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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mob City Looks and Sounds Good, but Fails to Hold Viewer Interest

TNT 2013
Director: Frank Darabont (“The Walking Dead”)
Written by Darabont and John Buntin.
Starring: Jon Berthal, Milo Ventimiglia, Edward Burns, Alexa Davalos.

As a fan of noir, I was really looking forward to Mob City. The trailers and the advance flack made it sound like it could be the best crime drama since Private Eye (Andrew Yerkovich, 1987-1988) or Crime Story (Michael Mann, 1986) -- a sort of television version of L.A. Confidential, the dark and steamy 1997 film directed by Curtis Hanson that starred Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger and Guy Pearce.

The program was supposed to be based on the non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin, an excellent primer on the development of the underworld in Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when racketeering was controlled by WASP opportunists and the city was billed as a purely white haven for Easterners and Midwesterners eager to escape the teeming ethnic enclaves of cities like Boston, New York and Chicago.

L.A. Noir author John Buntin (courtesy of johnbuntin.com)

The pre-release buzz was that Buntin had his fingerprints all over the show. He is even credited as co-writer of the first six episodes.

To me, that was very good news indeed: Buntin’s book, which was previously reviewed here, plays off the decades-long battle between Mickey Cohen, who came to be the public face of L.A.-area gangsterism, and Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who made his goal the elimination of all mob activity in the city.

Not that Los Angeles was ever the crime-free paradise conjured in the alcohol-fevered mind of Bill Parker or portrayed in advertisements and magazine spreads by developers and promoters, or: the city had more than its share of crime, much of it as highly organized as that controlled by any Mob family in New York or Philadelphia.

The main difference between the City of the Angels and its counterparts in the East and Midwest was that the rackets – gambling, prostitution and drugs -- were all run by White Anglo Saxon Protestant boosters.  Parker was simply trying to drive out the Jews and Italians so the old guard could resume control.

Parker brought a variety of methods to bear on this campaign, not all of which – including wiretaps that showed mob attempts to manipulate city elections and an underworld plan to divide the city up into gang-controlled markets – were strictly legal. In response, Cohen suborned a major part of the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s departments, using cops as errand boys for his criminal enterprises, a protection service for his rackets and a pipeline for information from City Hall.

I figured that with interesting villains like Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and a flawed hero like Parker (Neal McDonough), who was an alcoholic and suffered life-long marital problems, all the program had to do was stay within the framework of Buntin’s book to be a supremely entertaining drama.

Edward Burns as gang boss Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (photo courtesy of Mob City/TNT

Unfortunately, based on the two episodes that kicked off the new program on December 4, Darabont, who co-authored most of the first season’s scripts with Buntin, has no intention of sticking strictly to the facts.  The first two hours of the program are largely spent introducing a host of characters who appear to be mostly fictional, and concentrate on a Los Angeles detective, Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), who appears to be working with Siegel’s organized crime group through its crooked attorney, Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia.)

LAPD Officer Joe Teague (right) chews the fat with Mob lawyer Milo Ventimiglia (courtesy Mob City/TNT)

Teague is hired by a comedian with mob ties, Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg in a special guest appearance), to provide protection for him in a blackmail scheme. Nash has the negatives of photographs that are either embarrassing or incriminating to somebody in Siegel’s organization.  In a meeting attended by Teague and Nash, two of Siegel’s goons, Ace Cooper (Yorgo Constantine) and Syd Rothman (Robert Knepper) swap $50,000 for the negatives. After they leave, Nash is gunned down by Teague for reasons that are not disclosed until the second episode.

The blackmail scheme puts Teague into contact with Jasmine (Alexa Davalos) who is Hecky’s girlfriend – or was; this point is left unresolved at the end of the second episode. She is a camera girl at Cohen’s nightspot, the Clover Club, and snapped the photographs Nash used in his extortion plot. She appears to have more pictures that will play a role in a later episode of the program.

