film noir and what’s left out



Casino, 1995, USA, Director Martin Scorcese

I remember you.  We met in Los Angeles a while back.  Still working and writing, I see.  We all have to make a living, I suppose.  I told you all about that strange guy.  That’s right,  Superman Claude, the guy they shot and gassed in the drainpipe.  I still go back to LA a couple of times a year.  I make my living here in Vegas.  I don’t kick my legs in the air anymore but I get by, and dealing cards on a blackjack table is a lot easier on the pins.  Ginger McKenna, may she rest in peace, got me the job.  That ain’t strictly true.   She spoke to Ace Rothstein, and he gave me the job.  Ace had this idea of having female blackjack dealers to drive up the betting in the casinos which it did.  I was one of the first women blackjack dealers in Vegas.  Ace would have preferred someone younger than me but he knew I didn’t look so bad. And the lights in the casino don’t do the wrinkles any harm.

I know what people say, that Ginger McKenna should never have got married and that she was a working girl who should have stayed that way.   I wouldn’t say that was wrong but what I would say is that if she was going to get married it sure as hell shouldn’t have been to Ace Rothstein.   They were different people.  Ginger was a beautiful girl, and Ace was, how do I put this, he looked like what some girls would think was a customer.  You understand me?  I can see from your smile that you do.  Not that Ginger went for the oil paintings.   Her first husband Lester Diamond wouldn’t win a beauty contest either. 

You shouldn’t ask me about Ace and Lester.  Ace was my boss .  I’ve never been a fan of bosses, and in the casino everything had to be the way Ace said, you know, just so.  The man wasn’t always easy but he had respect.  The FBI called me in to speak to them this one time.  A guy called Dave McBain.  He had terrible things to say about Nicky Santoro which is understandable as Nicky was doing heists across the city and killing people.  But Dave McBain talked differently about Ace Rothstein, to the extent I wondered whether Ace had done a deal with the FBI.  There have been rumours.  But no one had respect for Lester.  Ginger, felt something for him and I wouldn’t call it respect.  Lester was this skinny nervous guy and he set my teeth on edge but Ginger thought the clown had something.  I saw Lester the first night I arrived in Vegas after Ginger had invited me out here.  I didn’t like Lester Diamond then and, as far as I could see, the creep got worse.   

Ace and Lester both lived off people but in different ways.  Ace was a fixer that liked to chisel the odds.  You always got something from Ace but he took more than he gave because he was an operator.  Lester just fed from people.  And Ginger having Ace as a rich husband meant that for Lester there was a lot to feed from.  Lester got more nervous and restless thinking of the money Ace had, and Ginger just had to feed the leech that hung from her arm.  If I blame anyone for what happened between Ace and Ginger, it was the creep Lester.  He never did an honest day’s work in his life.  Ace and Ginger were never going to make Ideal Homes as the married couple of the year but without Lester and his claws they might have stood a chance.  And then maybe not.

I know this man.  I won’t call him a guy because he’s a gentleman.  He’s a lawyer.  I’ve known more than one lawyer in my time.  This man talks to me sometimes.  He doesn’t play the tables and all the time I’ve known him he’s never asked me for anything.  He just likes to talk and buy me martinis.  Mister Barratt was a big shot in LA and he’s even done well here in Vegas.  Without him that animal Nicky Santoro would have been sent to the pen for at least one of his fourteen murders.  I haven’t seen Mister Barratt recently but I remember everything he said to me.   We were talking about Ace and Ginger and the battles they were having.  People are talking about bad publicity for Vegas, I said.  It won’t make much difference, said Fred Barratt.  I never called him Fred to his face, always Mister Barratt.   The people who run Vegas have been good customers of mine, said Fred Barratt, but they won’t last out here in the desert.  At the time I knew Howard Hughes had bought his first hotel.  He will buy others, said Fred Barratt.  Hughes and Fred Barratt were working on half a dozen acquisitions.  Once that happens, said Mister Barrratt, Wall Street will become interested.   I just listened.  The hoods won’t help themselves, said Fred Barratt, and there’ll be killings but there’s always more hoods to replace the dead bodies.  That won’t be the reason they disappear, said Mister Barratt.  No, Howard Hughes won’t own all of Vegas because he will become bored before that happens.  But he is a lot bigger than a crack in the door and once it’s open.  Of course, I said.  Now, if I’d been married like Ginger, I wouldn’t have heard any of that.  Not that it would have made any difference to Ginger.

People play around everywhere, look astray, whatever words you want to use.  But there is only one way to play around in Vegas and that is in public.  Maybe it’s because the place is surrounded by desert or maybe it’s something to do with how the place is built to worship money.  You need faith to survive in Vegas.  And that faith means having money, spending it and having fun.  Ginger and Ace both strayed.   What annoyed them, though, was everyone else seeing them play around.  There were arguments and fights but that could have settled into a routine except there was also Lester hanging on.   As long as there was Lester, there was no equality between Ace and Ginger, no tit for tat.   People ask me why she just didn’t dump Lester.  You know, Ace walks around thinking he knows everything but he didn’t know that Ginger had a kid with Lester before she met Ace.  Lester was the father of her first child.  I think that was the reason she couldn’t abandon Lester.  And Ginger could also be herself with Lester.  That makes a difference, too.

