Film Noir

Film criticism for movie fans who want to think again about their cine thrills.

GANGSTERS AND HARD CASES

40 HANK QUINLAN

Touch Of Evil, 1958, USA, Director Orson Welles

Damned right I blame Hank Quinlan for what happened down there in Los Robles but not as much as I once did.  Miguel had wanted me to get help from a psychiatrist or a counsellor or someone.  I said no thanks and that I’d beat the blues on my own, thank you.  But what happened down in Los Robles back in ‘56 still gives me nightmares.  I just don’t hate Hank Quinlan like I used to and I’ve learned to live with the nightmares.  I hate them all for what happened.  And when I say all I include me.  God it was awful.  The night Miguel and me arrived in Los Robles I was accosted by this Mexican hood.  He was a handsome guy, and I called him Pancho which I shouldn’t have, and he didn’t like.  But if I had my time to go over again, I would have called the punk something a lot worse.  And then I was dragged to see this tough guy clown called Joe Grandi.  I called him a stupid little pig which I definitely don’t regret even though he was murdered later.  

When I saw him the next night he was without the wig on his head and lying dead at the bottom of my bed in this fleapit hotel in the centre of Los Robles.  I didn’t feel anything but terrified.  I woke up in the dark and drowsy from all the sodium pentothal that Pancho and his charming friends had popped into me that afternoon.  I had been staying at the Mirador Motel which is out of town and in the desert somewhere.  But as soon as I was knocked out by the sodium pentothal they dragged me into the fleapit downtown where Grandi was killed by Quinlan.  I just wanted to get out of that fleapit fast.  Quinlan and Grandi had this plan to make me look like a dope head.  The one thing they agreed on was that Miguel and his testimony against the Grandi family had to be discredited.  And they went for what they thought was the weakest link, that is me.  After what happened down in Los Robles, I now travel north on my vacations.  It affected me which is why I talk too much when I meet people.  Thank you, you’re very sweet.  You can’t believe how proud I am of stopping smoking.  I did it all on my own.  By then there was no Miguel Vargas in my life.  That’s another story.  I haven’t smoked for some time.  

I had expected peace and quiet in the Mirador.  And I hate myself for that.  I had insisted that Miguel take me to a motel back on the American side of the border.  Miguel was annoyed, seeing as he was Mexican and working for the Mexican Government.  If only I’d have stayed in Los Robles.  At least I would have been close to Miguel, not out on my own somewhere.  Funny thing, Los Robles had a strip joint.  For a small town the place had some pretty girls.  Overdone ladies perhaps but pretty nevertheless. 

Grandi sent Pancho and his gang out to the Mirador and they assaulted and doped me.  I can’t describe how awful it was and if I could, I wouldn’t.  Once Pancho and his friends had me unconscious they dragged me back to Los Robles and dumped me in that terrible hotel.  Miguel was busy on this case he should have never been involved in.  Some local bigwig had been blown up in his car.  He had a young woman with him, and she was pretty too.

To be fair to the Mirador Motel at least the bed had clean sheets unlike the fleapit where Grandi was killed.  But then Norman Bates kept his motel clean, and look what happened there.  The man that ran the Mirador was creepy but he meant no harm.  What could he do against Pancho and his reprobates?  There were a couple of girls in the gang but they were as twisted as the guys.  Can you believe that?  Things have been said about the man who was in charge at the Mirador.  He wasn’t the type to take home to Ma and Pa but he didn’t act hysterical in the way people said.  People don’t have to be gangsters to be cruel.  He was creepy though.  He had a look of the actor that played Norman Bates in that film Psycho.  I had to walk out of the cinema halfway through.  A film about dark deeds in a motel brought back too many memories.

