Sunday, June 3, 2012

711 Ocean Drive
(Columbia Pictures, 1950)

Edmond O'Brien's smug protagonist assumes he's in control.

Expose of the $8,000,000,000 gambling syndicate and its hoodlum empire!

Just the Facts

In another of the everyman roles in which he excelled, noir stalwart Edmond O’Brien plays Mal Granger, an underpaid Los Angeles telephone company technician with an expensive gambling habit. When his bookie, Chippie (Sammy White), tips Mal that his electronics expertise could put him on intimate terms with serious money, Mal takes the bait like a hungry grouper. Chippie promptly introduces him to Vince Walters (Barry Kelly), owner of a wire service that furnishes local bookmakers with up-to-the-minute race results surreptitiously garnered from the city’s racetracks. To grow his business, Walters needs a way to make his information instantly accessible statewide. Mal makes it happen by using relay amplifiers, and soon runs Walters’ daily take up to staggering levels. 
Although he’s making enough money to quit his regular job and romance Walters’ assistant, Trudy (Dorothy Patrick), Mal wants a piece of the action, and eventually forces Walters into a partnership by threatening to take his equipment to a competitive wire service. Mal’s burgeoning bank account, however, is counterpointed by his increasing moral bankruptcy: He enjoys Trudy’s sexual favors without committing to a long-term relationship, and emulates Walters’ callousness toward the bookies who use the latter’s check-cashing service and fall behind on their interest payments. One of these schnooks, pushed to the breaking point when Walters threatens his family, promptly shoots him dead, making Mal the man in charge.

The syndicate boys have other ideas.

Mal’s success, however, has attracted the attention Lt. Wright of the Gangster Squad (Howard St. John), as well as Carl Stephans (Otto Kruger), head of the national crime syndicate in Chicago, who tells his subordinates, “I’ve always thought we should do something about the Pacific Coast. You know, it’s ridiculous that this syndicate has never gone past Kansas City.” Stephans dispatches his number two, Larry Mason, to bring Mal into the fold, implicitly suggesting that Mason utilize his unfaithful wife, Gail (Joanne Dru), as sex bait. Mal rebuffs Mason’s initial overture, but after laying eyes — and, in short order, hands — on Gail, allows himself to be co-opted. Things are hunky dory until Mason tires of being cuckolded and beats Gail badly enough to send her to hospital. To make matters worse, Mal discovers that the syndicate isn’t giving him his full cut.
In a sign of just how far he’s gone from law-abiding citizen to budding gangster, he hires an out-of-town killer to whack Mason. When said hit man tries a little blackmail, Mal resorts to vehicular manslaughter. Sensing that his nascent empire is about to come crashing down, Mal uses his technical savvy to swindle the mob at the Las Vegas racetrack of a quarter of a million bucks. He and Gail then try to flee to Arizona via what was then known as Boulder Dam, only to run smack into a police roadblock. In a terrific sequence, they descend into the dam with a tour group as the cops pursue them through the labyrinthine interior. The film culminates with Mal climbing an endless ladder to the top of the dam — an obvious if apt metaphor for his unbridled ambition — only to emerge from darkness into the light of fierce retribution.

Love for sale.

Summary Judgment
As much morality tale as crime procedural, 711 Ocean Drive is primarily concerned with the latent corruption within us all, and how little it takes to prod it to the surface. All of the main characters compromise to some extent their personal and/or professional ethics for money, sex or power. Mal, of course, goes for the trifecta. It’s a tribute to O’Brien’s skillful, subtle performance that we believe in Mal’s rapid character transformation. As a working stiff, he’s warm, decent and generous, even loaning twenty bucks to a needy co-worker. But once he sees how the other half lives, he becomes abrasive, greedy and callous. The film’s unspoken message seems to be that success is there for the taking, if one ignores accepted conventions of behavior and morality. 

The other characters aren’t much better. Chippie relinquishes his independence to ally himself with the up-and-coming Mal, only to become little more than a hanger-on. Larry Mason cynically uses his wife to advance the mob’s interests. Gail Mason is an alcoholic and a compulsive bed-hopper who ditches her rat of a husband for the sleeker, more exciting rat who calls himself Mal Granger. Her moral turpitude is such that she stays with Mal even after learning that he’s guilty of arranging Larry’s murder. Everybody pretty much gets what’s coming to them.  