I talked to Mister Barratt about Ace and Ginger and asked him what I could do as a friend.  Mister Barratt just looked at me and shook his head.  The problem with those two, said Fred Barratt, is that the husband earns his living by knowing you can’t beat the odds and the wife can only get through life by trying to beat the odds.  I have to say, I’ve thought often about what Mister Barratt said.   To me that sums it up well.  Ace and Ginger were both hustlers but opposites.  Ace calculated the odds and, when he couldn’t get them to work in his favour, he cheated.  That was how he became friendly with the mob.  If he hadn’t fixed so many fights, football games and horse races, he might have been given a gaming licence in Vegas which is what I think he wanted more than anything.  Ginger didn’t want the odds in her favour.  She wanted to beat them.  If she hadn’t, she might have stayed off the coke and the booze.  But she didn’t and that was what she had in common with that lowlife Lester Diamond.   

You’re going to ask me why didn’t she leave Ace.  She wanted the money.   And, because she was my friend and did me favours, I like to think she had to be kind of loyal to any man that fathered her children.   I know what you’re going to say, the time she tied her kid to the bed so she could hit the town is no way for a mother to behave.  I didn’t say Ginger was a good mother.  That doesn’t mean, though, you can’t be loyal.  It works the other way, too.  I’ve never felt loyal to a man in my life but I’ve always been fair, always been straight with them.

What did Ginger McKenna see in Nicky Santoro?  Well, it wasn’t his handsome profile, that’s for sure.   She did it with Nicky to get even with Ace.  Nicky was a shoulder for a while, and he was dangerous.  Ginger always liked to beat the odds.    And, when Ginger walked off with two million dollars that belonged to Ace, she must have thought she’d beaten the odds big style.  And she did except she didn’t.  Lester, Ginger and maybe others spent the two million in a couple of months.  Some of the same friends said it was an accidental drug overdose except, as Mister Barratt said, it was always going to happen.  And I say that as a real friend.  The way she lived, the way she wanted to live, it was always how it would end.  Call it fate, the odds, whatever you want.   Ace was right after all.  You don’t try to beat the odds.  Ginger died when she was 46 years old.  Ace lasted until he was almost eighty.   As Ace once said to me, whatever way you play you lose but there are ways of losing more slowly.  My shift is about to start.  Nice to meet you again.

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. 



Criss Cross, 1949, USA, Director Robert Siodmak

I do not believe this.  Not him and me like this forever, sitting on this damned sofa and me seeing nothing but a pair of the big lug’s knees and the wall on the other side of the room.  The fingers on the clock on the wall have not moved since Slim plugged Steve and me.  I don’t suppose the time on the clock will ever change now.  My head dropped into the lap of Steve when Slim shot me in the chest.  This is the first time I’ve been this close to Steve without hearing him breathe,  Steve is or was a big man.  His breaths made a noise.  There were times when they were noisy indeed.  I don’t suppose there’ll be any of that coming any time soon or ever in fact.  Not that I feel in the mood for being physical.  I’m not sure what I feel.  I know that damned clock with the fingers that don’t move is really beginning to irritate me.  After Steve and Slim had robbed the armoured truck I spent two long days in this dump, wondering and waiting, although the beach outside helped a little.

I can see that the arm of Steve is draped over my hip.  I can’t feel his arm but I can see it.  I wonder what Steve is thinking right now.  Steve never did a lot of thinking.  And without anything happening, which is what is going to happen, he doesn’t have any choice now.   Still the big lug got what he wanted, me in his arms forever, just him and me.  I wonder where the bullets landed in Steve.  I can see that the legs of Steve are stained with blood, and it looks as if most of it belongs to me, Anna Dundee.  I used to enjoy feeling the weight of his body against mine but there is nothing to feel now. Even though I can see what is in front of me it’s not the same as when I was alive.   And I’m not just talking about the clock that has been telling the same time for a while now.  Everything is the same but it’s not somehow.  There is no life in Steve and me because we’re dead but there’s no life in anything else either which might be a strange thing to say when no one thinks of a wall and furniture having life.  But after you’re dead you realise those things had more life than you thought.

I wonder if Steve gets any pleasure looking down and seeing me with my head in his lap.  He must be thinking about something sitting there and looking at the top of my thick black hair.  He might be thinking how the roots of my hair are the same as the rest although Steve knew that anyway on account of how we felt about each other.  God, the big lug was such a dope.  He was well-built and pretty, and I liked the way I could make him angry when I stepped out of line because he needed me so much.  But he was a dope.  Slim Dundee was no dope but unless I’m mistaken the last thing I heard before everything went white in front of my eyes was a police alarm.  That means smart guy Slim has a problem, seeing as there are two dead bodies in this place and also the stash from the armoured car robbery.  

