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The Irishman – Review

December 7, 2019

Having married a Detroit gal, and by making many trips to Motor City over the years, I’ve heard my fair share of stories about what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Most of them have carried about as much weight as a ticket stub to a Detroit Tigers game and can be discarded with the same contemptuous shrug.

On the surface, Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic The Irishman is just giving the same old hokey promise — to solve the mystery of what happened to James Riddle Hoffa after he stepped outside of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. But when it comes to iconic gangster films, few do them better than Scorsese. His best Mob films have portrayed organised crime through the character of the city in which they are set. Goodfellas is a classic New York film and Casino tells the story of Las Vegas better than the Book of Genesis tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both Goodfellas and Casino were reasonably accurate depictions of historical events. The Departed took the case of Whitey Bulger as a more allusive inspiration for its Boston setting, but it was just as gripping. The Irishman is Scorsese’s most ambitious gangster film to date. It’s cast of characters include hoodlums from New York to California, and while the story climaxes with the unsolved murder of Hoffa (one of Detroit’s most enduring mysteries) the narrative includes the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy assassination and even Watergate. It’s a long road through the darker chapters of recent American history and appropriately enough the story begins with a lengthy car journey to a wedding.

Irishman

Some of the lighter moments in The Irishman come from Russell Bufalino’s failed attempts to impress Frank Sheeran’s daughter

The year is 1975. Hit-man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is tasked with driving Mob Boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) from his home in Pittston, Pennsylvania to a family wedding in Detroit. Both of their wives accompany them and to the outside observer the four travellers might seem like two typically bickering aging couples. But there is a history of dark secrets between these four people. Bufalino’s wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) chides him for not letting her smoke in the car, but she is more than happy to wash the blood out of his shirt after he has participated in a Mafia hit. Before they reach the wedding, another notorious murder will take place. Jimmy Hoffa will vanish in Detroit after turning on the Mob Bosses who years earlier had brought him to power. Sheeran, the film’s narrator, is involved in Hoffa’s disappearance, and his life-story involves many murders. From executing German prisoners during the war to taking on murder contracts in later life, Sheeran possesses both ambition and icy ruthlessness. Yet, he is at heart a family man, and his most painful moments come when he abandons his first wife and his daughter stops speaking to him.

Despite not being Italian (but being fluent in the language), Sheeran soon moves up the ranks of organised crime, befriending Jimmy Hoffa (played by a flamboyant Al Pacino) and landing a high-ranking role in the Teamsters Union. Sheeran is either involved in or talks the audience through some of the most infamous murders in Mafia history – Albert Anastasia, Joe Colombo, ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo etc. When a real-life character first appears onscreen, their eventual fate, usually either ‘murdered’ or ‘died in prison’, appears in captions alongside them. One senses Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing never really left him. No matter how much wealth and power these men acquire, they are all damned in the end. There is one glaring error though in signposting revelations about these historical figures. The Irishman claims Allen Dorfman was murdered in 1979. He met his violent end, in fact, in 1983. This seems like an odd error to make, especially as Dorfman’s murder was dramatised in Casino. At times it does feel like the history is awkwardly stitched together, but what elevates the material is a handful of extraordinary performances. The aforementioned Kathrine Narducci is brilliant as the Lady Macbeth of Mob Wives, and Joe Pesci has never been better as the pensive, empathetic but still ruthless Mafia Don Bufalino. The soundtrack reflects the environment of these characters. Bufalino is a gangster reigning over rural Pennsylvania and the bluesy, harmonica drenched ‘Theme for the Irishman‘ perfectly captures this milieu. The de-aging technology used on the actors is fairly impressive, and certainly no worse than the average Hollywood facelift. The only time I felt nonplussed was a scene where De Niro is beating up a guy who is clearly thirty/forty years younger than him. Even though they’ve de-aged his face, De Niro’s body moves like that of a seventy year old.

The viewer might be inclined to ask, how convincing is The Irishman as history? Short answer, not very. At times the film riffs on, by now debunked, conspiracy theory films such as JFK as it features a split-second appearance of David Ferrie. Also how it presents Hoffa’s murder is nowhere near as convincing as theories put forward in Scott Burnstein’s excellent documentary Detroit Mob Confidential. But this does not stop the film from being dramatically satisfying, quite the opposite. James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, often considered his best novel, features a Hoffa who personally murders an informant with a machete. Few historians would argue that Hoffa would have ever got his hands dirty like this, but it matters little in a fictional portrayal of a very bloody era. Frank Sheeran’s lies have been exposed before, and The Irishman does not always convince as history. It does, however, provide a thrilling, darkly comic and welcome addition to the pantheon great gangster movies.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Milwaukee on the make

November 29, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the second instalment in Jason’s series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

Deputy Sheriff Herman L. Page was elected County Sheriff in 1853, and chose as his deputy sheriff, a former New York City Police Detective named William Beck.

william beck

William Beck, Deputy Sheriff of Milwaukee

Though Beck was quite successful at bagging several thieves, Milwaukee’s rampant lawlessness continued, prompting a public outcry that forced city officials to establish a permanent police force in 1855.

