It's not a party until someone gets their brains blown out.
The above photo shows the murder scene of a mid-level gangster named Joseph “Little Joe” La Cava, and occurred in New York City on Mulberry Street at the Feast of San Gennaro today in 1939. We'll go out on a limb and say the festive atmosphere took a fatal hit too. Luckily, the celebration usually went for a week, so we suppose it was salvaged. La Cava was gunned down along with Rocco “Chickee” Fagio, who you see below. These images were made by Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, and are especially well known because the ever clever lensman angled himself to get a photo of Fagio ironically sprawled beneath a scungilli restaurant sign that says O Sole Mio!—which means “my sun,” after the famous Neapolitan song. He used the same trick when shooting other murders, because hey, if it works, just roll with it. Also interesting, cops being cops, the flatfoot closest to La Cava looks incongruously jocular as he chats with a higher-up. If this wasn't the most unforgettable Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy's history it had to be close.
He was bound to get burned.
Just in case you haven't had any gruesomeness in your week, above you see mobster Irving Feinstein after he was burned by Murder, Inc. today in 1939. What do you have to do to meet this fate? Feinstein tried to horn in on territory that wasn't his, but that wasn't why he was torched. His error was in trying to stay alive. Feinstein was in the process of being repeatedly ice picked by hitman Harry Strauss, and bit Strauss's finger. Strauss and associates called a halt to the ice picking and instead bound Feinstein, his legs stretched backward and a rope running from ankles to neck. This killed him by the more protracted method of slow strangulation. Then afterwards, just for the hell of it, the killers transported the body to a vacant lot in Brooklyn and did what you see above. There's a lesson in this: don't bite the hand that bleeds you.
He's watching your every move.
Above is an Italian poster for the U.S. drama I, Mobster, a 1959 crime drama starring Steve Cochran that we discussed earlier this year. This promo is different from the U.S. version but still features lettering across Cochrane's eye—though the visual pun of having the actual letter “I” cross his eye is not achievable in Italian. But we still like this for its successful conveyance of mood, and we liked the movie enough to want to circle back to it. It's obscure, but pretty good. Plus it introduced us to Lita Milan.
Our recommendation is to never mess with the Mafia.
While we're on the subject of mobsters, this photo shows the grisly end of one Walter J. Sage. He ended up in this non-ideal condition after being stabbed more than thirty times, tied to a rock and a slot machine frame, and dumped in Swan Lake, located in Sullivan County, about eighty miles north of New York City. The slot machine aspect was ironic. Sage, a contract killer for the infamous Murder, Inc., also filled his hours by working for a mafia gang that ran a slot machine racket.
Unfortunately, he had a case of sticky fingers and his employers found out. Sage's colleagues took him for a ride north toward the Catskills, a trip they'd made many times. On this occasion they attacked him in the car, one man choking him and the other getting busy with an ice pick. Sage was no pushover. He managed to grab the car's steering wheel and run the vehicle into a ditch, but in the end he was overpowered, killed, hogtied, weighted, and dumped in the lake.
Some accounts claim he was in the water for two weeks, but a glance at the body disproves that. He was found four days later, today in 1937, which is when the photo was shot. It's amazing that a guy who was sent to kill people who had annoyed the mafia would himself annoy the mafia, but as the Dunning-Kruger effect teaches, some people suffer from a cognitive bias of illusory superiority. Or put another way, feeling smart doesn't mean you actually are. Sage could have benefitted from advice along those lines—but he probably wouldn't have listened anyway.
Mafia bigmouth's associates poke a few holes in his treasoning.
The peculiarly deflated figure you see above is George Rudnick, nicknamed Whitey, and with a handle like that you don't even have to see him dead to know he was a crime figure. He was also a stool pigeon, so one night his colleagues brought him along on a car theft caper, and after they boosted the wheels, they attacked him, choking him while stabbing him fifty or more times with an icepick. Some accounts say he was brutally hacked with a meat cleaver. We're inclined to think it was an icepick for the obvious reason that all his body parts seem intact, but in either case, you'd be deflated too after something like that. It happened today in 1937.
It took a few years, but two mafia footsoliders, Harry “Happy” Maione and Frank “The Dasher” Abbandando, both members of the infamous Murder, Inc., were arrested, indicted, and convicted for the killing. They appealed and were granted a new trial, but another guilty verdict sent the pair to a date with old sparky in Sing Sing Prison on February 19, 1942. If there's a lesson here, aside from don't hang with guys nicknamed Happy and Dasher unless they happen to work at the North Pole, it's probably to keep in mind how very, very picky the mafia is about employee loyalty.
Who can take a casino, walk in sight unseen, eliminate resistance, and collect up all the green? The candyleg. Oh, the candyleg can.