I am still here and I can see our dead bodies but are our bodies still here?  Have the police taken our corpses away and what I see, and presumably Steve does, is just an illusion, something to help us get our bearings, so to speak.  A courtesy to all spirits from God, maybe.  Who knows?  I just know what I can see, and right now it’s the inside of a beach house in Palos Verdes, a clock on the wall, the legs of Steve and most of me.  There is also a lot of blood but no way does it add to the colour.

My mistake was marrying Slim.  I didn’t love the guy but it was like he was always there.   I don’t ask guys to cling to me like leeches but they did.  Slim had money, knew the angles and had plenty of guys who did what he said.  So many times I was in a room and there were other guys there.  I liked that because I knew all the guys looked and wanted me.  Slim kind of liked it but really he didn’t.  Because of the way men were with me, I had opportunities. But I’m sitting here dead and I didn’t even two-time Slim other than with this lug Steve, and that was different because before Slim came along I was married to Steve.  And before that.  I’m not sure I want to even think about what I was doing before I met and married Steve but, if I am going to be sitting on this damned sofa forever, I’m going to remember Liz Short, Hank Hoffman, Noah Cross and the rest of them.  

Back then it felt like Steve had come along just in time.  There are some bad people in LA but, because they have money and friends like Slim did, you don’t think they’re real bad.  But they are, real bad.  After what happened to poor Liz, I was glad to take the first ordinary guy that came along.  Anna, be honest with yourself.  For a while Liz and me had good times, fun at these swell parties in this big house owned by Hank Hoffmann.  But the men at the parties wanted more and more, and Hank could have done something to keep his guests under control except he didn’t.  I like to drink and I like to dance and rhumba.  It’s only fun.  But that Noah Cross was always creepy.  Liz why didn’t you keep away from him?  Listen to yourself, Anna, talking to Liz Short as if she is here.  Maybe we’ll meet now we are both dead.  But if that’s going to happen, I’ll have to get off this damned sofa.  Liz you were such a beautiful girl.  It’s just a little film, that’s all, you said.  Who knows, I might get famous.  Liz Short the Black Dahlia.  I suppose that counts as famous, having your body split in two and found next to the sidewalk.  Steve and me should be in the newspapers after what Slim did.  Not like Liz because they still talk about her.  But a few days maybe, especially as Steve was all over the pages as the hero in the robbery.  Wait till they find out he was the inside man.

If I’m going to spend forever on this sofa talking to myself like this, will there be a point when I start talking aloud and, if I do, will I hear myself? Because right now I can’t hear nothing, no waves lapping against the beach and no breaths from this big lug.  Well, at least I’m on top of him.  I’m going to be blamed by Steve’s family for all this because they never liked me.  They thought I was wild and that their Steve was a good boy.  But Steve was a big boy that knew what he was doing, well as much as anyone.  I thought Slim Dundee knew what he was doing but after hearing that police alarm I don’t know what to think.

I feel as if I know what is ahead which is strange seeing no one should know what is in the future.  But sitting on this sofa and knowing what is ahead, even if it’s not much, it don’t seem as if any of us knew what we were doing.  Steve only came up with the idea of the robbery when Slim caught Steve and me together.   The big lug thought he was protecting me, and I thought Steve and two hundred thousand dollars would be real protection.  If only Steve had stayed in hospital for a couple of weeks like the papers said.  That would have given me time to get ready.  A light has gone on in my head.  I know what I’m going to think about for the rest of my time.  Who did I want to take away the money and me?  I’m already beginning to think.  I might have settled for Steve or maybe taken Slim instead and the two of us would have made Steve take a walk.  That way Slim and me could have bossed Bunker Hill and the rest.  Or maybe if Steve had stayed in hospital for the two weeks like the papers said, then it would have been different again.  Slim would have been arrested in a couple of days, and I could have disappeared while Steve was still in bandages.  I could have headed to Cuba and showed those Havana boys how we rhumba in LA.

Oh, Steve has moved, not much, not even a couple of inches but something has made his body slip, and the view is the same but different.  Maybe that’s what being dead is like.  The tiniest slip and you notice the difference.  Maybe something will make my body slip, too.  If the two of us are here long enough and everything in this stupid beach hut rots, Steve and me might slip all the way back to sea and float away to different places.  Something like that might just be worth waiting for because I’m going to be here an awful long time and I have to look forward to something.  Wondering what the big lug will look like when he sees me floating away from him forever, and me knowing there’s nothing he can do, might even put a smile on my face, assuming I still have a face of course.  I hope so.  I would hate to lose that.  And what about my hair?  My hair is going to rot quicker than the sofa, I reckon.  Steve might be glad to see the back of me, by then.  This being dead is grim but, all the people that have done it, someone must have worked out an angle.

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.