Thursday, May 31, 2012


Warner Bros. released Budd Boetticher's gangster biopic about a month before the last of Boetticher's westerns with Randolph Scott, Comanche Station, hit theaters. The two films don't immediately look like the work of the same director. The western, more than ever in retrospect, looks like Boetticher's characteristic work, but Legs Diamond gives an impression that the Scott westerns were as exceptional for the director as they were for Scott himself. Diamond has a generic identity that might transcend any personal creative signature. It was one of a cycle of of biopics and fact-based films set in the Prohibition era encouraged by the success of the Untouchables TV series but arguably inspired by pictures predating the TV show like Love Me or Leave Me or Party Girl. With Production Code rules still enforced fairly strictly, these pictures take a strong "Crime Does Not Pay" stance. Their protagonists aren't the charismatic antiheroes of the Pre-Code gangster cycle. They're grotesques, made interesting for late '50s-early '60s audiences by hints of psychological dysfunction. Boetticher's Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) seems pathological, but is more sociopath than psychopath. The damning event of his career is when he condemns his tubercular brother (Warren Oates) to certain death by stopping payments for his medical treatment, not out of hatred or rivalry but solely because he doesn't want his enemies to be able to get at him by threatening those close to him. Diamond's solution is to be close to no one, his self-imposed emotional isolation reinforcing a sense of invincibility acquired after the so-called "Clay Pigeon" survived numerous shootings. Ultimately, like a ghost dancer, he comes to believe that he can't be killed, even as he lies wounded and looks up the barrel of a gun.

Boetticher had dealt with a madman in his contemporary thriller The Killer is Loose, but the type isn't his specialty. His westerns are memorable for their villains who seem little different from Scott's hard-bitten heroes, apart from having made wrong choices. Diamond, conceived by writer Joseph Landon to embody some kind of psychological complexity, seems shallow by comparison to Lee Marvin in 7 Men From Now, Richard Boone in The Tall T or Claude Akins in Comanche Station, and Boetticher never really empathizes with the character. Nor can he do much with so many scenes of Diamond arguing with people and reiterating his personality flaws. The Scott westerns proved Boetticher a master of what might be called chamber action, working best with small casts and limited time frames. A biopic nearly half an hour longer than any of the Scott films diffuses his focus, leaving his style to be identified in isolated but nicely staged set pieces of suspense and violence. Danton is something of a stiff as Diamond but gives writer and director the emotional brutality they wanted. Strangely enough, his most intense moment in my eyes came not when he was shooting anyone but when in mid-argument with his girl he abruptly shoves her across a room. Something Cagneyesque stirred in that shot, some genuine fury, but Rise and Fall, as its title warns you, is too formulaic to run on that fury. It's not exactly terrible and you might even find it a compelling character study as the filmmakers hoped, but as Boetticher's contribution to the gangster genre from the period of his mastery it can't help being a major disappointment.

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