While contemporary audiences may watch the film for early performances by Cannon and especially Warren Oates, as Diamond's ill-fated younger brother, there is also the visual comfort food for those who grew up in an older era, where supporting players Jesse White, Sid Melton and Simon Oakland were familiar faces. For those primarily interested in "Legs" Diamond as part of Budd Boetticher's filmography, this also contains the last performance by frequent muse Karen Steele.

The story, possibly apocryphal, is that Jack Warner, or producer Milton Sperling, was upset with Boetticher and cinematographer Lucien Ballard for deliberately making the film look like it was shot in the Twenties. If that were really the case, than Boetticher and Ballard failed. That it was produced in black and white was not unusual, and would have been standard, in part to also make the incorporation of documentary footage easier. Without calling too much attention to itself, there are some nicely composed shots using frames within frames, often using car windows, as well as use of the dividing barrier when Steele's character of Alice visits an imprisoned Diamond. Boetticher's tenure as director of several westerns starring Randolph Scott comes to good use when Diamond is seen shooting down two rival gangsters, with pistols in both hands.

One can view "Legs" Diamond as thematically the reverse image of the films Boetticher made with Scott. The Scott westerns generally followed a similar template with Scott as a loner, both by choice and circumstance, who usually stops traveling and settles with either the woman he was always suppose to be with, or the woman who conveniently gets widowed during the course of the narrative. Diamond lets it be known that he's out for himself. Any relationships formed, whether with women, or with other gangsters, are primarily for his own advancement. Unlike Scott's characters, who would frequently go out of their way to help those most vulnerable, Diamond lets his brother die, viewing him as needless emotional and financial baggage.

And yes, the guy is cold-blooded, but there is also amusement in seeing Diamond, witnessing a bungled jewel story robbery, eye the surrounding area to figure out how to break in, or work his way into Arnold Rothstein's mob by racking up charges at various Miami Beach stores in Rothstein's name.

In what has been listed as his last interview, Boetticher discussed his own inspiration for making a film about "Legs Diamond": When I was doing research for that picture, I went out to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and I met all the hoods. They would meet me in restaurants, and they would say, "Mr. Boetticher," pronouncing my name correctly, "may we sit down?" always two guys, very well dressed, Brooks Brothers suits, and they would sit down and say,"we understand you're gonna make a picture about Jack Diamond." I said, "well, I'm gonna try." They said, "what kind of picture is it gonna be?" I responded, "well, the greatest picture I ever saw was made by a woman, Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1934), about `one of the most despicable men of all time, Adolf Hitler. So I want to make a picture about a miserable, no good son-of-a-bitch that when you walk out of the theater, you say, "God, wasn't he great!" And then you take two steps, and you say, "wait a minute, he was a miserable son-of-a-bitch!"

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 10, 2014 07:05 AM