film noir and what’s left out



711 Ocean Drive, 1950, USA, Director Joseph M Newman

Mal always had a plan.  He even had a plan for little old me, Gail Mason.   The first time Mal looked at me something registered in his eyes.   No doubt desire was in there but you could see right from the beginning, even before Mal held you in his arms, that he was making a plan, calculating the next steps.  That was why Mal Grainger liked money so much, why he took it so seriously.  Money gave his brain something to count.  Trudy Maxwell was the accountant that Mal used to help him run his wire service.  I liked Trudy and for a while I felt bad about her because I thought Mal had thrown Trudy over for me.  But then I met Trudy and realised she was the one that had said farewell to Mal.   But for a while Mal played around with Trudy, and she will tell you the same as me.  The first time he looked into her eyes she knew he had a plan and it made her curious.  Some men are like that, somehow you believe what is behind their eyes.  Mal didn’t have the prettiest eyes.  He wasn’t what I would call handsome.  You know what I was thinking when we were trying to escape from the police across the Boulder Dam?  Why am I doing all this with a guy that I know will go fat and isn’t even handsome?  The truth is that Mal Grainger had eyes that made promises.

Darling, there is not a man I’ve known that at some point I wished I hadn’t met.   If I’d been different, had a less affluent family, perhaps I’d have met some decent man with not that much money in his pocket but a heart of gold.  But I grew up surrounded by money and the men responsible for that money.  The only advice I had came from wives that had rich husbands.  In that world you don’t have as many options as people think.  Lieutenant, you need to interrupt more.  I’m beginning to sound as if I feel sorry for myself.  

Maybe that was why I indulged Mal.  Alright, why I found him attractive.   He looked like someone whose eyes couldn’t lie.   And the truth is that most of the time his eyes didn’t although Mal did string me along for a while after he had Larry killed.  Larry was my husband, and, if I was not sitting here facing two detectives because of that plan Mal had, I would say Larry was the biggest mistake in my life.  I did lose some enthusiasm for Mal after Larry was killed but Larry had raised his fists to me.   I know that seeing me bruised and lying in a hospital bed had upset Mal although I was also aware that Mal was sore about the money the syndicate was skimming off the wire service that he operated.  And by then we needed one another.  I told myself that if we could get away from Los Angeles and Vegas it would be different.  The problem was that Mal came up with a plan to take back some of the money the syndicate had robbed from his wire service.  The truth is Mal Grainger died because he had one plan too many although we must not forget the contribution of our fine trigger happy policemen.  

We already had two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and that was enough for any pair of sweethearts to start a new life, even if one of those sweethearts had my background.  I told Mal that in Guatemala, which was where Mal decided we should live, we could live on that kind of money forever.  Chippie, who was this sweet little man who brought Mal into the wire service, said the same.  Mal thought differently.  What happened to Chippie.  The syndicate is what happened to Chippie.  No one sees Chippie around anymore because he isn’t around.  I’m afraid, darling, it’s as simple as that.

The syndicate is what happened to us all.  Carl Stephans was as smooth and as sinister as the men I knew back home.  No, dear, his name is not Carl Stephens.  It’s Stephans.  His parents were South African but Carl sounded more English than anything.  He claimed he was connected to really important people back in South Africa which was probably why he sounded so English.  Charming or not, Carl Stephans had people killed.  I can’t say I heard him say murder this man or that man.  I do know certain people disappeared.  Perhaps I could identify some faces from your files.  I’ve always been good with faces.  Not so good with eyes but good with faces. 

I’m afraid, dear, that I don’t know much but I do know that Stephans took over the business that Mal ran.  Carl already had a business that stretched from back east to Kansas but he wanted to run a coast to coast wire service.  Lieutenant, none of these men can be criticised for a lack of ambition.  Indeed, Carl Stephans had a really big plan.  That’s the problem with men.  Too many men have plans but, darling, I wouldn’t like a man without one.  

