Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Friends of Whitey Bulger

I was working at a newspaper in Waterbury, CT when Whitey Bulger went on the lam.

It was December 1994 and I hadn’t been in New England for very long, so I didn’t know much about the infamous gangster, who, according to at least one law enforcement official, was more feared in Boston than John Gotti was in New York.

And I certainly didn’t know about his bizarre relationship with the FBI that allowed him to work as a government informant and a ruthless hoodlum simultaneously.

Bulger was in his 60’s at the time and the FBI description of him warned that the career criminal was known to carry a knife strapped to his ankle.

I couldn't believe that. A knife strapped to his ankle? The guy was old enough to be someone’s grandfather and he’s running around with a shiv down his sock? But like I said, I didn’t know much about Whitey Bulger.

Bulger’s run from the law finally came to an end a long way from South Boston. The FBI said a search of his Santa Monica, CA apartment turned up more than $800,000 in cash, 30 guns, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns, and several knives. They didn’t say anything about the old guy carrying a knife around his ankle.

Clearly there’s a ton drama in this story, from the supposed “good” brother who was president of the Massachusetts State Senate and then president of UMASS; to the FBI agent who so outrageously aided and abetted 81-year-old former fugitive.

I read where Bulger was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” but I’ve been thinking more of a 1973 movie called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which I saw years ago at the dearly departed Fortway Theater in Brooklyn.

Based upon a novel by George V. Higgins, the film stars Robert Mitchum as an aging Boston hoodlum who is desperate to stay out of jail.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the movie the first time I saw it. I was a teenager and looking for an action head banger with screeching car crashes and slow motion machine gun battles.

But I’ve been on a bit of Seventies kick lately so I rented this film and now I can see that it was never intended to be a thriller.

The film is really a window on a very dangerous world, where no one can be trusted, the threat of prison looms overhead like the guillotine’s blade, and a night out with friends could very well be your last night on earth.

One character, a gunrunner, draws down on some customers because he fears they’re going to rip him off. I don’t know if they were or not, but when you make your living selling illegal weapons you can’t afford to be wrong. (The actor who played this part, Steven Keats, committed suicide in 1994.)

The criminals and the feds operate with a kind of willful blindness, with the law enforcement people knowing full well that their snitches are up to no good, but not really caring as long as they get to throw somebody in the can.

Unlike so many other crime movies, there is no sense of justice prevailing or rights being wronged in this film; it’s just another day in the jungle.

Hollywood has often been accused of romanticizing gangsters, but that is definitely not the case with "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

In fact, I would advise anyone considering a life of crime to watch this movie before putting on that ski mask. See how friends stab each other in the back; watch how the cops twist hapless losers into knots.

If you see all of that and still want to be a hood then I wish you luck. And I suggest you think about strapping a knife to your ankle.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

This Budd’s For You

When I was studying film in high school, I remember reading a quote by Peter Ustinov about his 1962 production of “Billy Budd.”

Ustinov, who directed, acted in, and co-wrote the screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella, said he had decided to shoot in black and white because “color prettifies everything” and would undermine the serious story he was trying to tell.

The line came back to me last week after all these years (I think it had something to do with the word “prettifies”) when I finally saw “Billy Budd.” And I was quite satisfied.

Even though this was his second film, Terrence Stamp is introduced in this movie—“A new face! A new talent! A great new star discovery!”—as Billy, a painfully naive merchant sailor who is impressed by the British Navy in 1797. He quickly falls afoul of Claggart, the ship's sadistic master-at-arms, and tragedy ensues.

Now I have to confess that I, an English major, never read the novella. I know, I know, shame on me. But, seriously, it’s on my list, along with War and Peace and Twilight.

Ustinov plays the ship’s captain, David McCallum—Illya Kuryakin if you’re from my generation--plays Wyatt, the gunnery officer, Melvyn Douglas plays the sail maker everyone calls “The Dansker,” and Robert Ryan, one of my favorite actors, plays the sadistic Mr. Claggart.

This was an intriguing choice and I have to say that, initially, I thought Ryan was somewhat miscast, being the only American amongst all these Englishmen. He didn’t even attempt to do a British accent, which bothered me for the first few minutes of the film. But then I got into it.

First of all, Ryan was such a powerful actor that I could watch him play any role.