According to Milwaukee Police Historian George Kelling, the Milwaukee Police Department, like Boston, and New York City before it, modeled its police force after London’s Metropolitan Police, who received their authority directly from the British Monarchy.  While Milwaukee adopted London’s habits of maintaining order, preventing crime and patrolling neighborhoods, unlike London, Milwaukee policing was strictly a local matter unaffiliated with government…  This would prove uniquely problematic, according to Kelling, as it kept police close to the concerns of local citizens, but also invited corruption and political manipulation of police departments.

With the unanimous vote of the Common Council, Milwaukee Mayor James B. Cross appointed William Beck as Milwaukee’s first chief of police.  This was a typical procedure in the U.S. at the time. Beck selected six men for his force, all chosen for their formidable size and fighting skills. Arresting a suspect in those days typically meant whipping and beating him first, something that almost always earned the arresting officers black eyes, bruised cheeks, split lips, and contusions too numerous to count.

In 1861, mobs staged two disastrous riots. The first was a bank riot led by Milwaukee laborers enraged that the banks refused to accept the script the laborers were paid in.  Thinking they were being cheated out of their wages, the angry mob sacked and demolished two banks beyond repair.

Barely two months later, another mob attacked the Milwaukee jail, intent on lynching Marshall Clark and James Shelton, two African American men held for the stabbing death of one man, and the wounding of another. While Shelton escaped (and was later acquitted at trial), the mob lynched Clark. Public blame for the fiasco fell on Chief William Beck, who soon after resigned.

Beck would return as chief from 1868-1871, and again from 1880-1882.  The chief of police was an unstable and highly political position.  Every time a chief was removed, all his friends resigned en masse fearing termination if they remained. The police department’s low morale even instigated a suspicion that many of the unsolved robberies were committed by policemen who knew they were about to be fired.

In April, 1882, Police Chief Robert Wasson led the department in one of the largest raids in Milwaukee history, aimed at disrupting some of the most frequented brothels in the city. Earlier that day, a pair of undercover officers had posed as out-of-towners prowling for cheap gash. The undercovers later secured warrants against several brothels in Milwaukee’s extensive riverside red-light district. Chief Wasson had planned the raid as the first in a series that sought to cleanse Milwaukee of its seedier citizens. Wasson had been appointed chief less than a month earlier following the election of John Stowell as mayor.

robert wasson

Robert Wasson, Milwaukee Police Chief

Wasson’s police army carried warrants on 15 different houses that night, just a fraction of the estimated 95 active prostitution houses in the city. Within 90 minutes, the raids netted 83 arrestees, and the central station was packed beyond capacity with prostitutes and their male clients. As was typical in these kinds of raids, most of the arrestees gave false names, paid their bail, and vanished. According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, by 2 p.m. the next day, most of the fuck pads scrubbed in the raid were back in operation.

In 1885, Wisconsin State Assembly member Florian J. Ries was appointed chief of police.  Under Ries’ command, the Milwaukee Police Department began using mugshots to identify criminals. Prior to taking photos, identifying suspects was entirely dependent on officers’ memories, a difficult task in a city with over 200,000 citizens spread across 20 square miles.

According to native Wisconsin chronicler Gavin Schmitt, Milwaukee’s Third Ward was one of the Cream City’s most crime-stricken areas…  As far back as the 1850s, this notorious neighborhood was occupied by poverty-stricken Irish. In 1858 alone, more than 40% of the inmates in Milwaukee’s county jail were Third Ward Irish.

The Irish were driven out in 1892 when a devastating fire at the Union Oil Company incinerated 16 square blocks and destroyed more than 400 buildings, including a fire station. Five people perished in the blaze, countless more were injured, and nearly 2000 were made homeless.

Third Ward fire 1892

Devastation Caused by the 1892 Third Ward Fire

After being inhabited and rebuilt by Italians, the famously dirty and cramped Third Ward wasn’t much better…  Each lot contained 2-3 houses, often with multiple basement compartments and all constructed with dilapidated and decaying lumber. Milwaukee Scholar George LaPiana depicts a scene that all but lays the foundations of a criminal undercurrent: “Four times as many people as should be permitted are often crowded into a given space…a population of workmen who often have no conveniences for cleanliness.”