All of this personal rot plays out within the wider context of a pervasively corrupt America. 711 Ocean Drive was the first of a string of fifties films that openly proclaimed the existence of a national crime syndicate, along with such notable examples as The Mob (1951), The Enforcer (1951) and Hoodlum Empire (1952) — at a time when J. Edgar Hoover was publicly denying its existence. It’s also one of the most incisive and entertaining, thanks to career-best direction from Joseph M. Newman. Aided by Franz Planer’s flat, naturalistic cinematography, Newman creates a number of trenchant vignettes:
   • Stephans and his associates convene in a classic boardroom setting to discuss such underworld matters as expansion and murder in tones of chilling corporate impersonality. Through lighting, camera placement and editing, Newman unobtrusively but effectively establishes the organizational hierarchy.
   • Newman's visual acumen is also apparent during a poolside meeting between Mal, Stephans and  Mason. As the men discuss business, Gail lounges a few feet away displaying her physical charms for Mal’s benefit. Her erotic and adulterous promise is the real point of the scene. 
   • The film’s big set piece, in which Mal and Gail flee the law inside the dam, contains some unforgettable imagery of the pair running down narrow corridors and past huge electric generators.   

Mal enjoys his oceanside address.
The darkly witty screenplay by Richard English and Francis Swann is beautifully paced and resonates with intriguing allusions to real-life mob figures. For Carl Stephans, read Meyer Lansky. For Larry Mason, read Bugsy Siegel — even to the actual mobster’s murder by long-range rifle. The unprincipled and amoral world they evoke tells unpleasant truths about the American Dream that mainstream films of the era dared not mention.

Fingering the Fifties
• Company employees placing bets with bookies in the men's room
• Gangland assassinations

What happens to bookies who defy the mob.

CHIPPIE EVANS: “You’ve sure got the angles, Mal. If it was anybody but Vince he’d give you part of the take.”
MAL GRANGER: “He’ll cut me in, Chippie. I’ve got him by the short hairs right now.”

CARL STEPHENS [ordering a syndicate hit]: “You know some people in Miami, don’t you?”
STEVE MARSHAK: “What does he get?”
CARL STEPHENS: “Why, ah, I believe he’s a very sick man. I don’t believe he’ll ever get well.”
STEVE MARSHAK: “I’ll see that he doesn’t.”

GAIL MASON [drinking in bar]: “All day I’ve been feeling like a rat. For a long time I’ve been feeling like a rat. This afternoon I felt like talking to somebody who spoke my own language. And that’s you. A great, big, good-looking rat.”
MAN IN BAR: “You need another drink?”
GAIL MASON: “Who doesn’t? You know, you’re gonna get a great shock when my husband shows up. He’s even a bigger rat than you are.”

Escape to nowhere.

Contemporaneous Reviews
The New York Times, July 20, 1950 (Bosley Crowther)
Despite some considerable advertising of “711 Ocean Drive” as a daring and courageous revelation of the big bookmaking and gambling syndicates, this modest Columbia melodrama, which came to the Paramount yesterday, is no more than an average crime picture with some colorful but vague details thrown in. Certainly no one who reads the papers with a fairly retentive eye can have any less comprehension of the gambling racket than is illustrated here. To be sure, in pursuing a story of a poor but honest telephone man who gets mixed up in a bookmaker’s wire-room and rises forthwith to be a big-time gambling boss, this picture does give some modest glimpses of how a wire service operates and how a fellow who is smart at electronics can pull some nifty and enterprising tricks. But the disservice to the betting public which these operations may entail is never demonstrated… In short, this little picture, conventionally written but well photographed, does no more than any gangster picture in reminding us that gangsters are crooks.

Variety, July 1, 1950
Operations of the syndicates are given a realistic touch by the screenplay, and Joseph M. Newman’s direction keeps action at a fast pace. O’Brien is excellent as the hot-tempered, ambitious young syndicate chief.

Lt. Wright has a message for Mal.

Director: Joseph M. Newman; screenplay: Richard English, Francis Swann; producer: Frank N. Seltzer; music: Sol Kaplan; cinematography: Franz Planer; format: black and white, 102 minutes

Edmond O’Brien (Mal Granger), Joanne Dru (Gail Mason), Otto Kruger (Carl Stephans), Barry Kelley (Vince Walters), Dorothy Patrick (Trudy Maxwell), Don Porter (Larry Mason), Howard St. John (Lt. Pete Wright), Sammy White (Chippie Evans)

Get it Here