Secondly, Claggart is such a vicious bastard, so unlike everyone else on board, that it almost makes sense that he sounded different from everyone else. He moves around the ship like a thundercloud and everyone on board is terrified of the guy, including the captain.

The Angel Must Hang!

But as evil as he is, Ryan brings such humanity to this character. Similarly, I thought Stamp made Billy believable even though the young man is so innocent and saintly. When these two come together, you know things are going to end badly. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but she really hates extremes.

Benjamin Britten used the story as the source material for an opera. The novella was also dramatized for television in the Netherlands, and it was done twice on television in the Fifties in what so many people call the golden days of television. (That was before Illya Kuryakin so I wouldn’t know anything about it.)

Don Murray plays Billy in the 1959 production on the DuPont Show of the Month, which also starred Roddy McDowall and Malachy McCourt.

And in 1953, Billy Budd was broadcast live with a cast that included Patrick Macnee as a young office; Basil Rathbone as the captain, and, in the starring role—I still don't believe it--William Shatner.

I saw a clip of this production and I couldn’t believe my eyes: Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk were sharing the same space.

I thought my head was going to explode.

Light years away from the commander of the Enterprise, Shatner has blond hair in this production and he speaks with an accent I can’t quite place. It’s kind of…strange.

And this being live TV, it wouldn’t be fun if there weren’t a near disaster.

Shatner said in a 2004 interview that early on in the broadcast Rathbone got his foot caught in a bucket and couldn’t deliver some of his first lines.

I’m trying to picture the man whom I considered to be the definitive Sherlock Holmes clattering around a soundstage like Jerry Lewis with a bucket on his foot. There’s no way to prettify that, mate.

When Holmes told Watson the game is afoot, I don’t think this was what he meant.

So I finally saw Ustinov’s film. Unfortunately, it came out in the same year as "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Damn the Defiant," two other sea sagas, and it sank at the box office.

But I’m going to try and track down Shatner’s version and I’ll even check out the opera. Then maybe I’ll read the damn book.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let the Wrong One In

And she seemed like such a nice lady…

I got on the R train early one morning, headed straight for my favorite seat—the corner two-seater in the first car—and prepared to read and relax as I rode to work.

There was a lady in her fifties sitting next to me and she asked me what I was reading. Lush Life by Richard Price, I told her and we started having a polite chat as we rumbled toward Manhattan.

I’ve had a number of these commuting conversations in my years as a subway jockey and they are often quite pleasant. New York can be a very lonely and unfriendly place, so I always welcome an agreeable encounter.

My companion and I talked about work and traveling and other such day-to-day stuff and things were going quite well, or so I thought.

And then she dropped the bomb.

“So,” she asked in a sly tone, “do you read the Bible?”

Oy gevalt, not one of those, please God. I just wanted a quiet ride to work. I was in no mood to engage in some heavy theological blather.

“Well, yes,” I mumbled. I really didn't want to talk to her, but I didn't want to be rude--even though it was a clear case of justifiable rudeness.

But she was off to the holy races, quoting different passages from the Bible and telling me how she was born again in 1977-- back when I was a sophmore in college and desperately trying to score. She had been visiting her sister and the sister's boyfriend when--presto chango!--she was born again. Or so she claims.

How do you know it wasn't indigestion? I wondered, keeping my thoughts to myself. I don’t know much about this born again business but apparently it gives you the right to harass people on subways.

I sat there listening to this drivel, feeling increasingly jealous of the guy with the Ipod on a nearby bench who had his nose jammed into a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I have an Ipod that I won in a drawing a few years ago, but I’ve never used it. I think I’ll start packing the thing to work so I can wear the earphones and at least look like I’ve got something better to do than listen to religious crackpots. Of course with some people you could be wearing an old timey diver's suit and they'd still try and save your soul.

Blood and Metrocards

“Who said a priest can forgive sins?” the woman demanded of me. “Who said this?”

I don’t freaking know, lady. Why are you asking me? I just assumed that it was part of the job description. Who said pilots can fly airplanes? They go to school and get a license, so I guess priests have a similar arrangement.

“Jesus shed his blood,” the lady told me. “only blood can cleanse sin!”

Yes, but blood stains are really tough to get out. And this born again thing is starting to sound a lot like a slasher movie.

I find this behavoir so incredbily offensive. First, my religious beliefs—or lack of them—are no one’s business but my own and I’m certainly not going to answer to a total stranger.