Not all the syndicate men had the best table manners but I am glad to say that, whatever faults Larry had, he didn’t embarrass you at the dinner table.  Larry did struggle with sentences which was why he could be dull company.  Carl Stephans was different.   He had an opinion about everything and he was charming.  I’m sorry, darling.  Is this boring you?  I am cooperating.  Of course I’ve realised I aided and abetted a murderer but I didn’t know that at the time.  I’m truly sorry Mal set up the trick with the phones to deceive you, Lieutenant.  I didn’t know his plan was to convince you that he wasn’t here in LA and he was making his call from Palm Springs. And I had no idea that Mal had committed a murder.  I just assumed he was in trouble over the wire service.  He was the man in my life, and I helped him.  I didn’t even know what I was doing.  I put two telephones next to an amplifier.  It was all too technical for me, dear.   No, I haven’t been talking to my lawyer.  I am cooperating.  Being cooperative is in my nature. 

You mean in the sense that sweet Trudy worked, perform tasks and have a boss that pays you a salary?  No, women from families like mine don’t do that kind of thing.  I collect rich men and drink more than I should.  No, I’m not proud of myself.  Men or money, I’m not sure who or which makes the biggest promises or tells the biggest lies.  I never told lies to Mal and I doubt Trudy did either.  Mal was lucky that way because there are plenty of men and women out there telling lies to each other every day.  Mal was unlucky because he believed money could solve all your troubles.  Chippie knew Mal when he worked for the telephone company.   Chippie said Mal was likeable back then.  Mal used to give some of his money to the guys who had families to raise.  Not much but something.   Chippie said that Mal never took a full wage packet home.  When I heard the story I thought how sweet.  But even back then Mal thought the solution to everything was money.   Once the wire service was making huge profits Mal became mean with his money.  Trudy warned him but Mal had to raise the price of his wire service.  Some of the bookmakers that used his wire service went bankrupt but that was of no concern to Mal.  That was the point when I should have walked away from Mal but I didn’t.  There was an exception, this deaf and dumb guy that once fixed one of his cars.  Mal lent him a couple of thousand so that the deaf and dumb guy could set up a business and work with honest people for a change.  I heard the deaf and dumb guy went back home to north of Sacramento somewhere and he set up a garage in the mountains. 

To be honest what happens with the wire service baffles me.  Of course, darling, I know how it operates.  The company running the wire service owns the equipment that delivers the results to the bookmakers and sends it over the wire quick enough to stop punters that know the winners putting bets on before the bookies have received the result.  But even though Mal explained it all to me, stuff about transmitters, telephones and the rest, I still don’t know what equipment they used and how it works.  But what baffled me more was how people like Mal and Carl Stephans made so much money from just running a wire service.   There are that many bookmakers in California?  I didn’t know that.  Carl, of course, had the coast to coast operation.  He was really rich.  Mal said that the wire service was legitimate, that there was nothing illegal about passing information on from the racetracks.  It doesn’t seem right, something legal being run by gangsters.  Yes, of course, there is the money.  It explains so much, doesn’t it, darling?  But if the wire service is an honest business, why haven’t honest businessmen come along and provided an alternative wire service?  Lieutenant, I understand people like Carl Stephans know how to intimidate competitors but there are ruthless men running rich and powerful companies in this country.   I suppose you’re right.  These people do talk to one another and they will concoct their plans.  Meanwhile the poor scrimp and scheme.  And call me stupid but if people can bet at the race tracks why not let them bet with a bookmaker?  What’s the difference?  No, I don’t suppose that will ever happen.   Ah, my lawyer has arrived.  Thank you, Lieutenant, thank you for opening the door.  A lady likes a courteous man.   Who are those two old people waiting by the desk?  They haven’t done anything wrong, I hope.  They are the parents of Mal.   Oh dear, I didn’t expect that they would look so poor.