There is plenty of gun play and violence in the first two-hour chunk of the show, but at the end of the second episode, surprisingly little has actually happened. Part of this is the fault of demon backstory – introducing the main characters takes time that could have been used to flesh out the various people who populate the cast or advance the plot.

The slow pace is only part of the problem. In addition, the characters around whom the plot revolves are as lifeless as the zombies in Darabont’s other hit TV show, The Walking Dead.
Some of them are fictitious, like Teague, Nash, Jasmine and Syd Rothman, who appears to be an amalgam of Harry “Hooky” Rothman, an actual Cohen lieutenant, and some unnamed member of Siegel’s “Murder Incorporated” gang from New York. Others, like Cohen, Siegel and Parker, are actual historical figures who have been dressed up a bit for the show.

There are lots of pained looks, sneers and bittersweet smiles  from these characters, but there seems to be little inside them. This is supposed to be set in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, but the witty dialogue you would find in a Philip Marlowe story is largely absent here.

Occasionally a character gets off a good line, such as Jasmine’s response when police investigating his death  tell her they are surprised she doesn’t seem to be more distraught. “Maybe you should put him in a coffin and wheel him in here so I can throw myself on it and cry over him,” she replies coldly. “Would that play better for you?”

Jasmine waits for Hecky Nash at her apartment (Mob City/TNT)
But for the most part, the lines are as flat and one-dimensional as the characters. Just before trading the negatives for cash, Nash tells Teague: “This city. So damn beautiful. But only from a distance. Up close, it's all gutter.”

Here’s a man engaging in a criminal act – extortion – and he is complaining about how rotten Los Angeles is under its glitzy surface. It’s an ironic thought, but it isn’t delivered with a hint of irony. Instead it is put over in a dull and declarative fashion that makes the character, an associate of criminals, sound like a prude. Here it really isn’t the writing that sabotages the program – it is the witless direction. Someone besides Darabont might have been able to get Pegg to read the lines in a way that at least made him sound aware that his character was contributing to the moral decay he decries, but Darabont apparently hadn’t the vision or the chops to shade the character this way. He’s spent too much time with the walking dead, I guess.

The consequence is, Nash sounds unhip and whiney, like someone who legitimately believes their problems are caused by somebody else.  Why bother to get a guest star of Pegg’s caliber if you are going to throw him or her away on a part so badly drawn?

Despite the weak characterizations and the do-nothing storyline boasted by the show’s first two hours,  there is plenty to look at and listen to in Mob City.

The program is beautifully filmed in a way that takes advantage of a wealth of period detail: the hand-painted neckties are as garish and unsophisticated as the ones that hung in my dad’s closet; the cars are beautiful and don’t have a scratch to mar their period paint  jobs; the alpha males have just enough five o’clock shadow to look tough and mean, and the streets are constantly slicked with rain – so much so that by the end of the second episode, the viewer begins to wonder why Los Angeles is located in the middle of the desert instead of a tropical jungle.

The show also makes splendid use of neon tube art. Almost every scene seems to occur at night, and every frame of film is illuminated by the colorful signs of night clubs or dazzling reflections in pools of still rainwater.

Another terrific touch is the soundtrack, which includes such period jazz standards as “Night in Tunisia” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It is worth watching the program for the visuals and the tunes alone.

But its good looks and attractive music aside, Mob City is no replacement for Private Eye, which managed stylish visuals and a solid period soundtrack, but managed to weave them together with intriguing plots, nicely drawn characters and witty dialogue worthy of a Chandler or his successors, Ross MacDonald or James Ellroy.  

Crack L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere or The Zebra-Striped Hearse if you are looking to kill a couple hours with stylish and satisfying noir; you will find them a lot more interesting and fun than Mob City.

Or just pick up a copy of Buntin’s book. Not only is it better than the TV series it inspired, you learn some actual recent history while you are reading it.

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