I’ll gladly have an intelligent conversation with anyone about religion, but—and this is important--it has to be an intelligent conversation. I don’t want someone haranguing me about cleansing blood and being born again in a disco era delusion.

For the record, I attend weekly services at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan and I’m very happy. The people are great and we keep the bloodshed to a minimum.

And while I know this sounds incredibly naïve, I felt betrayed by this woman. I had thought she started the conversation because she was sincerely interested in me.

Instead she was just another hustler, no different than the guys who walk through the trains peddling pirated DVDs and batteries of questionable ownership. I felt like a rube who comes to the big city and gets nailed by some conman. What kind of self-respecting New Yorker falls for a scam like this?

The lady had to get off at Union Street—praise the Lord!—and on her way out she gave me a flier with an address printed on it.

“Come to our church,” she said over her shoulder.

“Oh, sure,” I said, suddenly feeling born again, just as soon as I get a blood-proof poncho.

Time to dig out that Ipod...

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Bat Boy Returns

My sister and I have been going on a weekly time traveling adventure as we continue to clean out our parents’ home.

We’ve been going through old photographs, letters, cards and other bits of family history. It’s been emotionally wrenching at times as we recall childhood memories and there’s still plenty more to discover before we finally put out the “For Sale” sign.

But there have been some fun finds as well. Last week we came across my old Cub Scout ID card, certifying that I was indeed a member in good standing with Pack 277. The card looks so official I wonder if I could use it in airports.

But today we came upon a true treasure. While cleaning out the living room bureau, we discovered—are you ready?—my fifth grade Science Award Certificate.

When I was growing up, children had to prove their scientific knowledge by assembling some kind of display that would illustrate a basic factoid of nature.

I recall kids making buzzers for the projects on electricity and there were others with lights and whirling propellers. I think my brother did the old baking soda-erupting volcano routine that was a grammar school classic for a generation of children.

I don’t recall enjoying this yearly ritual, as I was more of your sensitive literary type and had little use for molecules and gravity. I usually struggled to come up with something at the last minute.

But this one time I was able to create an awarding-winning project with the killer topic of all time--bats.

“Bats?” you say. Yes, damn it, bats, those freaky flying mammals that make Halloween and horror movies so special.

What made this project such a standout was that, in addition to researching the hell out of the topic—I went absolutely batty—(there, I said it!)--I also made a paper-mache model of a bat for my class presentation.

Oh, paper-mache, how I loved that stuff! I felt like Michelangelo as I dunked strips of old newspapers into the paste—all under my mother’s supervision, of course--and wrapped them around a long balloon to create the body and a smaller balloon for the head.

I don’t remember what I used for the wings, but whatever it was I slapped dripping newspaper clippings all over it. Once the glue hardened, I popped the balloons, got the brown spray paint, and made myself a bat.

A Special Study

The model was supposed to be a Big Brown Bateptesicus fuscus to those in the know—but it looked more like a giant mud butterfly or Mothra’s anemic cousin. Bear in mind I was only 8 years old.

The certificate is stained and a bit battered after all these years, but it bears the image of a Flash Gordon-type rocket ship on the surface of some distant planet with Mother Earth looming high in sky.

To further an interest in science and related subjects,” the certificate said, “Robert Lenihan has pursued beyond class requirements, a personal program of study and achievement, which has resulted in a special study of the subject—Bats.”

The certificate is dated January 26, 1965 and signed by—oh, no!--Sister Frances, the original bat out of hell herself.

Long have I loathed this woman, a creature of the night who dressed in black and went forth from her convent-cave to strike terror into the hearts of hapless school children. Real bats may be scary, but they don’t know any better.

However, on the day I made my presentation, I was able to impress Sister Frances with my bats-pertise and stunning visual aid. I gave her and my classmates a rundown of the various types of bats, including one kind that sports a three-foot wingspan.

“Three feet,” Sister Frances exclaimed. “Ye gods!”

I fantasized about Sister Frances and the mega-bat actually running into each other on some moonless night where they could go at it fang and claw, but I have no doubt that the bat would get the worst of it.

God knows what kids are doing today for their science projects—probably splitting the atom and creating mutant life forms. I’m sure paper-mache and baking soda volcanoes would look laughable in contrast to what can be conjured up with a computer.

But it was nice coming across this little sheet of paper. It reminded me of a pleasant time I had with my mother without bringing me to tears like some of these other relics around here have.

This was a real personal program of study and achievement.