gangsters and hard cases

Film Noir and what’s left out.



Narrow Margin, 1990, USA, Director Peter Hyams


Because you are here, I had the DA’s office send me the Leo Watts file.  I have to return it tomorrow.  If my old firm is letting an old retired DA take out files, I could not have been so bad, you think?  Not that I expect to ever convince Rob Caulfield of my merit.  That last year he worked as Deputy DA, Rob spent most of it believing I was on the payroll of Leo Watts.  I was the Chief District Attorney.  A man in my position expects some loyalty.  I told him, ‘Rob, you watch too many movies.’  Dahlbeck was the lawyer that Leo Watts had in his pocket.  You’ve guessed it.  I can see by the look on your face.  Rob rang Dahlbeck and urged him not to say anything to me about Leo Watts.  I can understand why Rob didn’t suspect Dahlbeck.  I see no shame in being serious about a career, and Dahlbeck was a clean cut and enthusiastic career man, so we thought.  It turned out that Dahlbeck was even more ambitious than we realised.  

I’d like to say that after the success with the Leo Watts case the relationship I had with Rob Caulfield improved and we became friends.  But Rob was not the type to eat humble pie and I am not the best at accepting apologies.   Rob thought the case against Leo Watts was open and shut because he had Carol Hunnicut as a witness to Leo killing Michael Tarlow.   I understood we had enough to proceed but I told Rob not to make any assumptions about what might happen.  For a while in court it was touch and go.  Hunnicut wobbled a little when the defence attorney put on the pressure but fortunately for us the woman was classy and gorgeous.  The jury was hard headed enough to convict a known criminal but not so unforgiving that they were not impressed by Hunnicut.  She was lovely although she was not pleased when I suggested we have someone advise her what to wear in court.  Rob loved seeing Hunnicut take me down a peg.


We are both old men now and no doubt he has mellowed as much as I have but sensibly we keep our distance.  I did, though, attend his book launch but I was the only one from the DA’s office, and that says something.  I may not have liked Rob Caulfield but I was pleased for the man.  Of course, Rob reckoned I was only there because of my responsibilities as Chief District Attorney, that me being there had nothing to do with friendship.  Rob was half right.  I had no affection and my respect, although it existed, was muted by too many bruises.  Carol Hunnicut was at the book launch.  She worked in publishing and helped Rob with the book.  Hunnicut and Rob stayed friendly after the Leo Watts case.  He saved her life which I suppose always helps, and she gave him a triumph with which he could end his legal career.  Note my words.  Rob Caulfield wanted more than earning a living and having a career.  He wanted to triumph.  Being victorious was how Rob Caulfield defined success.  In our work that adolescent attitude can provide the occasional benefit but, believe me, over time it becomes wearing.  I know Rob was fond of the son of Carol Hunnicut.  But Rob Caulfield and Hunnicut were close friends and nothing more.  

Rob was always more friendly with the LAPD detectives than the other attorneys.  Rob had been a marine in Vietnam and whatever he left of himself over there in that disaster it was not his need to be a hero.  That persisted.  Wherever Rob had worked after his Army stint he would have walked around believing his job was the most difficult and most important, the most demanding in the organisation.  You know this kind of man, I am sure.  Every workplace has one.  Rob Caulfield wore his integrity on his sleeve, and most of us found it a little wearing.   He retired as Deputy District Attorney and, of course, everybody would ask me why because Rob had been top in his class at law school and in the marines he had earned enough medals to be considered a leader of men.  Well, taking men into battle and keeping lawyers motivated through the daily drudge of one criminal case after another with not much in the way of returns are not quite the same. 


Rob Caulfield resented my authority and that meant he disliked me.  But he was happy to see me at the book launch.  We had some memories, I suppose.  His enmity had nothing to do with the colour of my skin.  If it had, I would not have been at his book launch.  Our mutual antagonism was between equals.  I forgot, I was saying.  Rob was more friendly with the LAPD detectives than the other attorneys.  After he retired, Rob needed an interest, and a few detectives and Rob used to meet every other Friday and talk about the old times.  They had a back room in some restaurant, where they ate, drank and talked.  Mere chat, though, was not enough for hero Rob Caulfield.  He was a fit sixty year old when he retired, and his nature was such that he would struggle to settle into old age.  Rob kept in touch with Hunnicut but there were seventeen years between them and Rob was not handsome.  I heard, though, that some women liked him because he was big, healthy and fit. He also had this young man’s smile that he would use to get his way.  The smile would appeal to a woman but, personally, I expect more than mechanical self-effacing innocence from my colleagues.  