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. 



Johnny Cool, 1963, USA, Director William Asher

The man backed himself.  Give the guy credit for that.  But that was his problem, man.  Johnny Cool was a crap player, apart from when he was killing people, of course, and I never saw a dice player that lasted long.  You want to know the first lesson I learned behind a poker hand?  You can only back yourself for so long, man.  You don’t get far in this life if you don’t listen to the cards.  Johnny Cool was tough and smart.  He bumped off four protected guys in one day, right here in Vegas.  Johnny Cool blows up this guy in the middle of his own swimming pool.  And the kids are watching.  That is a heavy deal, that is what I call raising the ante.  That is not listening to the cards.  Johnny Cool was using exploding suitcases like depth charges.   The guy was tough and smart, so tough and smart he thought he could play an inside straight.  And what does Mr Hoyle say about inside straights.  That’s right, it’s a no no, man.  Always and always play the odds and listen to the cards.  The bluff comes when you know the stars are in line.  It happens because it has to some time but you don’t chase it.  You keep your eyes open, man.  Walk around the tables here in the Sands and what you see, what excites the tourists are the high rollers.  The guys with a wad who wouldn’t know the difference between an inside straight and a three of a kind but for a night have struck lucky.  But that’s what people want to see.  A guy on a roll who isn’t listening to anything other than himself. 

I said goodbye to the dice a long time ago.  I quit the same night that Johnny Cool backed me with twelve thousand dollars.  I’m not an excitable man.  You can’t be in this business without knowing how to stay calm but I sweated that night, man, especially when Johnny Cool put a gun at the side of my head and said roll again.  The weirdest thing was he was being friendly.  Johnny Cool was showing how he believed in me.  These days I’m strictly a poker man, and I raise my own stakes.    It’s not so easy keeping your head down when you’re a not so tall one eyed Jewish black brother but I don’t need to stroll like some.  I play Texas Hold ‘Em because that’s the only damned poker game in Vegas.  The worst thing that ever happened to poker was Texas Hold ‘Em but, what do you say, you have to go with the flow.  I am a quiet one down and four up man but I can play any kind of stud poker.  You just have to know when to hold and when to fold.  And that was one lesson poor Johnny Cool never did understand.

Where did he get his handle from?  Follow this, man, watch the dealer.   There were two Johnny Cools.  The original was a seriously loaded Italian hood from Chicago called Johnny Colini but nicknamed Johnny Cool.  The FBI kicked him out of the country.  They reckoned the lack of his presence on American soil might do something about organised crime.  Some hope, man.  Another crew moved in on his action or mostly the same crew but with a different head honcho called Vince Santangelo.   The original Johnny Colini needed someone to get even with the guys back in the States.  A guy with sense would have left the table and spent the rest of his days enjoying the good life and sunshine in Italy.  But that’s high rollers for you.  They have to back themselves until the very end.  The problem was that the guys back home held all the aces.  So Chicago Johnny Cool, now in Italy, slides his own ace below the deck.  He finds this Sicilian bandit that lives in the mountains and is so tough the police can only stand by and admire and whistle.  This bandit is called Salvatore Giordano, and all the village folk love him because he fought the fascists and spits in the eye of just about everyone that wears a uniform.  The story is that Salvatore killed a soldier that attempted to rape his mother.  After that and a few dead fascists, Salvatore became a man of the people.  Well, the only person that Johnny Cool, the original, looked after was called Johnny Colini.  Colini picked Salvatore for one reason only.  He picked the toughest guy in the neighbourhood.

