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711 Ocean Drive, USA 1950

Posted by keith1942 on May 20, 2018

I saw this film for the first time in the ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ at the Library of Congress. This is a small viewing room/cinema on the Third Floor of the Madison Memorial Building in Washington DC. James Madison was a ‘founding father’ and the 4th President of the United States. The building was erected in 1976 and is in the neo-classical style common on the National Mall. As you enter under imposing columns you pass engraved quotations by the President. The ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ is small, only seating 64 people. However it is fine for viewing though the rake is shallow. It has both digital and 35mm projection. This cinema was partly funded by a bequest by Mary Pickford herself. There are regular screenings of both film and television material held in the Library of Congress archives. I was fortunate on this occasion as this cycle of classic films is held only once  a month. Other recent screenings have included films directed by Robert Aldrich [Autumn Leaves, 1956], Lloyd Bacon [In Caliente, 1935], Jerry Lewis [The Ladies Man, 1961].

On this occasion we watched a 35mm print in good condition. It was copied by the Library in 1990 from a nitrate print held in the American Film Institute collection. The projection, including sound, was good. And whilst we waited, [doors opened at 6.30 for a 7.00 p.m. start] there were a series of PDF pages projected on the screen detailing the production company and the careers of the director and stars. In addition we had an introduction providing background on the making of the film.

It was produced by Frank N. Seltzer, an independent; a common feature in the period when the studios were declining. Like other independents Seltzer relied on a major company for distribution, in this case Columbia. Seltzer was also one of the producers of a script by Dalton Trumbo during the blacklist period, The Boss (1956).

711 Ocean Drive was notable for another reason, attempts by organised crime to stop the film. The plot-line involved organised crime operating in the illegal gambling. The law restricted gambling  in the case of horse racing to the race track. Illicit bookies operated in cities dependent on information provided by a wire service. This was similar in some ways to the ‘numbers racket’ which featured in a number of Hollywood films, notably Force of Evil (1948). In many cases this also involved organised crime syndicates. In the case of 711 Ocean Drive threats were made against the production. For one climatic scene it is possible that shots were fired at the cast. Certainly an attempt to film scenes in a Las Vegas location had to be halted due to intimidation. The producer appeared before the Kefauver Commission, a 1950  Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. The film had an introductory title page on-screen,

“Because of the disclosures made in this film, powerful underworld interests tried to halt production with threats of violence and reprisal. It was only through the armed protection provided by members of the Police Department in the locales where the picture was filmed, that this story was able to reach the screen. To these men, and to the U.S. Rangers at Boulder Dam, we are deeply grateful.”

Edmund O’Brien as Mal

The film is introduced by a voice-over, not the protagonist but a policeman, Lieutenant Pete Wright [Howard St. John]. He introduces us to the crime problem and the major criminal, Mal Granger (Edmund O’Brien]. Effectively the rest of the film is a flashback charting Mal’s criminal career. At the start of the film he is a telephone repair man who indulges in a gambling. His regular bookie, Chippie (Sammy White) notes his skills and ambition and introduces him to the Vince Walters (Barry Kelley) who runs a gambling network in Los Angles and California,. Walker’s gambling network uses a legal wire service to provide information illegally to bookies, also working illegally. May, skilled and intelligent, adapts new technology to Walter’s system and increases his turn-over and profits. Mal is affable but also ambitious; and as the plot develops it becomes apparent that he is also ruthless in pursuit of wealth and women. On joining Walters Mal dumps his current girlfriend and takes up with one of Walters’ staff, Trudi (Dorothy Patrick). Later he dumps Trudi when he meets Gail Mason (Joanne Dru). Equally ruthless is his response when Walters is shot by an embittered ex-bookie: he takes over the network and ups the charges made to his clients. But Mal’s success brings him to the attention of a larger East Coast operation headed by Carl Stevens (Otto Kruger). Stevens is smart and debonair and leaves the violence underlying the syndicate’s control to henchman.

His assistant is Larry Mason (Don Porter) who is married to Gail. Gail is used as part of an entrapment, a trope repeated in the later Heist (2001). But Mal and Gail fall in love, or at least develop a consuming passion. Mal does join the East Coast syndicate but discovers his take is not what he expected. ‘Killing two birds with one stone’ he arranges for Larry to be murdered by a paid assassin, Gizzi (Robert Osterloh). He then uses his technical know-how to construct an alibi. But this breaks down and he becomes the target of both police and gangsters.

Larry and Gail

The climax of the film is at the Boulder Dam [actually the Hoover Dam] sited on the border between California and Arizona. Mal believes if he crosses the state line he will be out of police jurisdiction. The couple attempt to flee over the dam and then down into the inner working, pass great turbines and up and down winding corridors and stairwells. This is exciting stuff and really well done. Predictably, in a film adhering to official moral codes, Mal is fated.

The film is a well executed Hollywood crime thriller. Some sources describe it as a film noir but, as the Introduction pointed out, it is actually a ‘crime syndicate film’. This is an early example of the cycle which includes a film like Underworld USA (1961). This film does have a fated protagonist, but the voice-over is not confessional, the flashback is just one narration, there is little in the way of chiaroscuro and there is not a fully formed femme fatale. It does have the organised crime syndicate, the rise and fall of a criminal, and an interesting focus on the role of modern technology.

The film is dominated by the performance of Edmund O’Brien as Mal. This is a bravura characterisation as we watch him develop from an apparently easy-going and affable guy to a ruthless crime boss. The passion that develops between him and Gail seems unlikely given their preceding behaviour, but both make it convincing. Otto Krueger is also very good as the slick syndicate boss. The police are not that developed in the script which rather undermines the moral project of the film: as so often is the case criminals seem more interesting.

The film’s style is conventional but well executed. There is a lot of location work, a development in Hollywood productions in this period. These include both Los Angeles [including Sunset Boulevard] and [briefly] Las Vegas; a baseball stadium and Malibu where Mal gets himself an up-market apartment. Apparently this address, number 711 in Ocean Drive, gives the film its title but I do not remember seeing the actual address in the film. Franz Planer’s cinematography and Bert Jordan’s editing are both excellent. The long sequence at the dam has a developing rhythm and some fine shots both above and inside the dam. The music by Sol Kaplan seems fine though I found it obtrusive at time but conventions have changed since the 1950s.

So this was an enjoyable evening with a rare treat in visiting the Library’s cinema. If you are in Washington be sure to check the programme and visit if you can.

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One Response to “711 Ocean Drive, USA 1950”

  1. […] building. I was fortunate that this was in a week in which one of the archive prints was screened, 711 Ocean Drive (1951). t is a delightful but small cinema on the third floor. And, as is usually the case, we […]

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