Rob had no real family.  The detectives at the back of the restaurant were the same as Rob, lonely men disconnected from the families they had half started.   Meeting once a fortnight with men like themselves to talk, eat good food and leave drunk was all they had.  I was saying.  I forgot again.   Mere chat was not enough for hero Rob Caulfield.  He suggested that rather than merely remember old times they should work their way through the unsolved cases.  And this is what they did.  They didn’t switch their after dinner conversation just like that.  Early on they began talking about the Los Angeles cases that had failed in court.  This would have appealed to Rob because it would have allowed him to complain about me and what happened in my office.  


At some point failed court cases led to talk about unsolved mysteries.  Maybe the other detectives were bored of listening to Rob gripe about me.   All the unsolved crimes they discussed were from Los Angeles and, inevitably, one dominated the rest.   No, I am not even going to let you guess.  Rob Caulfield is not the only person to write a book about the murder of Elizabeth Short but, credit where it is due, he was one of the first.  The detectives from the back room of the restaurant helped him with the research, and Rob knew how to challenge assumptions made by policemen.  He should have.  I spent enough time showing him how.  Carol Hunnicut helped with the book.  I already knew from his legal work that Rob Caulfield was a capable writer.  Carol found the publishing company and the market.  The book was not a flop but no big hit either.   

I heard Rob talking about the book on a couple of radio interviews.  It didn’t earn him enough money to change how he lived in retirement but that wouldn’t have bothered Rob Caulfield.  What he needed was more important than what money buys.  Rob named the murderer or at least the man that Rob thought killed Elizabeth Short.  A few suspects have been named over the years.  Rob chose Dr George Hill Hodel.  It is possible.  Right now Hodel is the popular choice.  As a DA, you survive by not being particular about convictions, what is important is nailing the criminal for something.  Dr George Hill Hodel may not have killed Elizabeth Short but there are too many accusations about his misdemeanours for him to not have killed someone.  If people believe he killed Elizabeth Short, he cannot complain.  Dr George Hill Hodel was a bad man.  A couple of relatives attended the book launch.  I expected trouble but they were fine.  Hodel may not be the Black Dahlia killer but he was twisted.  His family realised that, like I said, whatever the accusations Dr George Hill Hodel could have no complaints.


I certainly give credit to Rob for what happened on that train with Carol.  The man saved her life.  We found the bodies of the two men on the train who were trying to kill Hunnicut.  Somehow Rob fought them off.  It is not impossible.  Rob was a big healthy man who understood combat.  The railway security guard paid with his life for what happened, so he must have done something to help.  Do I believe that Rob fought to the death with a hit woman on top of a train while demure Carol Hunnicut was at his side hanging on to the roof?  Come on.  The body of the supposed hit woman was never discovered although in the Rockies it could be anywhere.  We could give Rob Caulfield the benefit of the doubt but, if people had, there wouldn’t have been just me from the DA’s office at his book launch.  Rob liked to be the hero.  What I didn’t realise until he told me the tale about Carol Hunnicut, and he never told it the same way twice, was how much.  

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.



Devil In A Blue Dress, 1995, USA, Director Carl Franklin



Frank Green was not a bad man, no, I wouldn’t say so.  No, sir.  He was a thief, that’s all.  And, as far as I recall, no one said no thanks, Frank, to the booze he looted and sold cheap.  Frank learnt robbing on the streets when he was a kid.  The brother didn’t know any other way to get by.  And on the streets is where Frank learnt to use the knife, and, like robbing, poor Frank knew nothing else, which must be the reason he never carried no shooter.  I remember big Frank was no looker, and in his business, looking the way he did, it helped him get by.  No one wanted to argue with big Frank which no doubt was why Frank believed he could get by just carrying the knife.  Well, he didn’t.  He was shot in the back in an alley over there in New Orleans.  Folks say he should never have left LA and that if he’d stayed in his home in Watts then Frank The Knife Green would be alive today.  No way, man.  A gun in a dark alley was waiting for Frank all his life.  The back of Frank was broad on account of his shoulders but when you have enemies out to get you there is nothing as big and wide as a waiting back.  I one time saw that movie about Jesse James.  I don’t normally think too much about white folks and all that stuff that is supposed to make them suffer but the way that coward Bob Ford killed Jesse James in the back didn’t seem right to me, so when I heard about what happened to Frank Green I was kind of sad.


The guy who killed old Frank died not long after.  Frank’s killer was a white guy and he wasn’t much.  We expected the killing would be something to do with the work Frank had, but no, this white guy said he did it for love.  Woah, you’re ahead of me.  Frank wasn’t that kind of man.  He liked broads as much as the next guy.  And he wasn’t discriminating about his ladies from what I saw but when you look like Frank that is maybe the way it has to be.  No, this white guy loved Frank’s sister.   Daphne was a looker, black eyes as big as planets.  Frank and Daphne were close, so we heard after they left LA.  This was bad news for this white guy who wasn’t much.  Frank was not just protective, he was no way partial to white guys who didn’t amount to much.  Just let me remember some of this stuff.  Frank chased this white guy away from Daphne and, because Frank had a way with a knife, this white guy didn’t look like he did before he was chased.  I don’t think there were many scars but no one meeting this white guy would miss them.  You get the idea, I reckon.  

