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Of the 'new wave' of period gangster films that proliferated in the years 1959 - 1961 or so, Budd Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond takes the prize for artistry. Gangland biographies of Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Abe Reles and Mad Dog Coll stuck to the Untouchables formula of 'just the facts' realism enforced by authoritative voiceovers. Fresh from a decade of westerns and bullfighting classics, director Boetticher instead embraces the power and the glamour of Jack "Legs" Diamond, while only lightly touching on the facts. Diamond was known as a slick dancer, although his "Legs" nickname may have been earned from his many escapes from assassination attempts. The guy was shot numerous times, but always seemed to survive; the script by Joseph Landon gives Legs the idea that he's bulletproof, an underworld MacBeth. A leading man who never found stardom, star Ray Danton makes a superb Legs Diamond: slick, handsome and deadly.
Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) comes to New York with his sickly brother Eddie (Warren Oates) and immediately tries his hand at thievery. Using dance instructor Alice Scott (Karen Steele) as cover, Jack robs a jewelry store, but goes to prison. He sweet-talks Alice into helping him when he gets out, and returns to her whenever he's in a jam. Using a clever ruse to meet the underworld kingpin Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery), Jack almost dies in an ambush led by rival mobsters, but recovers. He trains in firearms and dispatches his would-be killers in a brazen exhibition of two-gun shooting. Now called Legs, Diamond is hired as Rothstein's bodyguard and immediately seduces his boss's flashy moll Monica Drake (Elaine Stewart). He's caught in the act just as somebody else kills Rothstein. Legs wages a terror campaign against the other mob bosses, a bloodbath that ends with their surrender to his authority -- Legs out-guns every hood sent against him. But on vacation in Europe with his new wife Alice, Legs sees newsreels reporting that the end of prohibition has jailed all of his old cronies. He returns to the Big Apple to find his Hotsy-Totsy Club taken over by a new organized crime syndicate that has no use for an old-style protection hoodlum.
Writer Joseph Landon and director Boetticher must have analyzed the classic gangland pictures of the thirties, for The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is a narrative juggernaut that rushes from one scene to the next, taking its time only for brief, highly effective character touches. Smart-guy Diamond swears that he'll never go to jail, an oath immediately contradicted by a hard cut to the interior of a prison. Legs makes dashing entrances and takes the time to impress people who can do him good, but he's a complete heel when he thinks that his girlfriend Alice's usefulness is at an end. The script also drops the usual psychology about character influences. Forget about Diamond's slum background or the early death of his mother. Breathless surprise trumps suspense almost every time. Diamond apparently takes months to recover from gunshot wounds, and then train himself "with every kind of firearm there is." On screen, the process takes about two minutes, and is capped by a payoff double killing that must have brought hoots of approval from young audiences.
Danton's Diamond is a complete heel. He picks up Alice by taking a dancing lesson from her, as in a classic Astaire/Rogers musical. He uses her as a patsy-alibi for his jewel heist, and later marries her to dodge a murder rap: she can't testify against him. Simon Oakland plays Legs' main police foe, a bloodhound continually foiled in his attempts to rein him in. Diamond double-crosses Monica Drake so thoroughly that she makes a point of coming back later for sweet revenge. In a rather daring narrative move, Monica apparently sleeps with Legs first, to get him to lower his defenses. Gangster fans like to root for the bad men, but Diamond cuts those ties when he abandons his own brother to a homeless death. Legs had been ambushed twice when the bad guys got to him through Eddie, so the brother has to go.
Producer Milton Sperling gives director Boetticher just enough resources to tell this story, which must have a change of setting every sixty seconds. The Warner lot street sets look familiar but plenty of period cars line the curbs and the screen never seems under-populated. Boetticher has us paying too much attention to Diamond's underhanded schemes to worry about such trifles. Popping up unexpectedly to wipe out his foes, the killer's skill equals that of most of the secret agents that would soon dominate movie screens. Budd Boetticher's stylish direction has a lot in common with Jack Diamond's fancy footwork on the dance floor -- this gangster show easily out-classes efforts by the likes of directors Richard Wilson, Burt Balaban, etc.
Just like the classic Warner originals, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond packs a fun collection of personalities. Danton's Legs is a charming snake and Steele's Alice a sexily innocent cutie pie. Lowery's Rothstein lacks a sense of humor while Stewart's Monica Drake honestly believes she can control Legs with her sex appeal. Jesse White (Matinee) is entertainingly cynical as the mob boss Butcher Bremer, and grinning Sid Melton has a terrific bit as the laughing but luckless Little Augie. There's always some amusingly sullen thug to enjoy -- Boetticher favored hard-as-nails stunt actors like Buzz Henry, Roy Jenson and Carey Loftin. Future tough guy Warren Oates takes a back seat to all the violence, but in her first feature role young Dyan Cannon (Diane in the credits) is an amusingly flashy little tramp, named Dixie.
Legs Diamond's finish is similar to that of Nicholas Ray's Party Girl. The hero and heroine take a trip to Europe, which they seem to spend watching American newsreels with foreign narration but English inter-titles. Narratively speaking these scenes are a disaster, and give us time to notice how Karen Steele's costumes and hair belong in 1959, not 1933. Legs then returns to find his empire dissolved and his personal survival very much in question. History is simply treating Diamond the way he treated other people. We applaud The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond for not claiming that this flashy killer was anything more than a walking social disease.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is a clean, sharp enhanced widescreen Remastered Edition that really shows how handsome B&W features could be before they were crowded out by color shows. The superiority of this gangland mini-epic sends us looking to find out why Ray Danton didn't hit it big. He made a lot of TV appearances but in features was typed as sick villains, as in the proto- Psycho noir The Night Runner. Danton came back as Legs Diamond in the next year's Portrait of a Mobster and also played the leading role in The George Raft Story, opposite Mamie Van Doren. He tried European movies, but eventually began a prolific second career as a TV director. The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond remains Ray Danton's best-remembered film.
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T'was Ever Thus.