In 1895, several of Milwaukee’s Methodist ministers admonished both Chief John Janssen and Mayor John Koch for what the ministers saw as a severely dismissive attitude towards the city’s numerous gambling parlors. The ministers accused both Janssen and Koch of allowing the Milwaukee Police Department to be infiltrated by gambling influences. One reverend even claimed that certain beat officers were working as intermediaries for gambling dens, directing strangers to surreptitious saloons and halls, who in turn would reward the officers with numerous kickbacks. Chief Janssen was unwilling to execute raids on these dens, which only further enraged the reverends, who felt that Milwaukee was fast becoming a lawless haven for gamblers, thieves, and assorted rogues. As Wisconsin historian Matthew J. Prigge details it, Milwaukee’s glut of cramped and crowded gaming rooms would each often house as much as 75 patrons or more. Accordingly, the potently ugly mixture of gambling and free-flowing alcohol produced countless fights and deaths by both blade and bullet.

In a prepared statement delivered to Chief Janssen and Mayor Koch, the Methodist ministers felt that Milwaukee’s gambling establishment was responsible for “breaking up homes, crushing hearts, impoverishing the innocent, [and] producing embezzlement, robbery, murder, and suicide.”

Janssen and Koch maintained their position that to act too aggressively against these gambling houses would merely inspire the house proprietors to relocate to yet another area of the city. As Koch would tell the Milwaukee Journal, “There is no occasion for the clergymen making all this fuss.”

Inspector Otto H. Reimar was one of the MPD’s early standouts. According to Schmitt, Reimar developed a reputation for honesty and did not approve of lying to criminals to secure a confession, feeling that such a tactic made him no better than the perps he apprehended. As inspector, Reimar supervised all the detectives and was outranked only by the Chief. Reimar tackled the 1897 daytime shooting death of James Soukop, a teamster for commission merchant E.R. Godfrey & Sons. Soukop was shot once in the intestines, and once in the spine, and died later that evening at the hospital.  Investigators would later learn that Soukop’s assailant mistook him for another teamster.

Inspector Reimar told the newspapers that he knew with full confidence the identity of the shooter, but declined to reveal the name. The shooting of James Soukop would be the first mob-related killing in Milwaukee’s history…  It would certainly not be the last.

Despite brutal interrogations of several apprehended Italians, the police quickly learned how unwilling the Italian community was to surrender one of its own. The Italians’ reticence only further motivated the police, who fervently believed the shooter was being harbored by his friends.

By the time James Soukop was laid to rest, all the Italians who had been detained in connection with the case were released, as there was no direct evidence linking any of them to the crime.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…    

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazette: The Wild Midwest

November 17, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the first instalment of a new series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

For many years, James Ellroy spoke vividly of wanting to write a novel about the Wisconsin State Police, partially as a tribute to his murdered mother, Jean Hilliker, a Wisconsin native.

I asked Ellroy about the status of the novel on the very first night I met him in 2009, and the Demon Dog didn’t hesitate for a second: “There is no Wisconsin State Police”.  In the decade since, I’ve asked Ellroy about the project several times, and his answer is always the same.

Ellroy is partially correct. While there indeed is no Wisconsin State Police, there is an actual Wisconsin State Patrol, and Ellroy would pay tribute to this police force with the fictional Wisconsin State Police Officer (and serial killer) Ross Anderson from Killer on the Road. Beyond that, it’s tragic that we’re unlikely to see the Dog’s long-promised Wisconsin novel. Ellroy’s idea has always fascinated me, so I finally resolved to dig into Wisconsin’s dark past myself.  Stay with me…

Ellroy wisconsin badge 1 red

Milwaukee belonged to crime from the very beginning.  Almost immediately after incorporating in 1845, The Cream City endured a crippling disagreement that nearly eviscerated the young American settlement.

At that time, the Milwaukee River was crossed by three bridges, and the residents on the west side favored only the one which led down Spring Street, allowing easy access to City Hall and the courthouse.  Those on the east side preferred the connections convenient to their lakeside docks. When a lost schooner captain plowed his vessel into the bridge at Spring Street, the west side accused the east side of staging the incident to cripple their preferred passage as revenge for the east’s refusal to help finance the bridges they saw as detrimental to their community.

A mob of west side loyalists would in turn destroy the rival Chestnut Street bridge, hacking the crossing to a soggy tangle of mutilated timbers.  Those on the east side would go on to demolish the Spring Street Bridge, and another bridge spanning the southern Menomee River, leaving just one passable bridge and the vengeful west siders unable to reach it.

This conflict, known in Milwaukee history as “The Bridge War” was settled by the village trustees, culminating in the historic 1846 signing of Milwaukee’s first charter.  The Bridge War is just one example of the chaos that fuelled Milwaukee’s ascent from sparse settlement to booming metropolis. Those who facilitated this ascent were a shitbird mass rabble of peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps with nothing to lose whose wanton antics would paradoxically spur the creation of an iconic police force.

Just nine years after becoming a city in 1846, Milwaukee was so inundated with murders, thefts, arson, and prostitution, the city marshal and county sheriff soon found themselves overwhelmed.