Why wasn’t Frank so partial?  The white guy was a horn player on Bourbon Street, I heard, and he, well, you know how those jazz blowers like to relax.  This one did, anyway, and Frank heard that this horn player liked company when he stepped outside, you know what I mean?  Frank had seen what his booze did to people.  He didn’t want his sister to be a dope head.  You can’t blame a man for that. 


Frank and his sister had a secret, a big one.  We all know now but back then in LA no one had any idea unless you count Coretta who was a friend of Daphne.   Coretta was a real humdinger lady.  Gorgeous and friendly, and if they ain’t friendly it don’t matter what they look like.  All the time Frank was in LA, I knew his sister as Daphne but it turned out that Daphne was a Ruby as in that was her name and not because she was no diamond.  Her real name was Ruby Monet, and her and Frank came from somewhere in Louisiana.  And in case you think it’s slipped my mind, it ain’t, this is the secret Frank and Ruby had.  They were brother and sister but all the time they were in LA no one knew because they kept it hid.  And how were we going to go figure?  A slim pretty white girl is sister to big ugly brother Frank The Knife Green.  Maybe Frank wasn’t so ugly but he sure looked nothing like his little sister, little half sister I should say.   Frank and Daphne, I still think of her that way, they had the same Creole mother but different fathers.  From what I heard about what happened between Daphne and her pa it might have been better if Daphne had been the daughter of Frank’s old man.  But when just born baby Daphne said why hello to Louisiana there was no black husband in that family.  The Creole mama had opened another honey jar.  If Frank’s father had hung around then Daphne would have been black and who knows what would have happened to the lady.  Daphne could have been the one taking the bullet in the back like brother Frank.  Of course it could have all been different, and with a mother that was white without any Creole in the mix then little Daphne might have said well hello to somewhere a whole lot different than a shack in old Louisiana.

You get to my age, man, and you think about these things.  Why we live the lives we do.   My mother, rest in peace, used to say the good Lord decides but I don’t go with that because if he did and he was a true Lord like Ma said then he wouldn’t have come up with the idea of white folks.  My woman back home says the Lord just had a bad day on that particular occasion but you could say the same thing about coward Bob Ford and nobody forgives him.  If someone knows what happened to Daphne after the trumpet player met his maker, they sure ain’t told me.  It wasn’t like the killing of Frank was in all the LA papers.  I know what I know from folks talking.  You hear things from folks, but some things you don’t hear.  Well, you can’t hear everything.  As my dear mother, rest in peace, used to say, there ain’t enough hours in the day to know what happens to folks.  People pass you by in this life.  I was told that Daphne had earned a living working with the guys Frank knew.  She didn’t mind black folks, which is no surprise considering how she was fixed with relatives, so she could have, I figure.  Maybe she was good with the books and records and did something like that.  From what I heard Frank was no bookkeeper.



Yes, sir, I know Easy Rawlins.  I can’t say I ever took to the man.   Easy was an angles man, and it was hard to relax when he was around.  But he stuck by his friend Mouse who was definitely no knife man because he shot too many people, so I’ll give Easy credit for that.  It took him a few years but Easy got his detective licence.  I know the police liked the work Easy did to stop the man that was killing the black girls.  No Black Dahlia killer roaming these streets, all thanks to Easy.  No, sir, Easy had it figured.  And I can’t say Easy wasn’t straight with me because he was.   Easy always told you up front what he was going to do next.  What Easy did wasn’t wrong but I just didn’t like the way he was always figuring the angles.  The guy had property, and I don’t blame him for wanting to own his house and live in a suburb just like white folks but when he bought buildings and then rented them out to black families I didn’t feel the same about old Easy.  And I don’t care what rent he charged.  Easy didn’t turn away from his own but he had to have more than the rest of us.  I heard he was good with children, and his two kids did just fine although none of the ladies in the life of Easy Rawlins stayed around for long.  Easy adopted a daughter, which a lot of men wouldn’t, but just like white folks he had to send her to some stuck up private school.  So it was no surprise to hear that something loving happened between Easy and Daphne.  He was always watching how white folks lived.  The joke is that the next of kin to Daphne was as black as me.


Okay, Easy may have done right with his kind, and more than once, but I just didn’t like him wanting what he wanted.  You understand me?  I’ll talk true.  When I heard that Frank The Knife had been ready to slice the throat of Easy and would have done just that if Mouse hadn’t put a pistol to the head of Frank, well, I imagined Frank and Easy without Mouse in the room.  Inside my head I saw Easy dead on the floor just like Jesse James after coward Rob Ford did what he did.  I think to myself, if that had happened, would I be heartbroken.  No, sir, I don’t reckon I would.   

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.