The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond occupies a curious place in the canon of Budd Boetticher’s work. Though he directed a few films with criminal elements, such as his superb thriller The Killer is Loose (1956), and a series of “B” programmers including The Missing Juror (1944) and Behind Locked Doors (1948) in his early days in Hollywood, Legs Diamond was Boetticher’s one and only real ‘gangster’ film, made at Warner Bros. in the waning days of the studio’s Golden Era. Unlike such iconic classics as William Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) and Howard Hawks’ brutal Scarface (1931; released 1932), Boetticher’s film is a period piece, rather than belonging to the era itself. It’s one of the last great gangster films about the Roaring 20s, along with Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), an equally brutal film about a bygone era.
Production values had also changed, and unlike its predecessors in the 1930s, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond has a stripped down, minimalist look, almost as if it were made for television. The sets seem flat and uninviting, the lighting harsh and functional. The cast is strictly second-tier, with the slickly unappealing Ray Danton as Diamond, a very young Warren Oates as his sickly brother Eddie, Karen Steele as his erstwhile girlfriend, blustery Jesse White as Diamond’s nemesis Leo “Butcher” Bremer, Robert Lowery – a tired veteran of low budget 40s horror films – as gambler Arnold Rothstein, and Frank de Kova as “The Chairman,” modeled after real life crime figure Lucky Luciano. It’s also Dyan Cannon’s screen debut – billed as “Diane Cannon” – in a small role as ‘Dixie.’ All in all, this is strictly a bargain basement line up.
Shot in black and white by the great Lucien Ballard, there’s also a ‘hurry up’ feel to the whole film – as if they have to get it in the can quickly, before the sets collapse, the costumes have to go back to the rental houses, and the budget runs out. Indeed, since the film was shot almost entirely on the Warner Bros. back lot, Boetticher had to move quickly and efficiently to get the material he wanted, before another production company would move in to shoot scenes for a feature film (or more likely, an episode of a television series). There’s no need for colour here; the gangster film belongs almost ineluctably to the world of black and white cinema.
The film was an unambitious project for Warner Bros. in 1960, which had been leveled by the Consent Decree (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 1948) – forcing the studio to divest itself of its theaters – and The De Havilland Decision (De Havilland v. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1944) – that signaled the end of the standard seven-year contract for actors. Now, Warner Bros. was primarily a television studio, cranking out series such as Bourbon Street Beat, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and many others. Aging mogul Jack Warner was making both films and television programming on the tightest budgets possible, eschewing the star system, falling back on old formulas that had worked in the past, making every dollar count on the screen.
And yet The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond succeeds on every level. Boetticher didn’t like Ray Danton, and he didn’t like Diamond, and he did enough research with the real life ‘hoods’ who knew Diamond to realise that he was on the mark – even in the criminal underworld, Legs Diamond was regarded as nothing more than an egotistical two-bit chiseler. Superficially smooth and ingratiating, Danton played Diamond as a violent, ruthless thug who nevertheless exuded an air of charm and sophistication, but only when it served his purpose. Legs Diamond is the story of a small time hood who rises to the top of the rackets and then is summarily cut down, a con man who never cared for anyone but himself, yet still somehow managed to live a charmed life right up to his violent end.
Boetticher’s direction is razor sharp, and often does more with images than with dialogue. In a sequence near the beginning of the film, Diamond witnesses a ‘smash and grab’ jewelry heist that ends in the violent death of the robber. Surveying the aftermath of the scene with cool professionalism, Diamond realises that if the thief had only scaled the building next door and dropped in late at night to carry out the robbery, he probably would have gotten away with it with minimal risk. The sequence is entirely wordless, using only natural sound and judicious point-of-view shots that follow Diamond’s eyes as he cases out the jewelry store, devising a plan that he carries out soon after.
In scenes like this, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is urgently kinetic filmmaking, well aware of what can be accomplished with the simplest of means, and the bare essentials of physical surroundings. It’s clearly a studio film, so there’s a certain artificiality in hairstyles, back lot streets, and the generally ‘clean’ look of the film, using limited number of extras for period atmosphere. But none of this detracts from the film’s overall impact. Danton is appropriately reptilian in the title role, and if there was no love lost between star and director, this works well for the finished film; Boetticher has no sympathy for Diamond, and his eventual ‘fall’ is satisfyingly savage as a result.
Willing to betray anyone for even momentary advantage, Diamond is a curious anomaly in crime cinema. Normally, the viewer has at least some vestige of sympathy for the protagonists of gangster films, but this is entirely absent here. There’s nothing even remotely likable about Diamond; he’s as hard as nails, and absolutely bereft of even a shred of humanity. Diamond’s only concern outside of his own advancement is that welfare of his ailing brother Eddie, and even that dissipates when Diamond senses that he can no longer afford the luxury of sympathy for anyone – even a blood relative. And thus he moves smoothly up the ladder of crime, until, inevitably, it all comes undone.
Convinced of his invincibility, Diamond is more shocked and surprised than anything else when he is finally gunned down in the inevitable ‘rise and fall’ trajectory that the film’s title so clearly suggests. Boetticher stages the killing from Diamond’s point of view, as an assassin’s bullets riddle his body, perhaps the only time that we are asked to directly identify with Diamond – the moment of his death. Bleak, unsparing, entirely lacking in sentiment or nostalgia, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond emerges almost as a newsreel of a violent era, as blunt and unforgiving as a shotgun blast. It’s one of Boetticher’s finest films, every bit as brutal as his westerns with Randolph Scott, an authentic slice of Americana with a distinctly sour taste.