I was still with Miguel then.  Miguel didn’t make a fuss about me walking out of the cinema.  Miguel was like that, he liked to be protective.  He was a big man and a decent man which was why I married him.  I felt protected which was maybe why I felt so let down by him.  It wasn’t really his fault but if he hadn’t got involved doing the decent thing in Los Robles then none of it would have happened.  The truth is that his decency wore me down in the end.  He was always fighting a cause somewhere. See what I mean about blaming everyone and not just Hank Quinlan?  People don’t realise that I never met Hank Quinlan.  Maybe if I had, he alone would be my monster.  I heard all about him from Miguel and how Quinlan used to frame suspects.  But I also heard about how his wife had been strangled to death and that Quinlan was never the same after that.  He was some kind of man, I suppose.  

Once Miguel discovered the police corruption in Los Robles then Quinlan had to do something or felt he did.  Joe Grandi wanted to discredit Miguel before the trial of this other Grandi that was in prison.  And that was why Quinlan and Grandi hatched the plan for Pancho and his friends to fill me up with dope.  Miguel was a little vague when I asked him why did Quinlan kill Grandi.  Miguel could be like that, preoccupied.   Miguel said something about Hank Quinlan not wanting witnesses and Quinlan being off his head on booze and not being able to think straight.  Quinlan killed Joe Grandi in the fleapit while I was there out cold in the same room.  And with one of my stockings, would you believe.  That isn’t the kind of thing that makes you feel good about yourself, I can tell you.

Los Robles was a dump of a town.  The kind of scruffy place that looked less dangerous at night because you couldn’t see the dirt and rubbish quite so well.  But Miguel and me got a kick out of walking through the border crossing that first night.  It felt like being free.  That only lasted until the car exploded, and that was when Miguel got involved.  I blame him for that.  I blame myself for wanting to go to an American motel.  I blame the other cops that let Quinlan run his crooked show even if they were hoodwinked.  I blame any of the trash associated with Grandi.  I blame the guy that ran the Mirador for not having the sense to jump into his truck and drive to get help.  I blame the local politicians who had not wanted to ask questions about a local police detective who never failed to solve a case and had the good luck of always finding incriminating evidence.  And I blame the girls in Los Robles who for a few bucks let these deadbeat men think they were something.   All that doesn’t let Quinlan off the hook but I can’t just hate the one man.  Maybe if I could it would have been different between Miguel and me.

Miguel quit his job in Mexico City after what happened in Los Robles because I wanted to come home to the States.  I have nothing against Mexicans.   Here in Los Angeles I work to support the Mexican communities and I’ve found good friends there.  But after Los Robles I just needed something more familiar.  Miguel agreed because he couldn’t resist the idea of rescuing me again.   I know I’m being harsh but it was how I felt about him and everything after what happened in the Mirador in the desert and then the fleapit downtown.  You know, I like vacations but I’ve never stayed in a hotel since what happened in Los Robles.  I made Miguel buy a big camper.  Those were good holidays but they didn’t keep us together.  Now I rent a lodge in the Rockies every summer.  Me and a couple of girlfriends.  It’s not quite the Rockies.  It’s not far from this town called Bridgeport.

Mike’s job here in Los Angeles didn’t help any, and after a while I think he blamed me.  The feeling was mutual you could say.  Miguel worked for the District Attorney.  I told him it was a good job but Miguel felt it was a comedown from working for the Mexican government.  And of course he saw things he didn’t like.  I lost count of the times he said so much for American progress.  Miguel used to say that Quinlan would have been thrown out the LAPD for decency.  LAPD were helping to run drugs over Los Angeles.  The only cop Miguel had any respect for in LA was this detective called Dave Bannion but Bannion left to work for the FBI and after that Miguel couldn’t settle.  So I blame the damned LAPD for Miguel wanting to go back to Mexico and for the two of us separating.  I did pack my case to follow Miguel to his job in Mexico but by the time the taxi had arrived to take me to the airport I had unpacked the case.   A month later I was no longer Mrs Vargas.  These days I keep away from men.  I have a tennis instructor I like and I let him mix me a martini but I even keep my distance from him.  He doesn’t seem to mind.  No, he’s Mexican.    

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here. 