Often times, a hapless accident would erupt into all out pandemonium.  As Milwaukee historian Matthew J. Prigge recounts in his 2015 book Milwaukee Mayhem, in August 1854, downtown Milwaukee’s dilapidated Davis Livery Stable caught fire, triggering fire alarms in all corners of the city.  Volunteer fire companies were still en route to the scene as the flames spread to adjacent structures, including a series of dry and brittle wood-framed store fronts.

Within an hour, an entire city block was engulfed.  On several occasions, the heat was so intense, the city’s volunteer squad was forced to turn their hoses on themselves to avoid heat exhaustion.  By the time two hundred reinforcements arrived from nearby Racine, the block where the fire originated was a pile of ash.

As an intoxicated crowd of thousands gathered to watch the action unfold, chaos gradually ensued…  a fisherman was stabbed during a melee on Huron Street, an exhausted fire fighter drove his ladder car over a man on Wisconsin Street, and all over the city, men seized the anarchy of the day to pilfer the merchandise of downtown businesses.  As Milwaukee did not yet have a police force, the fire company arrested more than 40 men and sent them to the jail house on charges of theft and looting.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…    

To Sleep with Anger – Review

November 3, 2019

Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger received some glowing reviews when it was released in 1990. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival before slipping away into obscurity, largely unseen and very difficult to find. Seldom broadcast on television, the film lacked a decent VHS or DVD release until it was added to the Criterion Collection this year.

So when the chance came for me to see this rare jewel in the cinema, I jumped at the opportunity.

Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) are an aging married couple living in South-Central Los Angeles. Although they have raised a nice family, they grapple with all of the stresses that such an endeavour entails. Their youngest son Samuel ‘Babe Brother’ (Richard Brooks) is feckless and pliable. Sam’s wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) detests her in-laws and their old-world ways. Gideon and Suzie resent constantly babysitting Sam and Linda’s kids. Babe Brother has a tense relationship with his older sibling named, confusingly, Junior (Carl Lumbly). All in all it is a normal family with a good life: their problems do not outweigh the values that sustain them.

This all changes when there is a knock at the door and in walks Harry, played with scene-stealing relish by Danny Glover. Harry is a friend of Gideon’s from the old days in the South. He has travelled down from Detroit and is looking for a place to stay. A delighted Gideon and Suzie tell him he can stay, not realising that once Harry is in the house, he will have no intention of leaving. Harry is all charm but a mass of contradictions. He claims to be a modern man and rejects Gideon’s churchgoing ways, and yet he is a believer in talismans and curses. He reacts coldly when a boy accidentally touches his shoe with a brush. Believing it to be bad luck, he spits on the brush to free himself of the hex. However, it’s not long before bad luck falls upon the family who are Harry’s hosts. Gideon inexplicably falls into a coma, and Harry starts to take over the house through a mixture of charisma and demonic intent. There are numerous hints that Harry could be the devil in disguise. A motley bunch of his friends arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, and Sam and Linda are reduced to being Harry’s servants, serving him food and drink and carrying out his every whim. Marriages are strained. Relations between family members start to crumble. One wonders if there is enough goodness left in the household to save everyone from Harry’s spell.

To Sleep with Anger doesn’t look like any other LA-set film you’ve likely seen before. There isn’t a smog-bound freeway, imposing architectural structures like the Parker Center, or the faux-glamour promised by the Hollywood sign. The entire world of these characters is contained within these few streets and suburban houses. Little wonder that Harry’s talk of ‘steaming juke joints’ and folkloric superstition of the Old South seems so alluring to a family inured to the blandness of contemporary life.

On its initial release, not all of the reviews were positive. In a largely complimentary review Roger Ebert admitted to struggling with the film, finding the climax ‘too long in coming’. To my mind Burnett has crafted a deliberately anti-climatic film. The sense of impending doom dissipates in the final half-hour as we move towards a denouement which is both beautiful and redemptive. Having pulled the family apart, it is completely in keeping with Harry’s character that he would bring it back together again. As he lies on the kitchen floor (spoiler alert), grinning up at the family he has belatedly united, Harry has made the ultimate Christ-like sacrifice. His ego demands nothing less.

To Sleep with Anger was screened at Picturehouse at Fact Liverpool as part of Black History Month. There can’t have been more than two dozen people in the audience, but sitting alone in the cinema just made it feel like a story that was all the more personal to me.

That said, it would be great if To Sleep with Anger finally found a larger audience. Give the devil his due and track down a copy of this overlooked classic.

