711 Ocean Drive
by Alan Rode
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America’s transition into the postwar boom of the 1950’s engendered a new type of noir crime drama in pace with current events. Senator Kefauver’s congressional organized crime hearings were a national road show starring underworld luminaries such as Frank Costello (The Prime Minister of the Underworld) and Meyer Lansky (The Chairman of the Board). The citizenry quickly became aware of new type of urban crime that was alternately labeled as the Syndicate, the Outfit and, finally, the Mafia. Upwardly mobile gangsters abandoned bank stick-ups for the security offered by gambling payoffs, fixed races, graft, and compliant politicians. Murder was now an element of organizational strategy rather than mere mayhem. J. Edgar Hoover might have been in denial about organized crime, but Hollywood studios quickly realized that James Cagney wasn’t on top of the world anymore. Gangsters entered a new cinematic dimension of crime as corporatist players. Film noirs such as The Racket (1951), The Enforcer (1951), The Captive City (1952), The Big Combo (1955) among others, featured dark essays about the human condition splashed across the broad canvas of organized crime.
One of the most enjoyable film noir entries reflecting this new face of the public enemy is 711 Ocean Drive (1950). This rise and fall chronicle of an organized crime kingpin possesses notable performances, solid writing and a rousing climax at the Hoover Dam.
The film opens with L.A.P.D. Organized Crime specialist Lt. Pete Wright on his way to arrest Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) for murder. During the ensuing flashback, Wright verbally captures Granger’s meteoric criminal career. Mal Granger was a savvy phone company technician with a penchant for swift horses and faster women. The local bookie, Chippy (Sammy White) who possesses a keen eye for potential talent, introduces Mal as an up-and-comer to his boss, Vince Walters (Barry Kelley). In short order, Mal devises a relay amplifier modification that organizes all of Walters’ California books into a unified teletype system. While Vince is busy counting the increased revenue, Mal has his eyes fixed on bigger game. After taking up with Walters’ paramour, Trudy Maxwell, (Dorothy Patrick), Mal forces Vince to give him a hefty percentage of the profits since he is now in defacto charge of the operation. In a startling bit of dialogue for the time, Mal tells Chippie that he has Vince right where he wants him; I’ve got him by the short hairs, he crows. When a small time bookie being squeezed by Walters for payment of back debts, cracks under the pressure and plugs Vince in his own office, Mal kills the bookie in turn and inherits Walters’ organization.
Mal becomes consumed by a ruthless desire for greater power and puts relentless pressure on the bookies in his operation for more money. After taking his measure of Trudy, she is relegated to a permanent role as Syndicate girl Friday with Chippie as aide-de-camp and gofer. Mal’s success in California catches the eye of national syndicate boss, Carl Stephans (Otto Kruger) and his underboss, Larry Mason (Don Porter). Mason is sent to woo Mal into joining the national syndicate. Mal is recalcitrant until he eyeballs Porter’s wife, Gail, (Joanne Dru) at the pool during a subsequent Palm Springs sitdown. Gail is a fast filly who is clearly bored with hubby Larry who possesses the marital sensitivity of a commode seat. Mal and Gail consummate their passion in back street fashion with Mal joining the syndicate with a nice percentage of the profits.
Events quickly spin out of control. Mal and Gail’s affair finally becomes evident even to the obtuse Mason who has Mal beaten up and warned to keep hands off of marital property. When Mal discovers that Stephens and Mason are chiseling him out of his end, he decides to solve his personal and professional problems by hiring free lance killer, Gizzi (Robert Osterloh) to whack out Mason in true gangland style. Mal pretends to be just as baffled as both Gail and Carl Stephens as to the identity of the killer. While Stephens leverages all of the Syndicate’s resources to find Mason’s assassin along with the L.A.P.D., the pressure mounts further when hitman Gizzi starts blackmailing Mal.
After establishing a false alibi, Mal runs Gizzi off a cliff on Malibu pier and then decides to run the table on the syndicate as well. He devises an elaborate scheme to beat the Nevada gambling books by past-posting race results after getting a huge bet down (reminiscent of and perhaps borrowed by The Sting). Even though the police quickly puncture Mal’s alibi for Gizzi’s murder, and Gail discovers that her lover made her a recent widow, the scheme works as planned until a small time bookie forced into bankruptcy by Mal Granger and working in the casino recognizes Chippie collecting the payoff. The small timer quickly drops a dime to Carl Stephans and finally the game is up for Mal. Chippie, the stand-up guy, is left holding the bag and quickly sent to his death by Stephans who comments dryly, I admire loyalty, but not to the wrong people. Stephans tips the police to Mal’s whereabouts and has his underlings take care of loose ends while he goes to visit his grandkids after a tiring day running the Syndicate.
The police set up a roadblock for Mal and Gail who ditch the car at Hoover Dam. Mal and Gail join a tour group inside the dam and after an exhausting chase, Gail fades and Mal is caught in a fatal crossfire after he emerges topside. A brief oral admonition concerning the evils of gambling precedes the final credits. This homily, no doubt forced on the studio by the Production Code, tells how the simple $2 dollar racing bet beget all the evil that was just captured by the picture.
Never a pantheon director, Joseph Newman was a competent craftsman of numerous features including The Human Jungle (1954), This Island Earth (1955) and The Big Circus (1959). The script by Richard English and Francis Swann is tightly wound and at times, bitingly original. The locations in L.A., Palm Springs and Nevada, particularly at Hoover Dam, were well used by cinematographer Franz Planer. Planer (a.k.a Frank Planer), cut his teeth on other notable noirs including Crisscross (1948), The Scarf (1951) and 99 River Street (1953). Star Edmund O’Brien’s career is well chronicled and his performance of Mal Granger being consumed by the twin passions of power and amour hits the mark. Joanne Dru’s beauty amplifies a female lead characterization that is initially sleazy but finds true love with O’Brien and sticks with him to the bitter end. Not unusually in film noirs, the character roles are one of the main strengths of the picture. Otto Kruger’s Carl Stephans is a double-edged sword of gentlemanly politeness and ruthless avarice. Don Porter’s performance makes one approve of his murder and both Sammy White and Barry Kelley (notable as Lt. Dietrich in The Asphalt Jungle) perform yeoman work as well.
At the end, the only unresolved issue is the film title, 711 Ocean Drive. It is probably the address of O’Brien’s beach house that is featured in the film, but the connection seems tenuous. This quibble aside, 711 Ocean Drive is a film noir definitely worth watching.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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