We just finished our second Ovid Demaris novel. The man could write, and his plot set-ups are compelling too. His 1961 mafia thriller Candyleg, also published as Machine Gun McCain, tells the story of McCain, an Alcatraz lifer, who's unexpectedly paroled and told it's so he can mastermind a Las Vegas casino robbery. Jack Falcon, the young and ambitious boss of the western states, wants the casino robbed because it's run by someone he dislikes. McCain is willing, plus he owes a debt for his release, but he soon learns that there are tricky crosscurrents.
Falcon has no doubt McCain can and will rob the casino, but knowing McCain is too independent to share information, Falcon commands his girlfriend Irene to keep McCain close—as in between the sheets—and report back everything going on. McCain, by the way, is Falcon's father. Why do they have different last names? Daddy issues. In any case, he's sending his girlfriend to lay his dad in order to pry info loose about the heist to relay back. It's precarious, family-wise, but high stakes require extraordinary efforts. Falcon needs the best for the heist, and his dad is the best.
Unfortunately, the controlling interests in the casino, who are all headquartered back east, catch vague wind of something related to their valuable and 100% legal investment, and one of their top bosses comes to town to impress upon Falcon that there can be no turbulence of any sort in Vegas—on pain of death. Absolutely, says Falcon, even as he's sweating the fact that McCain, who wants one big score followed by retirement in South America, has gone off-grid and is unreachable. Falcon is counting on Irene to keep in contact, but will she? She doesn't like her boyfriend nearly as much as she likes his dad.
We recommend this thriller. It has interesting characters, a lean but involving plot, good action, good movement, and a lot of moral ambiguity. In the crime fiction genre, Demaris is top notch. At least so far. We'll see if he can keep his streak going. Oh, and what's a candyleg, by the way? It doesn't have anything to do with Irene, though you'd think so reading the front cover blurb. It means a soft touch, and Irene uses it to describe McCain at one point. It's an interesting term, but she's wrong. McCain isn't soft. He's as tough as they come, and so is Demaris's fiction.
Mafia gunmen make a mess of Masseria.
As artistic crime photos go, this shot of Giuseppe Masseria's corpse on the floor of Villa Tammaro, a seafood restaurant in Coney Island run by mobster Gerardo Scarpato, ranks highly. During the 1920s Masseria was the head of what later became known as the Genovese crime family. He was involved in a power struggle with another crime group run by Salvatore Maranzano, but at the same time there were tensions within Masseria's group because he was an old world, old school mobster who refused to work with non-Italians, and thus was leaving millions of dollars in criminal profits unclaimed. One of the young mafiosi in his clan who thought Masseria was an old-fashioned fool was Charles Luciano, aka Lucky Luciano. Tensions between Masseria and Luciano eventually devolved into open hostilities.
Masseria was a careful guy. He traveled in an armored sedan. But it's hard to take care of business from behind plate steel and bulletproof glass, so when Luciano invited him to a meeting at Villa Tammaro that promised to tamp down intra-clan tensions and refocus everyone on Salvatore Maranzano, the real enemy, he took the chance. He went to the restaurant, and the confab must have gone cordially up to a point, because Masseria, Luciano, and a couple of other men began playing cards. But at some point Luciano excused himself from the table and Masseria was gunned down by a fearsome foursome of Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, and Bugsy Siegel.
There were a few other skirmishes for control, but essentially, taking Masseria off the board was the beginning of the end of hostilities. One more old school kingpin had to go—Maranzano, who had been communicating secretly with Luciano and had offered a deal of peace in exchange for Masseria's death. Months later Luciano took care of him too. With Masseria and Maranzano gone, the new mafia was restructured, modernized, and began working with non-Italians. Many accounts of Masseria's killing say he died at dinner, and while that's technically true, the autopsy showed that he had eaten nothing. Maybe he was afraid of being poisoned. Though cards had been scattered around the room in the chaos, the ace of spades was probably placed in his hand by a photographer. That was today in 1931.
Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.
Above you see a U.S. promo poster for the crime drama I, Mobster, starring Steve Cochran in a rags-to-riches, innocence-to-corruption tale of a neighborhood kid who becomes a top man in the mob. The film was based on a 1951 novel of the same name published anonymously, but later identified as coming from the typewriter of Joseph Hilton Smyth, who also wrote Angels in the Gutter. The early plot driver is the mob's attempt to extort cash payments out of a powerful trade union. The plan is to offer services as “outside labor relations experts.” Cochran, as an ambitious footsoldier, expands the mob's vision, its areas of interest, and its profits. Pretty soon he's riding high, high, high. But it can't last. Of course not.
The film has the usual elements from this sub-genre: the round-the-way girl who offers redemption, the wailing mom who implores her son to go straight, the unimpressed father who eventually disowns him, the mob boss who's worried about his brash number two, and the ticking bomb—i.e. the seeds of destruction planted earlier. Here it's a little boy who knows Cochran killed a man. He grows up and becomes enfolded in the mob too, which places him in perfect position to blackmail Cochran. But Cochran is a tough cookie. It may take more than an ambitious twenty-something to bring him down, and it may be that the true seeds of destruction were planted earlier and elsewhere.
