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Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, The (DVD Review)

15 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Ray Danton, Karen Steele, Elaine Stewart, Warren Oates.

Of all the movies Budd Boetticher directed that aren’t revered Randolph Scott Westerns, there are at least two with fairly sturdy critical reputations. One is 1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady, a personal favorite that controlling Paramount isn’t likely to release on DVD even after the cows come home, procreate and play cud games with their great-grandchildren. The other is this underworld biopic with a distinctive late ‘50s/early ‘60s Warner Bros. feel — which figures, given that Warners produced and distributed it.

Because Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface are a) the pioneer movies that put the gangster genre on the map; and b) the more impressive achievements, no one ever gives much ink to the truly notable hood-pic revival that began in the late 1950s around the same time as TV’s The Untouchables. Just off the top of my head from my own childhood/early adolescence, I either saw or was dying to see such role model material as Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, The Bonnie Parker Story, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Vic Morrow as Dutch Schultz in Portrait of a Mobster and David Janssen as Arnold Rothstein in King of the Roaring 20s. All came out between 1957 and 1961, during (the last two barely excepted) those supposedly placid Eisenhower years.

Starring cleft-chinned Ray Danton as the Prohibition-era lowlife, Legs also offers an older screen version of Rothstein as portrayed by predominantly ‘40s player Robert Lowery (though the latter did later play a political/personal object of disdain for John Wayne in 1963’s McLintock!) By the time of this biopic’s setting, Rothstein — the famed operator who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series — is aged enough for “Legs” to be having fun with the inside gams of the elder hood’s mistress (Elaine Stewart) after winnowing his way rather creatively into the Rothstein organization. But this is about an hour into the picture. Before that, we’ve seen Diamond engage in enough comparably minor heists to support his sickly brother (Warren Oates, almost looking young) and to begin convincing a dance instructor (buxom Karen Steele, from the Boetticher-Scott Westbound) that men are pigs.

Whereas a bedrock Warners ‘30s gangster picture would have run in the 80-minute range, Legs clocks in at 101, and you can feel the difference. That we don’t feel it more is a perhaps a product of the film’s sacrifice of characterization dimension for speed. What with Steele’s dance school instructions, the requisite number of machine-gunnings, one doubly fatal grenade-rolling plus a cheeky jewel heist by Diamond when he’s supposed to be in the men’s room while on a movie date, there’s no shortage of “event” here. Danton’s performance is the same: lots of surface bluster but not the kind of performance one really takes to – though he is quite good at the end when Diamond’s empire is falling apart, and his only recourse is to go into a rage. Unless it was simply convenient contract-player casting, Warners obviously liked the performance because Danton quickly reprised his role with a cameo in its Dutch Schultz biopic.

The great Lucien Ballard photographed these rat-tat-tat proceedings after his fabulous dozen-year Sam Peckinpah period had already begun (at least on TV, thanks to NBC’s short-lived but beloved 1960 series "The Westerner"). But this movie proves that Warners’ nondescript house visual style from early in that decade could even minimize one of the top cinematographers around. Glossy sheen or not (and allowing for the widescreen differential), Legs still looks something from the studio’s ubiquitous TV lineup of the day — something that might have starred, well, Ray Danton (who was a regular on the Warners/ABC "The Alaskans").

Nevertheless, some of the supporting casting is fun: Steele, Oates and Dyan Cannon in her feature debut (though her TV credits extend back even earlier). This Dyan-to-be has a role something like the one Marilyn Monroe had in The Asphalt Jungle: the easily available innocent who, in this case, gets in way over her head once some of “the boys” start constructing the vice that will end Diamond’s career once and for all. As screen footnotes go, one would probably be remiss in failing to mention that for a long time (and when this movie was made), Danton was married in real life to actress Julia Adams. This means that though she spent her working days in the arms of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she went home to him.

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