The second Johnny Cool goes along with the first Johnny Cool because, if he didn’t, the first Johnny Cool would hand the second Johnny Cool over to the cops.  Before Colini arrived with his helicopter to lift Salvatore out of the Sicilian mountains the cards had been kind to Salvatore Giordano.  The man was carrying a really heavy wad.  The last thing that Giordano needed was someone to come along and fold his hand but life is like that.  Any poker player can tell you, man.  There is nothing worse than having a good hand, a full house, four of a kind, a running flush or something and someone comes along and folds the hand before you make the final bet and pick up the pot.  It’s happened to us all.  I once was dealt a running flush just before an earthquake arrived.  And you know what sticks in my throat?  It’s people telling me I was lucky to get out of the place alive.

Forget the earthquake, let it rumble.   Back in Italy the first Johnny Cool teaches the second the American language, puts him in smart suits and gives number two the low down on what is happening back in the States.  Johnny Cool two now knows the people that need to be taken out the game and what the game is that all these people are playing.  This is why the new Johnny Cool arrives in Vegas.  He stayed right here in the Sands.  I remember him but no one else took much notice of the guy.  He played a few crap games and carried a wad of cash but so what.  The real action starts when he goes to New York.  Johnny Cool number two killed important people.  He had inside information from Johnny Cool one and, man, he must have thought he was dealing from the bottom of the deck and had to win.  The problem was he was in a game where everyone had information.  They were all dealing from the bottom of the deck.  It’s not easy, man, you don’t have an edge.  You’re just backing yourself and even the cards are confused.

After the mayhem in the Big Apple our Johnny Cool two comes to Vegas and creates more of the same.  Imagine, blowing up Lennart Crandall in the middle of his own swimming pool.  Crandall was a handy swimmer.  He practised every day.  The poor guy may have been in bits when he died but at least he came to the surface.  The tale is that Johnny Cool two considered Crandall to be mission accomplished and was on his way back to sunny Italy, job done.  Maybe Johnny Cool two was bored with killing Americans and, as it happened, he had met one he rather liked, a good looking dame called Darien Guinness.  No, she was loaded but not that rich, no connection with the booze people.   Johnny Cool one wanted number two to take over the USA business on behalf of number one but according to this dame with the name like the black beer, the one American favoured by Johnny Cool two, the pair of them were supposed to be heading to the Sicilian Hills to enjoy the quiet life.

Now I’ve got nothing against dames, and there are a few that have liked me.   But I don’t kid myself.  Any dame is an inside straight, cards that always promise more than they can deliver.   But just like an inside straight looks great when it is in your hand, it’s the same with a dame.  If you win, there is nothing better but you have to think of the odds.  

Two of Vince Santangelo’s men had roughed up the dame, well more than that, and Johnny Cool number two had made sure they paid big style.  There are no suspended sentences in the Sicilian mountains, man, you know what I mean.   Something about Johnny Cool attracted this Darien Guinness.  She said he was the only man that had never told her lies and she knew he was honest because what he told her was so terrible.  But when she read about how the two kids had seen their old man Lennart Crandall dive out of the water instead of in, well, the dame knew although it had been fun with Johnny Cool the time had come to fold the cards.  

Johnny and Darien were supposed to meet in some Italian restaurant in New York but Darien needed to call it quits and the best way she knew was to tell the hoods.  They were waiting for Johnny Cool.  Darien Guiness confessed to the cops that she had driven the car that Johnny used before he scattered Crandall over the pool.  The babe looked sweet in court, and the judge gave Darien a suspended sentence providing she went for psychiatric treatment.  The defence lawyer claimed the woman was a victim, and maybe she was because these days she works with children and raises money to support those places where drunks dry out.  The rest you must have heard.  Johnny Cool number one died in bed, not asleep I heard, something to do with a girl half his age.  Johnny Cool number two had a hard time with the number of hoods waiting for him but he waited for the right cards to fall, one of those hands when the stars aligned, and somehow he got out of there.  Johnny Cool number one, who at the point was still breathing, managed to get his boy out of the States.  Johnny Cool number two doesn’t get around much these days I heard but he is out there, somewhere in the Sicily mountains and with the people he cares about.   No more inside straights for Salvatore Giordano, thank God.  

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.