Wednesday, November 26, 2014

711 Ocean Drive (1950)

711 Ocean Drive is a rather neglected 1950 film noir gangster movie that benefits from a fine central performance by the alway reliable Edmond O’Brien.

It’s structured in classic noir style with most of the story told in a very long flashback in which the career of gangster Mal Granger slowly unfolds. Granger (Edmond O’Brien) works for the telephone company. He’s very good at his job but he doesn’t make much money. And Mal Granger likes money. In fact he likes money and women and both will play major roles in his fate.

Granger likes to bet on the horses. That makes his bookie happy but then the bookie gets an idea. Organised illegal gambling depends on the existence of the wire services that relay the necessary information from the race tracks to the bookies. The wire services themselves are technically legal but they only exist in order to make illegal gambling possible. The major wire service in California is effective enough but it’s rather primitive and it has serious technical weaknesses. Surely what it needs is a technical whizz-kid like Mal Granger to organise it properly. The bookie introduces Mal to Vince Walters, who runs the wire service, and Walters sees the possibilities immediately.

Pretty soon Granger’s improvements have increased turnover enormously and he is making big money as the chief technical organiser of the output. At this point Granger, if he’d been a sensible guy, would have been satisfied. He has plenty of money and at this stage he’s not yet heavily involved in the nastier side of the racket. 

And if it’s women he wants he could have Trudy (Dorothy Patrick). Trudy works for the wire service but like Mal she’s not mixed up in the vicious side of crime and she’s a pretty nice girl. She’s also clearly pretty keen on him. But Trudy is not the kind of girl who is overly thrilled about just being another notch on Mal Granger’s bed post. She’s quite keen on old-fashioned concepts like marriage, and Mal claims to be allergic to the very idea of marriage. While Trudy is technically a criminal she’s the woman who could make him happy if he’d let her.

None of this is enough for Granger. He wants the really big money, he wants to be top dog, and he wants the kind of glamorous dangerous women that go for big shots.

Granger will get what he wants but he will find that it’s not as simple as he’d thought. The wire service is now so successful that it’s attracted the attention of the big boys of organised crime, the ones who control most of the illegal gambling in the east and who are now looking at Granger’s California operation as something that they really should control. Their plans to get control will have fateful consequences for Granger, bringing him into the orbit of crime kingpin Carl Stephens (Otto Kruger) but even more fatefully introducing him to Larry Mason (Don Porter) and his wife Gail (Joanne Dru). Mason is one of Stephens’ chief lieutenants and while he’s a very smooth character he is the kind of guy it would be very very unwise to cross. And that’s exactly what Mal Granger does when he and Gail Mason fall in love.

Edmond O’Brien does a fine job portraying the gradual corruption of Mal Granger. Granger is a nice enough guy but his essential moral weakness is made fairly clear. He has no sense of responsibility and he sees women as merely objects of pleasure. His desire for money is understandable enough but it’s excessive. In fact he accumulates money the way he accumulates sexual conquests - he seems to need to do both to convince himself that he really is a success, that he really is a big shot. He’s not vicious but we can’t help thinking that his greed could eventually overwhelm the positive aspects of his character. He’s a man who could be corrupted, and this of course because the film’s major theme - the transformation of an ordinary likeable guy into a hoodlum and the fact that organised crime tends to do that to people.

Gail Mason is the femme fatale of the story and Joanne Dru handles the role very adroitly. Gail is exactly the kind of woman Granger would be very well advised to avoid. She’s unhappily married to a very big-time mobster and she’s reckless, and of course Mal is going to convince himself that he can save her.

Otto Kruger’s performance is another highlight. Carl Stephens is the kind of gangster who hates getting his hands dirty. He doesn’t even like to talk about unpleasant subjects like having guys rubbed out. He just makes it clear that it would be desirable if certain guys were to be rubbed out and it just happens. Don Porter as Larry Mason is all superficial charm masking a very tough character.

Director Joseph M. Newman’s career was mostly confined to fairly minor but sometimes interesting genres films such as the science fiction classic This Island Earth and the rather good noirish crime thriller Dangerous Crossing. He does a competent job here. There’s plenty of noir atmosphere and the climactic scene on Boulder Dam is fairly well done. The opening credits make the claim (which may well be true for all I know) that the movie upset the Mob so much it had to be made under police protection 

Sony Screen Classics By Request DVD-R offers a very fine transfer. 711 Ocean Drive is a nifty little crime thriller with enough film noir flavour to satisfy fans of that genre. Highly recommended.

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