While the plot elements may be typical, the cast isn't. Cochran is a good, intense, underrated screen presence. Robert Strauss is perfect as Cochran's right hand man and steadying influence. The radiant Lili St. Cyr spices up the proceedings midway through with a burlesque routine. And the stunning Lita Milan is excellent as the good girl-turned-mob moll. In addition, the film is solidly directed. You often see I, Mobster, described as an early Roger Corman movie. Does a director's twentieth movie count as early? Corman knows what he's doing here. His road forked into the dark woods of schlock, but helming this production, with a low budget, he managed to squeeze out a solid b-mobster flick. There's nothing fresh in it, but with this cast freshness isn't needed. I, Mobster premiered today in 1959.
Don't play coy, baby. Would you rather be with a gangsta like me or some accountant from fuckin' donkeyville?
That's what I thought.
T-Men shows Uncle Sam's money men hard at work keeping the greenback safe.
As you know by now, film noir derived from several sources, one of them being the hard-boiled pulp fiction of the 1930s and ’40s, such as the aforementioned Kiss Me, Deadly. As the cycle rolled onward, filmmakers routinely mined crime fiction for movies, and it became common for a book to be purchased for adaptation immediately after it was published. It was a heyday for crime authors. T-Men, for which you see a cool poster above and another at bottom, was not adapted from a novel. It came from a story idea by Virginia Kellogg, the unheralded brain behind films such as White Heat and Caged.
T-Men is the narrated tale of two treasury agents who infiltrate the Detroit mafia to stem a wave of counterfeiting. Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder play the duo of undercovers, looking sharp in their tailored suits, as they climb the mob chain of authority pretending to be in the possession of flawless counterfeiting plates they're willing to sell. The two take numerous risks to get close to the unknown head of the mob, and find themselves in hot water more than once. The question quickly becomes whether they can catch the crooks and stay alive.
You get excellent noir iconography here, courtesy of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton. In fact, though the movie is good anyway, the main reason to watch it is because it's a clinic in genre visuals, filled with beautiful shots where light and darkness intersect in sharp angles or blend like mist. The movie also makes good use of locations tailor-made for shadowplay—the steam room, the deserted street, the nighttime amusement park, the swank supper club, the gambling den, the photographer's darkroom, the industrial maze. If you didn't know better you'd think the filmmakers chose the locations first, then built a movie around them.
For those reasons, T-Men is a mandatory entry for film noir buffs, however it isn't quite perfect. Though there are many surprises, aspects of it related to survivability are predictable, and the narration nestles right up against pro-government propaganda, particularly toward the end. Generally, we think most vintage films could have done fine without narration, but here it's actually needed, so you'll have to ignore the filmmakers intent to teach the audience a lesson. That shouldn't be too hard—T-Men is an almost perfect noirscape, a place to get lost in darkness and enjoy the ride. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1947.
She was one of the most watched people in the world—onscreen and off.
Whisper magazine, in this issue published this month in 1961, offers readers an interesting story about an unnamed millionaire's obsession with Ava Gardner. Apparently the millionaire hired people to follow Gardner around 24/7, all over the world, and report back to him, with this surveillance going on for years. The purpose? If he couldn't have her, he at least wanted to know what she was doing. Whisper focuses on a particular spy named Bill, the fourth of four spies employed by the millionaire, who Gardner came to be friends with and let live on her property, rather than have to sleep in his car night after night. Is this tale true? Maybe. Money buys a lot—including tolerance for bad behavior.
And speaking money, there's also a story on gangster Mickey Cohen, who counted among his consorts Liz Renay and Candy Barr, both of whom we've discussed, Renay here, and Barr here and here. Barr has also shown up in five magazines we've posted. The easiest way to see those is click her keywords and scroll. Cohen proves that no matter what people try to tell you, money is an aphrodisiac, because there's no way trolls like him could score beautiful dancers and models if it weren't for wealth. Take a look at the worst man in the world, and if he has money, he has a wife far more beautiful than makes sense.
Whisper goes on to talk about Burt Lancaster's and Charlie Chaplin's lovers, teen-age drunks, Soviet honeytraps, U.S. prisons, Jane Fonda's professional and family lives, and more. It was a Robert Harrison publication that morphed from a cheesecake magazine with painted pin-up covers into a gossip rag. That happened around 1954, when the original Whisper, launched in 1946, began going broke thanks to an inability to compete with girly magazine numero uno—Playboy. But there was plenty of room in the tabloid market and Harrison made Whisper a staple monthly on par with Confidential, his flagship publication. We'll have more from Whisper later, as always.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
1963—Warren Commission Formed
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However the long report that is finally issued does little to settle questions
about the assassination, and today surveys show that only a small minority of Americans agree with the Commission's conclusions.
1942—Nightclub Fire Kills Hundreds
In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire
in the fashionable Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people. Patrons were unable to escape when the fire began because the exits immediately became blocked with panicked people, and other possible exits were welded shut or boarded up. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country, and the club's owner, Barney Welansky, who had boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
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