Saturday, March 19, 2016

OVP: The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)

Film: The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)
Stars: Ray Danton, Karen Steele, Elaine Stewart, Jesse White, Warren Oates, Dyan Cannon
Director: Budd Boetticher
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

With the Oscar Viewing Project, I frequently find myself watching films that I didn't really expect to be seeing.  This of course means that I see a lot of stuffy dramas and dull comedies (sorry, but AMPAS occasionally has a type that doesn't match-up to me), but in the case of this particular film, it's truly a movie that I'd never have expected to see primarily because I'd never even heard of the film prior to when it popped up on the TCM 31 Days of Oscar recently.  With a cast of virtual unknowns (when Dyan Cannon in a bit part is your biggest headliner, you've got some obscure casting), and a formulaic plot that recalls in many ways a Twilight Zone episode (though without the show's ingenuity), the movie feels plucked from a different place and time, a B-movie that somehow ended up in Oscar's good graces.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Ray Dayton as legendary gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, a small-time crook trying to make it big, as he goes straight from being a petty thief to working his way up in the mob by (through moxie and circumstance) becoming the bodyguard for mob boss Arnold Rothstein.  Along the way, Legs seduces beautiful women and discards them just as easily, and slowly even eliminates from his life people that he cares about, particularly his brother Eddie (Oates) and his wife Alice (Steele).  The film progresses with Legs, like all men who rise too far to the top in the world of crime, eventually becoming too big for his britches and buying into his own legend, and after years of proving that he simply cannot be killed, ends up dying in a hotel room, alone and miserable.

I pointed out the film recalls a Twilight Zone episode in part because it does.  We have Legs Diamond, who wants nothing more than to be loved and respected, but also wants money and esteem after a life in the gutter.  He has two options to get them, one through the sweet-but-naive Alice, who loves the real Legs, and one through a life of crime where he can romance gorgeous women but has to essentially give up any sense of his humanity.  Because this is a movie, Legs ends up going through the latter option, and because this is a 60's B-Movie, he ends up never getting a proper chance at the former, ending up alone.  The Twilight Zone would have had him getting all these things from the devil, but that's a moot point.

The film honestly has little originality to lend to itself, except perhaps the angle of sex.  Since we are still in 1960 there's no nudity, but it's rare that I've seen a film this early that is this sexually-charged, particularly when it comes to Ray Danton's character.  While the film is quick to point out the beauty of Steele, Stewart, and Dyan Cannon in her film debut, they are also willing to show that Danton is exceedingly sexual, and this is one of the earliest films I've ever seen where a woman (in this case Stewart) gives in to her own sexual desires not for wealth or fame or love, but simply out of lust for Danton.  Women were so rarely given sexual desires in movies prior to this era and if they were it was always mixed with love rather than hormones, but this was the dawning of that era (look at Natalie Wood a year later in the far more mainstream Splendor in the Grass)-male beauty was becoming a real thing at the cinema, and you can see hints of a future sexual revolution in this picture.  This angle is actually quite interesting, and got me to switch the film from a thumbs down to a thumbs up, but keep in mind it's more curiosity than grand cinema.

The movie nabbed one nomination, for Costume, though part of me would have liked to have seen a nod for Cinematography as the movie has the feel of a picture from the 1940's, and in many ways it almost gives off the aura of a lost film, rather than one made fifteen years later (the graininess shows an artistic integrity I hadn't seen in a movie of this ilk before).  The costumes are gaudy and gorgeous, mob molls and sharply-tailored suits.  It's very stylish, and in many ways feels like it might have been plucked from the pages of a Look magazine spread than a film, as it seems strange that no one doesn't look immaculate in the picture.  Still, in many ways it recalls the gangster pictures of the 1930's, one of the earliest cases of Hollywood having nostalgia for itself at the Oscars, and it is surely distinctive, so well done on the citation, AMPAS.

Those are my thoughts on this obscure picture-what are yours (if you've seen it)?  Do you agree it feels like an odd citation for Oscar?  Do you have a favorite example of this era where lust for a man (rather than a woman) drove so much of the picture?  And what other films resemble a Twilight Zone episode? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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