Aly Khan, Armand Ellroy and a Royal Biography

October 26, 2019

Prince Aly Khan

On May 12, 1960, Prince Aly Khan was killed in a car crash in the suburbs of Paris. Khan was only 48, and the news came as a shock to everyone who knew and loved the man. Khan behaved like he was going to live forever. His friends would say, ‘He was too alive to die.’ A multi-millionaire Royal, playboy, sportsman, soldier and diplomat, Khan had no difficulty in seducing beautiful women. Although some, like his second wife Rita Hayworth, grew resentful towards him when they learned that fidelity was not part of Aly’s vocabulary.

Leonard Slater was a journalist who worked at NBC News, Time, Newsweek and McCalls. Born in Pittsburgh and educated at the University of Michigan, Slater became a foreign correspondent and had a fairly adventurous life himself, working in Paris, Prague, Tokyo and Hong Kong. In the US, he reported from Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and once witnessed a nuclear testing at Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada.

Leonard Slater had got to know Aly Khan a few months before he died, ‘visiting him at his Chateau de l’Horizon on the French Riviera; travelling with him to his stud farms in Ireland’. In 1962, Slater decided to write a biography of the late prince. The formidable task would require hundreds of interviews with everyone from ‘Hollywood choreographers to Islamic scholars’. Slater’s research took him from ‘the primitive upcountry of Pakistan to the locked and guarded erotica collection of the British Museum.’ Slater admits that ‘some doors were slammed in our faces’, but he praises the many people who were willing to share their memories of the lovable rogue Aly Khan.

There is one interview I wish to focus on in this article. Slater interviewed a man who was Rita Hayworth’s former business manager and had arranged her wedding to Khan in 1949. He was the father of a little boy named Lee who would grow up to be the greatest crime writer of his generation.

His name was Armand Ellroy.

The Interview

Armando Lee Ellroy

In the early 1960s Armand Ellroy was out of work and, after the murder of his ex-wife, raising his teenage son alone. In his memoir My Dark Places, James Ellroy candidly describes how hard-up he and his father were at this time: ‘We were poor. Our apartment reeked of dogshit.’

Someone Leonard Slater talked to in the movie-biz, it may have been Rita Hayworth herself, suggested he should contact Armand ‘Lee’ Ellroy. An interview was set-up. Alas we don’t know where, but we can assume it was not at Armand’s decrepit apartment which would eventually be fumigated after he was evicted. Slater and Armand met in a cafe or a restaurant. They talked at length, and Armand is quoted several times in the biography.

Armand told Slater about meeting Rita Hayworth when she was a dancer at the Agua Caliente casino and he was a croupier:

“After the evening show,” he (Ellroy) says, “a gang would get together for hamburgers or to go swimming, but most of the time Rita couldn’t go. I can still see her mother sitting there, watching Rita rehearse and keeping her eye out.”

Armand described to Slater how, when he was working as Rita’s business manager, he rented a ‘pink stucco house on Rockingham Avenue (for Khan), opposite Rita’s red brick colonial on Hanover Street.’ Due to the media frenzy surrounding Rita and Khan, Armand had to shield them for reporters who were ‘popping up in the guise of plumbers, telephone repairmen, readers of gas meters.’ Hayworth and Khan usually travelled in separate cars while Ellroy ‘took on the job of transmitting telephone messages to foil eavesdroppers.’

Armand’s greatest coup as Rita’s business manager came when he arranged the movie star’s wedding to Aly Khan. Armand flew to Paris, then made his way down to the Riviera at Rita’s request as she feared the wedding day was going to be a disaster. Armand managed to impose order and clarity on the wedding plans, which leads to one of the most revealing anecdotes in the biography:

Two nights before the wedding, Aly invited Ellroy, who was staying at the Chateau, to accompany him on a 3 am excursion. They went to the Casino at Cannes for some gambling. Aly turned to Ellroy. “You’ve been here a week or so now, haven’t you?” he asked. Ellroy replied in the affirmative. Aly, the host who thought of everything, disappeared and came back a few minutes later with two attractive girls, one a breezy blonde. “Take your pick,” he offered. When Ellroy declined, Aly shrugged and disappeared with the blonde.

Everything James Ellroy has ever written about his womanising father makes me wonder if there is a little more to this story.

Armand Ellroy was a chronic liar, as his son would attest to. Did Armand lie to Slater? Possibly, but as a seasoned journalist one would imagine Slater was skilled at spotting lies. Armand boasted to his son that he slept with Rita Hayworth. There is no mention in the Khan biography of Armand having an affair with Hayworth. As Slater was sympathetic to Khan, then it would not have been prudent for Armand to bring it up. If Armand did sleep with Hayworth one wonders whether it was during her marriage to Khan.

Slater’s inteview with Armand is special for a number of reasons. It marks the only time, outside of James Ellroy’s published memoirs, that Armand’s words are documented in a book. The first biography of Rita Hayworth did not appear until 1974, long after Armand had died. All of Hayworth biographers would use Slater’s interview with Armand as a source to understand the planning of her wedding to Khan, and his role as Rita’s business manager.