GANGSTERS AND HARD CASES

39 WALKER 

Point Blank, 1967, USA, Director John Boorman

I once asked Walker about his christian name.  He took a while to answer.  ‘Well?’ I said.  ‘You wouldn’t like it,’ he said.  After that I always called him Walker and he called me Millie because my name was Ann Miller.  He could have called me Miller, of course, but Walker wasn’t that kind of man.  He liked a woman to look up to him.  The truth is I’m a sucker for broken tough guys.  I have a decent and reliable husband but Jim is anything but tough and the way he lives his life he ain’t even bruised.  Walker and me became friends, and how it was at home there were no objections from Jim.  I liked to spend a lot of time at the Lake, and Jim knew it.  Walker liked to fish and after we met he liked to talk.  That was what we did, just talked.  

Walker arrived in Bridgeport around 1970.  The Kid had come back home a couple of years before.  Calling him The Kid has something to do with him not being able to hear or speak.  But The Kid came back to Bridgeport as a man and a different man from what we expected.  The Kid that left Bridgeport had a sweet smile.  The man that returned was still friendly but you mentioned Marney or what he’d been up to down in Los Angeles and a scowl would soon appear on his face.  I didn’t think The Kid had it in him but he must have had bad memories.  I said all this to Walker one time.  ‘We all have bad memories,’ said Walker.  And then he said something that surprised me.  Walker wished he could remember more.  He wasn’t talking about forgetting things but not seeing the full picture, like imagining rooms without the furniture.  ‘Too many memories are like dreams,’ said Walker. 

When The Kid came home he bought back the garage he’d sold to pay for him and Marney to go and live in LA. But before all that The Kid had worked in the garage with Jeff Markham.  Second time around The Kid gave Walker a kind of job.  Walker pumped petrol some days and did odd things around the place.  At the lake where we met, Walker fished and chopped trees.  By the time Walker appeared in Bridgeport we had a restaurant and not just the coffee shop Marney had left behind.  The tourists have increased over the years but most of them just pass through.  Walker lived pretty well.  He sold firewood and fish to the people in the town.  Saturdays he would put a stall by the side of the highway.  I would buy him a pack of cigarettes a couple of times a week.

I reckon I know just about everything about Walker.  We talked a lot out there by the lake and we shared secrets.  Walker knew about me and Jeff Markham which was why he felt he could tell me everything.  Walker only robbed the payroll in Alcatraz because he had a friend that was in trouble.  ‘Everybody thinks you’re a vicious criminal,’ I said.  ‘They’ve heard awful tales.’   Walker just grinned.  ‘Most of that stuff is about this hoodlum called Parker,’ said Walker.  ‘They confuse the names.  Millie, believe me, I just did this one job in Alcatraz.  It was a favour to my buddy, Mal.  I thought he was my friend.’   Walker stopped talking and stared at the lake for God knows how long.  I remember that so well. ‘And?’ I said.  ‘Mal tried to kill me.  I thought he was my friend but he wasn’t.  I thought my wife loved me but she didn’t.’

The rest of that afternoon I let Walker talk.  He put down his fishing rod, lit a cigarette and told me almost everything.  I sat and listened and thought how I couldn’t say any of this to Jim because he’d say I was only listening to Walker because I hadn’t got over Jeff Markham.  I hadn’t and I never will but that wasn’t why I spent time with Walker or not the only reason.  I just thought Walker needed someone to listen to him.  He talked a lot about his life as a Marine and how it toughened him up which he said he liked a lot but it left him feeling empty which he didn’t like at all.  Walker liked a drink but I knew he had his reasons.  We agreed that he had to stick to the beer which, all the time I knew him, he did.  ‘Millie,’ he once said to me.  ‘Guys like me have the armour on the inside.’  Walker was not long out of the Army when he met Mal.  Walker, Mal and Lynne, that was the name of Walker’s wife, they robbed the money in Alcatraz together.  She must have been some tough lady, I thought.  And then Walker told me the poor woman couldn’t sleep nights and killed herself, and I didn’t know what to think.  I said to Walker that his wife must have known his first name when they married.  ‘She didn’t like it, either,’ said Walker.

