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The Epitome of Cool: The Films of Ray Danton by Joseph Fusco

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)

A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.

I initially saw this 2010 book as a main feature on this company’s web site and requested a review copy, thinking it was a new release. Though mistaken, I not only think this book is still worth reviewing but write this in the hope that the author might consider a new, expanded edition since his subject did a lot of work in television that is still worth seeing once one contacts those many companies that specialize in old television series. Ray Danton (1931-1992) may be forgotten today, but in his time he was a memorable presence in film and television achieving his greatest success in playing the title role in Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), a classic film in the mold of Robert Warshow’s influential thesis “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Though never achieving definitive stardom, Danton was one of those many familiar faces guest starring in Warner Bros TV shows of the 50s and 60s, such as Cheyenne (1955-63), Sugarfoot (1957-61), 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), Surfside 6 (1960-62), and Hawaiian Eye (1959-63), more often than not playing his own version of a “magnificent heel” often associated with Ricardo Cortez who had worked consistently in the silent and sound era not only as an actor but also director, a role Danton himself performed later in his career. As a Warner Bros contract figure he would be one of those many familiar faces who would turn up in television studio productions very much like his contractual predecessors in the classical Hollywood era. Had he been born earlier, like Cortez, Danton could have had a much more consistent career but found his work affected by the changing industrial conditions of his era in ways that did not affect Cortez. Despite these obstacles, his performances always remained memorable even after the formulaic nature of the shows became forgotten.

Sadly, this book concentrates only on a selection of the many appearances as an actor that Danton performed on film though, some made-for-TV movies manage to be included.

An unfortunate mistake on the book’s spine reads: “The Film of Ray Danton” rather than the plural form on the front cover so, hopefully, this print-on-demand company will correct this error. Dedicated to Danton’s former wife Julie Adams (whose union lasted from 1954 to 1981), the book begins with a 22-page introduction covering the actor’s life and career up to his premature death due to kidney disease in 1992. From other sources, it appears that the originally named Raymond Caplan was the son of Jewish parents descended from the prestigious Vilna Gaon. Beginning as a child radio actor at the age of ten, he gained experience in radio and summer stock stage productions working with stars such as Tallulah Bankhead, Robert Ryan, Joan Blondell, and Lizabeth Scott, including a 1950 London theatrical appearance in Mr. Roberts with Tyrone Power playing the title role. There Danton began cultivating his future debonair personality before being drafted for two years of service. After working in New York live television, he began his film career when Universal-International offered him a contract. He often played a diverse number of roles as a journeyman actor before the collapse of the studio system led him to become one of those many “magnificent strangers” in 60s European films described by Brett Halsey in his very informative and fictionalized description of this era, until his return to the States and his eventual move into directing for television. (1)

Danton 01Fusco begins his catalog of Danton’s film career beginning with his role as Victor Mature’s cousin Little Big Man (!) in Chief Crazy Horse (1955) to his last acting appearance in the unfortunate TV movie Our Man Flint: Dead on Target (1976). Had Danton begun his career earlier one could well imagine him playing Victor Mature’s greatest role – “Dr. Omar. Doctor of Nothing” – in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941). But, as Fusco notes, “Ray Danton arrived on a lot whose constellation included reigning stars, leftovers from better times and ubiquitous newcomers” (5). For those of us who saw Danton’s very prolific performances on film and television at the time, memories re-emerge of performances that often overshadowed the regular leading actors. Though Danton often portrayed his version of Ricardo Cortez’s “Magnificent Heel,” Danton did it with his own brand of assurance and style marking it with his own cool professional trademark. His Legs Diamond is merely a refinement of the characteristic role he often played during his acting career.

The author knows his subject well as the following description notes. Though written in a basic, tradesman-like style, his sentences are often informative and enlightening as anyone who takes the trouble to look up this actor’s work will confirm:

Often arrogant and cruel, his savage characters got what they wanted through avarice, deception and, sometimes, murder. They had cutting-edge personalities and were steely-eyed, icy-nerved, smooth-talking and fast-moving. Sometimes, they were noble when the situation called for honor and personable when it was advantageous to be so. They could also be charming creeps and spineless weasels or manipulative harpies and characters beyond redemption. They were men that women either loved or hated. The trouble is they could love the scoundrel and hate the heroes and that made for a confusing mélange with the romantic payoff being happiness or disaster. (6)