Another reason the interview is important is that it very nearly never happened. Armand had the first of several strokes on November 1, 1963. He had to learn to talk again using children’s primer texts. He died in 1965. Slater began his biography in 1962. He was lucky he got the chance to talk to Armand. If he had delayed his plans to interview him, then Armand Ellroy’s role as Hayworth’s business manger may well have been lost to history. James Ellroy did not know the interview took place. He didn’t even believe Armand had been Hayworth’s business manager until years later, when he spotted his father’s name in a Hayworth biography. Of course, Ellroy would never have spotted his father’s name in that book if it had not been for the Slater interview.

The Biography

Once his research on Khan was complete Slater wrote the biography in a ‘draughty villa’ in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It was published in June 1965, the same month Armand Ellroy died. Reflecting on the book years later, Leonard Slater wrote:

It appeared just as a new concept of morality was taking over from the Puritanism that had inhibited the USA from its earliest days. Sex had been something that consenting adults didn’t discuss in public, contraceptives had been sold under the counter, and books and movies about sex were censored, if not banned. But a new day was dawning in America, demanded by younger people, spurred by the invention of The Pill. TV networks began to take Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations for granted. “Hair,” a musical with lots of nudism was a hit on Broadway. Playboy magazine was sold openly on newsstands. The success of my book ALY was part of that new frankness.

Not all of the reviews were kind. The Kirkus Review wrote that the book was full of ‘tasteless speculation’, ‘shallow depth’ and filled with ‘meaningless round(s) of bedhopping.’

I regard the Kirkus review as too harsh. Slater skilfully adapts the key events in Aly’s life into narrative form. Khan’s birth in Italy, his peripatetic upbringing in France, India and England, his service with the French Foreign Legion during the war, his tumultuous love life and two failed marriages, and finally being passed over by the Aga Khan as the heir to the throne and finding a redemptive role as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, all makes for a compelling read.

If the book has a flaw it is that the constant boudoir antics occasionally read like a Mills & Boon novel. There is some attempt by Slater, for instance, to unravel one of the mysteries of the Orient. Khan was a practitioner of the sexual technique and philosophy of Imsak. I noticed my secondhand copy of the book was a bit dog-eared around these pages…

Leonard Slater died in 2005. His writing career was full of impressive achievements, including authoring an acclaimed book on the foundation of the State of Israel. But I am grateful most of all to Slater for giving Armand Ellroy a chance to tell his story. The interview allowed Armand to happily reminisce about Rita, Royalty and Hollywood’s Golden Age in what were his difficult final years.

Alan Sues: The Laugh-In Star who was Armand Ellroy’s Last Showbiz Connection

October 12, 2019

James Ellroy’s father Armand had many connections in Hollywood. Armand Ellroy was Rita Hayworth’s business manager from 1948-1952. As a non-certified accountant he filed tax returns for actors such as Glenn Ford. He was also friends with Mickey Rooney and producer Sam Stiefel.

By the late 1950s though, Armand Ellroy was out of work. He had lost nearly all of his Hollywood connections. After the murder of his ex-wife Jean Ellroy in 1958, Armand raised their son Lee Earle (James Ellroy’s birth name) alone.

Armand threw himself into various get-rich-quick schemes. None of them worked and the Ellroys sank deeper into poverty. But at least one of his business ideas had potential and it resulted in a friendship which would prove quite valuable to Armand. Armand befriended a young comic named Alan Sues.

Alan Sues

Alan Sues was a comic actor and writer who achieved his greatest fame as a regular on the smash hit sketch show Laugh-In. Sues died in 2011. In 2017, the biography Alan Sues: A Funny Man by Michael Gregg Michaud was published.

Early on in his biography of Sues, Michaud proffers this observation about the acting life: ‘Performers often create and propagate mythologies about their lives. Alan was a master of personal reinvention. “The truth just isn’t funny,” he’d say.’

Sues was a master raconteur, and his stories were often so funny that it seems wrong to quibble about how true they were. One amusing anecdote Sues liked to tell related to when he was drafted into the segregated US army during World War II. An administrative error led him to being assigned to an all-black barracks. Sues was the only white guy, surrounded by black soldiers, for his first eight weeks of basic training. Finally, an army doctor said to him:

“I suppose you’re told this a lot, but you don’t look at all Negro.”

“What?” Alan asked. “This may come as a shock to you, but I’m really not a Negro.”

The officer then accused him of being ashamed of his race. “He said, now, listen, that’s a wonderful race. And you’re going to be very unhappy if you keep putting it down. It’s unfortunate that you don’t look Negro, but you are a Negro. I said, wait a minute, I’d know if I was Negro for crying out loud!” They argued for a moment, and then the officer instructed Alan to come to his office as soon as he returned from leave.

