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A James Ellroy Playlist: The Beat Poets

June 14, 2022

James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is set predominantly in the 1950s and the influence of jazz and film noir on Ellroy’s narratives is fitting given the cultural trends of the decade. But just as the 1950s was the apex of the film noir age, many other genres and art forms were thriving. The Western, Musical, Swashbuckler and Biblical epic all enjoyed their heyday during the 50s.

In this article I am going to explore a lesser-known cultural influences on Ellroy’s work – beat poetry. The Beat movement was peaking during Ellroy’s childhood and had an inevitable impact on him.

High School Drag

Given Ellroy’s conservative views, it’s not surprising that even as a child he associated Beat Poetry with the derogatory term Beatnik. The Beatnik was a media stereotype which portrayed the Beat Generation as a motley crew of drug addicts, criminals and hilariously pretentious artists.

High School Confidential was the first film Ellroy saw at the cinema after the murder of his mother – Jean Ellroy. It’s not surprising, given the timing, that it had a profound effect on the young Ellroy. Produced by legendary schlockmeister Albert Zugsmith, the film is nominally a crime story. A police officer poses as a student to go undercover in a high school and bust a narcotics ring run by the enigmatic ‘Mr A’. However, the film is too consistently outrageous for the crime narrative to be taken seriously, as it perpetuates stereotypes about beatnik culture. All of the students speak in jive and several are portrayed as sex-obsessed, while Zugsmith takes great pleasure in rubbing the audiences’ face in smutty content. Please don’t take this as overly critical. High School Confidential is a riot from start to finish, partly as it can’t help being a little fond of the subculture it is ‘warning’ against.

Ellroy was quite taken by the attractive actress Phillipa Fallon, whose reading of the beat poem ‘High School Drag’ is the highlight of the film. Do you see elements of Ellroy’s bookstore performances in this jive kats?

Vampira and The Beat Generation

Zugsmith followed High School Confidential with The Beat Generation. Once again, it’s a crime film drowning in beatnik satire. The basic premise is chilling. Ray Danton plays Stan Hess, aka ‘The Aspirin Kid’. Hess is a rapist who worms his way into women’s homes while their husbands are away. Charming and handsome, Hess knocks at the door claiming that he owes the woman’s husband money. Once inside, he feigns a headache and pulls out a tin of aspirin. While the woman is distracted getting a glass of water for him, Hess sneaks up from behind, assaults and rapes the woman.

Although he doesn’t murder his victims, Hess could be modelled on the serial killer Harvey Glatman. Known as the ‘Glamour Girls Slayer’, Glatman selected his victims by contacting aspiring models with offers of work. While in prison, Glatman was interviewed by detectives in connection with Jean Ellroy’s murder. As if the film couldn’t get more Ellrovian, Dick Contino performs a song at the climactic ‘Beat Hootenanny’, wherein Hess and Detective Culloran (Steve Cochran) fight it out amid a group of enraptured beatniks, who happily sing and dance and are completely oblivious to the duel unfolding before their eyes.

The Beat Generation features an actress who is referenced in Ellroy’s White Jazz. Maila Nurmi was a Finnish-American actress better known as Vampira, a character she created as the host of The Vampira Show. Part Two of White Jazz is titled ‘Vampira’, although reference to the character is quite brief. Dave Klein spots the portrait of ‘a ghoul woman’ on the shelf of Glenda Bledsoe, an actress he is keeping under surveillance for Howard Hughes. Glenda says of Vampira:

She’s the hostess of an awful horror TV show. I used to carhop her, and she gave me some pointers on how to act in your own movie when you’re in someone else’s movie.

The mention of Vampira must be something of a turn-on, as Klein struggles to hide his attraction for Glenda when she is describing the horror host: ‘Shaky hands – I wanted to touch her.’ Billed as Vampira, the alluring Maila Nurmi appears in The Beat Generation as ‘The Poetess’. She recites a beat poem, not dissimilar to ‘High School Drag’, with a cigarette in her hand and a white rodent on her shoulder. Although the poem is typically hilarious, the scene is quite chilling. Detective Culloran is watching The Poetess, and her recitation is interspersed with clips of Hess who is at that moment using his usual routine to enter Culloran’s house:

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is available for pre-order from Bloomsbury.

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