Danton played the 1942 Richard Barthelmess role in the last movie version of Rex Beach’s The Spoilers (1955), the third film he made (and the first I remember seeing theatrically on release) in a well-constructed villainous performance evoking Griffith Jones’s Narcy in Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (1948), as well as the ambivalent and devious Lt. Joel Brady in Tarawa Beachhead (1958) complementing Aldo Ray’s Sergeant Montana in Anthony Mann’s Men in War (1957), both roles questioning movie stereotypes of war heroes. But his most memorable villainous performances were in two MGM films produced by Albert Zugsmith, The Big Operator (1959) and The Beat Generation (1959), the latter co-scripted by Richard Matheson. In the first film he watches the body of Charles Chaplin Jr. (whose father resented his mother using his name) dismembered off-screen by a concrete mixer while in the second he plays a Beatnik serial rapist. Re-teaming Danton with Steve Cochran and Mamie Van Doren from the earlier film (one where Mamie shows she is no convincing June Allyson Eisenhower era dutiful wife!), the film presents honest cop and dangerous beatnik as alter-egos. One still shows Danton “performing a beat rap about rockets to the moon to a group of beatnik space cadets” (85) before he leaves to fulfill his nightly appetite:

He sits at a table, reading a book by Schopenhauer and waxes philosophical about the vicissitudes of love. His partner, a young blond-haired girl is disconcerted because she is leaving and won’t be missed by him. (83)

Dig that crazy Beat, man! Who needs Kerouac anyway?

The Beat Generation (1959)

The Beat Generation (1959)

Another memorable Danton role is as the seducer of Richard Burton’s granddaughter played by Diane McBain (with whom Burton had an affair with during filming) in Ice Palace (1960), “an overindulgent sudser with plenty of room for laughs and befuddlements” (93) also featuring Jim Backus in the first of his performances in a Danton film. Warren Oates also made his second appearance with Danton in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and survives at the end to deliver the usual classical Hollywood morality line on the title character’s demise. Fusco supplies a good description of this film noting that “Diamond’s success had more to do with the opportunities of the times than his genius” (99) as well as why this was “his most notable role”:

Danton is ferocious to a fault. Eating people as if they were candies, he never flinches at the candy wrappers that are really former friends and foes. (101)

He would repeat this role in Portrait of a Mobster (1961) starring Vic Morrow who “borrows Sheldon Leonard’s intonations, swipes Marlon Brando’s smirk, and mimics Karloff’s method of intimidation for the role of Dutch Schultz” (109). Danton’s next film was The George Raft Story (1961) for Allied Artists that also includes an apocryphal cameo by Neville Brand playing his Al Capone from the 1959-1963 TV series The Untouchables giving his seal of approval to Raft’s impersonation of himself. Though, as a biography, it was watered down like certain brands of Prohibition bootleg liquor; Fusco recognizes the significance of this last Hollywood leading role:

The George Raft Story makes an appropriate companion piece to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. The characters are alike because they are wise guys who scheme and dance their way in and out of women’s hearts to nab the snares of profits and success. They also use crime and show business as a means to an end. Each man puts an accent on different means. (119)

Fusco explores the remainder of Danton’s career in films, theater, and European genres but devotes no space to the 23 film and television credits that Danton directed let alone his television work as an actor such as his guest appearance as one of Pinky’s regularly doomed boyfriends in the “White Carnation” episode of The Roaring 20s (1960-61), an honor he shared with Roger Moore in the two-part “Right off the Boat” episodes (both were directed by Robert Altman). I remember Danton playing a bespectacled manic stand-up comic in one Warner Bros TV episode. Also he co-directed Crypt of the Living Dead (1973) in Spain and directed Deathmaster (1972) and Psychic Killer (1975) in the USA.

This review not only acclaims the merits of this edition but also champions a second expanded version by the same author whose humorous prose is a rarity in today’s mostly dreary academic climate. With sentences like the following we are in the realm of Bogart’s last line in The Maltese Falcon (on Yellowstone Kelly [1959], where Danton plays the “bad Injun”):

If anyone seems to be fashioned from nature’s hard elements, it is Clint Walker. Equal parts of Paul Bunyan and Rocky Mountains, he is the personification of the rugged western mountain man, a redwood with a face painted on it. Soft-spoken and courteous, he can cause an earthquake with his anger if riled by stupidity or injustice. If left alone, he is the lengthening prairie shadow of an autumn day. (89)

On Jess Franco’s Lucky the Inscrutable (1967):

it may have been the ultimate early morning European Z-flick special at one time, but now its absurdity exposes the pretentiousness of the box-office smash spy flicks. Let cineastes gloat and agonize over the best films in the “constipated” classics category; it is time to enjoy what was once a guilty pleasure of insomniacs and connoisseurs of offbeat movies. (172)

Sheer poetry! – and hopefully more to come in an updated, expanded edition.

Note

  1. Brett Halsey, The Magnificent Strangers, IUniverse, 2001.

Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor to Film international.

Read also:

Wake Up at the Back There! It’s Jimmy Edwards by Anthony Slide

Conflict, Dissension, and Collaboration – Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo, Written and Edited by Lee Gambin

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