Sues was quietly reassigned.

After the war Sues pursued his dream of being a performer. In LA, Sues and his wife Phyllis performed at the Cabaret Concert Theater in The Holiday Show in 1957.

In My Dark Places, James Ellroy describes how his father ‘managed a stage show at the Cabaret Concert Theater. The show featured young comedians and singers. My father got tight with a comic named Alan Sues.’ The Cabaret Concert Theater was a small cellar cafe that opened in Silverlake, LA in 1950. Comedians and singers would perform there, often unpaid, in the hope of being spotted by an agent or producer. It must have suited Armand well, as he could put on a show with virtually no budget. However, ‘the show bombed’. Before it closed, the show did get some good notices. The LA Times review was very positive, ‘Its wit is sharp and it is fresh and stimulating, a very cleverly put together show. It is a recounting of the old glorious days of vaudeville, and is chock full of fun and memories.’

Sues association with the theater did not end there. He also appeared in the show Tantrums at Nine in 1959. Once again, it was favourably reviewed but less successful commercially. The Cabaret Concert Theater closed in 1961. The venue was transformed into the flamenco club El Cid.

The Hat Shop

Undeterred by the failure of their theatrical venture, Armand Ellroy and Alan Sues ‘opened a hat shop. Sues designed the hats. My father kept the books and flogged the hats by mail order.’ Sadly, this business also failed: ‘The venture went bust quicksville.’

James Ellroy devotes just a few lines to the hat shop business in My Dark Places. However, Michaud examines it in-depth, and it is clear that Sues had a gift for design and the business had the potential to be very successful.

The business began when Sues opened a retail store on Santa Monica Boulevard called Gazebo: ‘Alan designed several hats, and was surprised when customers snatched them up.’ The business took off fast. Sues soon had a wholesale order for three hundred hats and was selling them to ‘Macy’s, Gimble’s, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf and Henri Bendel, and Bullock’s and Robinson’s department stores in Los Angeles.’ Sues only had Phyllis to help him make the hats, so he hired his actor and designer friends to cope with the heavy demand.

Sues was forced to close the Gazebo which was getting too expensive to maintain, but continued to make hats at home for his wholesale buyers. The business peaked in June, 1959 when ‘TV Guide printed a three-page colour pictorial featuring Alan and several females modelling his hats’

The TV Guide feature on Alan Sues’s hat designs

However, Sues grew tired of the hat design business as it took up a huge amount of his time and it was beginning to impinge on his performing career. He lacked a sound business mind, and he was finding that the high cost of materials was eating into his profits. Sues’s brother John identified the real problem with the hat business:

‘I went over,’ John explained, ‘and I went in the back, and around a table were all these men and women singing and playing the bongo drums. I told him, ‘I think I’ve found your problem.’ All his employees were out-of-work show business friends and they did virtually nothing.’

Armand Ellroy, aging and unwell at this point, could have easily fallen into this category of Hollywood chancers with more enthusiasm than experience who just didn’t have the drive and concentration to help Sues make the business work.

Michaud never mentions Armand Ellroy in his biography. I contacted Michaud by email, and he said that in the forty years he knew Alan Sues, he never mentioned knowing anyone in the Ellroy family. Nor is there any mention of Armand Ellroy in Sues’s archive. Perhaps the friendship was never that important to Sues, or maybe their various failed businesses were something he preferred to forget. Michaud names Don Sheffy as the producer of The Holiday Show, and Sues produced Tantrums at Nine himself. Armand may have exaggerated his role as a producer at the Cabaret Concert Theater.

Fairfax High School

There is one further mention of Sues in My Dark Places that is worth investigating. Lee Ellroy was due to attend Los Angeles High School, but Armand didn’t want him to go there as it was full of tough neighbourhood kids and he ‘figured they’d kill me the first time I opened my mouth’. Armand thought Fairfax High School would be good school for Lee to attend. It was located in the plush Melrose Avenue area of LA, a Zip code far beyond Armand’s budget. Alan Sues ‘lived a few blocks from Fairfax. The old man borrowed Alan’s address and plopped his Nazi son down in the heart of the West LA shtetl.’

Michaud confirms that Sues lived in Fairfax at the time, so Armand’s little scheme would have worked. Lee’s adolescent obsession with Nazism peaked when he was at Fairfax. It would have got him into trouble at any school, but was especially offensive at Fairfax as it had a predominantly Jewish student body. Lee Ellroy was eventually expelled from Fairfax High. Thus, he squandered the only real effort Armand had made in getting him a good education.

It’s not clear whether Alan Sues knew how Armand had used his address to gain Lee the place at Fairfax. Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded if Lee had been a fairly well adjusted teenager. Maybe he did find out and was angered at Armand exploiting his living arrangements.

