In 1957, Allied Artists released a low budget gangster film called, Al Capone, starring Rod Stieger. The film was an immediate hit raking in over one million dollars. Big bucks back then for a low-budget film. The film is notable for starting a new cycle of gangster films that included Pretty Boy Floyd with Leif Erickson, Machine Gun Kelly with Charles Bronson, The Purple Gang with Barry Sullivan and a young Robert Blake, King of the Roaring Twenties with David Jansen, Mad Dog Coll with John David Chandler and Vincent Gardenia, and Portrait of a Mobster with Vic Morrow. There was even a hit TV series, The Untouchables. Included in this blood shed of works was Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.
Boetticher’s film came out in 1960 and represents one of the better films from this short-lived cycle. Ray Danton stars as the flamboyant and brash Jack “Legs” Diamond who starts out as a petty thief and works his way up the criminal ladder eliminating anyone who stands in his path. In some ways, it’s a typical American success story. The film also starred Karen Steele, probably best remembered today for her roles in three of Boetticher’s westerns co-starring Randolph Scott. She also may be remembered as Ernest Borgnine’s sister -in-law in Marty. The cast also included Jesse White, Elaine Stewart, Simon Oakland and a young Warren Oates.
While the film claims to be a true representation of the life and times of Legs Diamond, there is plenty fiction spread around. We first meet Legs and his sickly brother, Eddie, Warren Oates in only his third film, as two small time thieves who quickly muscle their way into the big time mob scene in New York. Danton plays Diamond as a dark vicious power hungry sharpie that lets no one stand in his way, including his sick brother who he eventually abandons because of two incidents where he almost got him killed.
Legs, working for Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowry) quickly learns the ropes of the trade, including how to sleep with Arnie’s girlfriend, Monica (Elaine Stewart). When Rothstein, who is said to be responsible for fixing the 1918 World Series, finds out about this indiscretion, he retaliates by having Legs busted for drug smuggling. After Legs learns all he needs to know from his boss, Rothstein, the so called “King of the Roaring 20’s” is shot dead. Presumably by Diamond. The late Mr. Rothstein’s empire is split up. But the ever ambitious Legs decides it’s a good time to begin shaking down the remaining gang leaders, including Leo Bremer (Jessie White). He taking a 25% percent cut of their pie. Legs philosophy is take from thieves, they can’t go running to the police. If they didn’t like it, he killed them. In the process, Legs ego becomes so big, and because he survived several attempts on his life, he has developed a feeling of invincibility. “No one can kill me,” he says. Diamond by the way, was known as the Clay Pigeon for his ability to survive the several attempts on his life.
After arriving back in America from a trip to Europe with his wife, Alice (Karen Steele), Legs finds the world and the underworld has changed. There is now a syndicate of mob leaders from around the country, headed up by Lucky Luciano, who in this film is only known as The Chairman. The mob has organized. Legs, and his ego, are not impressed. He tells them that this is good for him, now he will only have to make one collection instead of going around collecting from each of them individually. First astonished at his voracity, they then laugh. Legs does not know it, but his days are getting short.
Boetticher keeps the film going at a nice swift pace, and Danton’s performance is entertaining. He portrays Diamond as a man with ice-cold ambition, smart, charming and always well dressed. Similar to Craig Stevens character in Buchanan Rides Alone, both men seem to have the assets that could have made them successful in the honest world, yet both chose to be corrupt. The character of Leo Bremer I believe, is supposed to be a fictionalized version of Dutch Schultz. This is due to the line he utters, “Ain’t there nobody who can shoot this guy dead, so he don’t bounce back?” Allegedly, the Dutchman said this in real life. Look for a young Dyan Cannon making her film debut as Dixie, and Simon Oakwood as the Lieutenant who is constantly on Diamond’s trail.
As mentioned earlier, Warren Oates role as Legs brother Eddie was a small. At this point in his career, Oates was appearing mostly TV series, westerns like Buckskin, Wagon Train and Trackdown. Oates once said about this time in his career, “There were forty [western] series, and I went from one to the other. I started out playing the third bad guy on a horse and worked my way up to the No. 1 bad guy.” (1)
In the film, Jack “Legs” Diamond is finally killed after his wife walks out on him. Drunk he calls up former girlfriend Monica telling her to come over. After making love to Diamond, she leaves him passed out on his bed, making sure to take his guns with her on the way out. In the street, she drops off the pistols with two hit men waiting in a car, who now make their way up to Diamond’s apartment. They shoot him dead. They continue to shoot enough times to make sure he stays dead this time. While this is fairly accurate as far as how the real Diamond was killed the shooting actually happened in a hotel in Albany, New York and not at his apartment in the city.
Boetticher is best remembered today, and deservedly so, for his fine low budget westerns with Randolph Scott, though he made plenty of films in other genres like The Killer is Loose. The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was part of a double bill, opening along with The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery in February 1960. It was generally met with good reviews. Since then, the film has remained somewhat in the background of Boetticher’s career. It was released on VHS years ago, however, it is yet to get a proper DVD release.
Jack “Legs” Diamond was the subject of William Kennedy’s novel Legs (part of his Albany series). In 1988, a Broadway musical called Legs, starring Peter Allen as Diamond, became one of the biggest flops in history of the musical theater. The musical opened on December 26th to horrendous reviews. The show’s life was a lot shorter than Diamond’s. It closed after 64 performances.
- Minden Press-Herald, April 5, 1982 pg. 8
This post is part of Journeys in Classic Film’s TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Here the link.