The tale about Alcatraz and what Mal, Lynne and Walker did there chilled me but I’d had practice with Jeff Markham and I’d also spent too many afternoons thinking about Jeff and how he died.  So I listened.  ‘Alcatraz was bad,’ said Walker, ‘but what followed was worse.’  Because Mal needed all the money for him and Lynne, he shot Walker in the stomach and left him for dead in Alcatraz.  Walker was wearing a money belt. The money was not in it, Mal had all the money, but the belt and its buckle were thick enough to stop the bullets killing Walker.  The next two days Walker recovered his strength and got himself clean in the sea.  The ferry that took the tourists to Alcatraz arrived, and Walker sneaked a trip back to the mainland.  

Walker wanted his share of the money that he had stolen with Mal and Lynne.  But Mal had used all the money to pay off his debt to these crooks that run the criminal syndicate.  I didn’t understand why but these crooks accepted the money from Mal and gave him a well paid job.  The rest you can guess or at least half of it.  Nobody wanted to pay Walker what he was owed.  I never saw much of his stubborn side but I do know that he wouldn’t bother with people who wanted him to knock down the price of his fish and firewood.  He would just turn and walk away.  Walker was honest with me.  He left a trail of destruction, he said.  I heard about the fights in detail.  Walker had hurt people but apart from Mal he didn’t kill anyone and Mal was an accident.  ‘I don’t lose sleep over, Mal,’ said Walker.  ‘Lynne is different.’  He showed me her pictures.  She was a beautiful girl.

Walker never did get the money he was owed although I was not sure why Walker felt the organisation owed him money because as far as I could see it was their money in the first place.  That’s right, Mal was robbing the people he owed.  But Walker felt he was entitled.  This man called Fairfax felt Walker deserved the money because the chaos Walker had caused meant that this man Fairfax was now in charge of everything and what was ninety three thousand dollars to a large criminal organisation that made money hand over fist.  Walker and Fairfax went back to Alcatraz because, like before, money was still being left there by the syndicate.  All ninety three thousand dollars was wrapped up and lying there on the floor of an empty prison and waiting to be picked up by Walker.  

‘Millie, I just walked away,’ said Walker.  ‘From the money?’ I said.  And then Walker lit a cigarette and stared at the lake.  I waited until Walker finished his cigarette.  ‘I don’t regret it, Millie,’ he said.  ‘For a while I wondered if I was just spooked by the place, or by this guy Fairfax who’d got everything he wanted and held all the aces or this big bright light on the helicopter that dropped the money.’   I waited while Walker played around with the line on his fishing rod.  His messing must have lasted ten minutes.   I didn’t mind.  I stared at the lake, and it was a sunny day.   I thought about what he said and just what this guy Fairfax had been doing while Walker was fighting everyone.  I had time.  Walker said, ‘I don’t know why I walked away but I don’t regret not taking the money.  And I think I knew at the time I wouldn’t, knew that if I’d taken the money after everything happened, I’d have nothing left.  You know what I mean, Millie?’  That is the only time since I’ve known Walker that I imagined what it would have sounded like if Jeff had called me Millie.  ‘Nothing left to live for?’ I said.  Walker smiled and said nothing but I knew I was right. 

 

Walker never threw a punch, didn’t even raise his voice with anyone here in Bridgeport.  He would just walk away from trouble like he did when people didn’t want to pay his price for his fish and firewood.  I picture him at the side of the highway and sitting next to his fish and firewood stall and reading this book about King Arthur and Lancelot that he loved.  I once bought him the famous book about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, the one written by the English guy called Mallory, but Walker couldn’t settle with that.  He liked the tale to be told in a simple way.  ‘How many times have you read that book?’ I said.  ‘It helps with the memories,’ said Walker.  I know there is or was a brutal man somewhere deep inside Walker but the man I knew was strong but lonely and the loneliness makes a difference.  It can make a man gentle.  Some men are just best when they are not around people or the wrong kind of women.  Walker was like that.  I was heartbroken when he died, he was carrying some lung disease that they have down there in Los Angeles.  Occi or valley fever I think they call it. 

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here.