Laugh-In

Sues’s greatest success would come a few years later. He joined the cast of Laugh-In in 1968. Michaud gives great insight into how this groundbreaking comedy show was produced, and the rivalries and clashing egos that lay behind it. Sues was angry that the hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin seemed to take all the credit and only had to put in a few hours a week, whereas he and the other cast members worked round the clock. Furthermore, he became increasingly troubled at the homophobic tone of the show. His character Big Al was required to be outrageously camp, and Sues felt it may have been stigmatising the gay community.

Sues was gay. His marriage to Phyllis lasted only a few years, although they stayed friends. Towards the end of his life Sues felt both proud and vindicated about the role he played in Laugh-In. One of his last public appearances was at an autograph collector’s show in Burbank:

Many gay men stood in line to meet him that day. They told him he was one of the few gay men they saw on television when they were young, and his gay visibility, though myopic in style, made a difference to them. Alan was shocked, and genuinely overcome.

Alan Sues never made Armand Ellroy a fortune with his cabaret shows or hat shop, but he was still a good choice of friend. With a bit more luck, their ‘get-rich-quick’ business ventures as James Ellroy describes them, may well have succeeded.

 

 

The Third Man – 70th Anniversary Screening

September 30, 2019

Shortly after the end of World War Two, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in Vienna at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime. Martins is shocked to discover that Lime has just been killed, hit by a speeding truck while crossing the road. He attends Lime’s funeral where he meets the stiff upper lip English Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Calloway gets Martins drunk and pumps him for information on Lime. Martins is shocked with Calloway’s assessment of Lime as being one of the most notorious racketeers in the City of Music. Calloway warns Martins to leave town, but the mourning writer feels compelled to stay and learn more about his late friend. He talks to Lime’s beautiful and melancholic girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Anna suspects that Lime has been murdered, but Martins discovers that the truth is even more shocking than that…

third-man-cotten-valli

Alida Valli as Anna and Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins

The 70th anniversary of the cinema release of The Third Man was celebrated with a screening of the film at Picturehouse cinemas throughout the UK. The film was preceded with a performance of Anton Karas’s famous zither score by the gifted musician Cornelia Mayer. Mayer gave some fascinating insights on the composition of the score. Director Carol Reed discovered Karas, a jobbing musician, in a Vienna wine bar. Karas didn’t speak any English. Reed didn’t speak any German. Reed conveyed the story of The Third Man by showing Karas a series of stills. Reed was quite hard on Karas, making him play for six straight hours without a break. An exhausted Karas had blood under his fingernails, and started to play more slowly as a comedown. Reed began to hear what would become the Harry Lime theme. He made Karas play for another hour until he perfected it. In one crucial scene there are two zithers playing. This is to symbolise Harry Lime in his coffin, and the Harry Lime still lurking in the sewers and alleyways of Vienna.

The screening of The Third Man was followed by Q & A featuring renowned script supervisor Angela Allen, who worked as a crew member on the film back in the late 1940s. Allen did not hold back on her opinion of Orson Welles. She described Welles as difficult and elusive. As Welles never turned up on time, the shadow of Harry Lime the audience glimpses in the dark Viennese streets was actually that of Guy Hamilton. Hamilton, who went on to direct four James Bond movies, wore padding to replicate Welles’s considerable girth.

Welles famously refused to shoot any scenes in Vienna’s sewers for the climactic chase, therefore expensive sets had to built in the UK. Allen insisted that the sewers did not actually smell that bad. However, Welles was disgusted when they first tried to shoot in the Vienna sewers as he saw two crew members eating bacon sarnies down there. Allen also refuted any suggestion that Welles wrote his own dialogue or directed scenes, despite Welles’s claims to the contrary. Reed directed the entire picture. Reed was such a workaholic, Allen said, that he took benzedrine so he could work through the night.

‘But, credit where it’s due’ Allen conceded ‘Welles did come up with the “Cuckoo clock” line’.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned, I thought in the cinema, as the moderator continued to badger Allen with questions about Welles was that Welles was the most skilled at making the picture about himself. Funnily enough, Touch of Evil was playing in the screen next door to us. And Picturehouse are screening Citizen Kane next month. I guess Welles was right with his prophecy ‘They’ll love me when I’m dead.’

Watching The Third Man last night I was struck by how many times you can revisit this film and always take something new from it. The spectre of Harry Lime dominates proceedings, but Bernard Lee is also astonishingly good as the bookish and dutiful Sergeant Paine. Wilfred Hyde-White is a comic delight as the put-upon bureaucrat Crabbin. Trevor Howard appears callous at first, but gradually he reveals the humanity driving his relentless quest to capture Lime. And let’s not forget the haunting love-story that is doomed before it starts between Anna and Martins, beautifully portrayed by Alida Valli and Joseph Cotton.

Seventy years from now, audiences will still be drawn to The Third Man.

 

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