Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, smooth gambler
New York, Spring 1955
Film: Guys and Dolls
Release Date: November 3, 1955
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Costume Designer: Irene Sharaff
I always found it interesting to watch a method—ahem, that’s Method—actor like Marlon Brando navigating the artificially staged Broadway of Guys and Dolls, the gangland-adjacent musical by Frank Loesser, which had been based on a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows… which had itself been based on several stories by Damon Runyon.
Burt Lancaster as Lou Pascal, aging numbers runner
Atlantic City, Fall 1979
Film: Atlantic City
Release Date: September 3, 1980
Director: Louis Malle
Costume Designer: François Barbeau
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Burt Lancaster kicked off his final decade on the silver screen with Louis Malle’s well-received romantic crime drama, Atlantic City. In addition to securing Lancaster’s fourth and final Academy Award nomination, Atlantic City also earned nomination across all “Big Five” categories, though the film was shut out at the Oscars with Henry Fonda taking home the trophy for his performance in On Golden Pond.
Lancaster plays Lou Pascal, a long-in-the-tooth numbers runner who proudly walks the boardwalk of the titular town, waxing poetic to anyone who’ll listen about the golden age of gangsterdom in America’s Playground, when “it used to be beautiful, whatwith the rackets, whoring, guns.”
Atlantic City had floy floy coming out of its ears in those days. Now it’s all so goddamn legal. Howard Johnson running a casino. Tutti-frutti ice cream with craps don’t mix.
Lou’s comfort among criminality results in a botched cocaine deal that results in a dead dealer and plenty of blow left over for Lou to sell for his own profit as he endeavors to seduce the dealer’s estranged—and now widowed—wife, an attractive and ambitious casino waitress named Sally (Susan Sarandon). Continue reading
Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green, ambitious blues cornetist
Chicago, Summer 1927
Film: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Release Date: November 25, 2020
Director: George C. Wolfe
Costume Designer: Ann Roth
The late Chadwick Boseman was being named as an Oscar contender for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the August Wilson play of the same name, even before it came out. We’re still two months away from the Academy Award nominations being announced, but Boseman has already received posthumous Best Actor wins from the Chicago Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and Music City Film Critics’ Association for what turned out to be his final screen role.
The praise is well-deserved as the actor delivered a powerhouse performance as the hotheaded horn-blower Levee Green, an ambitious (and fictional) member of a four-piece band backing Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the Mother of the Blues herself. The North Side neighborhood in my hometown of Pittsburgh was transformed to resemble roaring ’20s Chicago when production came to the Steel City two summers ago; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the only one of the ten plays in the Hill District-born Wilson’s “Century Cycle” not actually set in Pittsburgh.
Chadwick Boseman had been diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, never speaking publicly about his illness all the while delivering some of his most iconic performances in Marshall, Black Panther, and the two Avengers films to follow. Indeed, Boseman’s vigorous performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom belies his health at the time, and his fellow cast members remained unaware of his ongoing treatment for the cancer that would progress to stage IV before it ended his life at the age of 42 on August 28, 2020. Continue reading
Spencer Tracy as John J. Macreedy, one-armed war veteran
Black Rock, California, Fall 1945
Film: Bad Day at Black Rock
Release Date: January 7, 1955
Director: John Sturges
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Bad Day at Black Rock may have been one of the most requested movies I’ve been asked to write about, so when I saw that the Criterion Channel had added it to their streaming collection in December, I wasted no time in finally watching this swift and spectacular thriller that had been recommended by so many of you.
Based on Howard Breslin’s short story “Bad Time at Honda”, the account begins in the sprawling desert of eastern California, specifically the isolated berg of Black Rock, where no train has stopped in four years—the duration of American participation in World War II—until this particular day in late 1945, when the one-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) requests a stop.
Conductor: Man, they look woebegone and far away.
Macreedy: Oh, I’ll only be here 24 hours.
Conductor: In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.
William Powell as Nick Charles, retired private detective
San Francisco, New Year’s Eve 1936
Film: After the Thin Man
Release Date: December 25, 1936
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Wardrobe Credit: Dolly Tree
Happy New Year! Dashiell Hammett and “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke continued the runaway success of The Thin Man by reuniting William Powell and Myrna Loy as crime-solving power couple Nick and Nora Charles, coming home to San Francisco after solving the famous “Thin Man” case during their holiday in New York. The three-day train ride returns Nick and Nora to the City by the Bay just in time for New Year’s Eve, where they find their home commandeered by revelers that have already kicked off their celebrations.
Bing Crosby as Bob Wallace, Broadway crooner and World War II veteran
Pine Tree, Vermont, December 1954
Film: White Christmas
Release Date: October 14, 1954
Director: Michael Curtiz
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Merry Christmas to all BAMF Style readers who celebrate! After a turbulent year, I know I’ve found comfort in the warm familiarity of the 1954 holiday classic White Christmas starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a pair of war buddies-turned-producers who stage yet another “yuletide clambake” to support their popular general (Dean Jagger)… as if you hadn’t already seen it!
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham, aka Jeff Bailey, laconic gas station owner and former private detective
Bridgeport, California, to San Francisco via Lake Tahoe, Fall 1946
Film: Out of the Past
Release Date: November 25, 1947
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Costume Credit: Edward Stevenson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Regarded among the best of classic film noir, Out of the Past showcases the genre’s quintessential elements: shadowy cinematography (thanks to Nicholas Musuraca), a story of double-cross and intrigue told in flashback, a charismatic antagonist, an alluring and ultimately deadly femme fatale, and—of course—a tough-talking, chain-smoking private eye light on words and sentiment:
Baby, I don’t care.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, eccentric and ambitious aviation and movie mogul
Los Angeles, September 1935
Film: The Aviator
Release Date: December 25, 2004
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
85 years ago today on September 13, 1935, a sleek silver aircraft rocketed through the air over Santa Ana, California, at a record-breaking speed over 350 miles per hour, making four passes over Martin Field before a crash-landing that deposited its owner—one of the wealthiest and most ambitious men in America at the time—into a beet field, alive and hardly discouraged. As Howard Hughes’ colleagues ran over to extract the 29-year-old entrepreneur and aviator from the wreckage of the H-1 Racer, he hardly had his own safety in mind, issuing the command: “We can fix her, she’ll go faster!”
Tom Selleck as Nick Lassiter, debonair jewel thief
London, June 1939
Release Date: February 17, 1984
Director: Roger Young
Costume Designer: Barbara Lane
While we’re still in the midst of tweed-friendly weather, I’d like to respond to a few requests I’ve had to focus on Tom Selleck’s gentlemanly style in Lassiter as an American thief in England, a far cry from the Aloha shirts he was famously wearing on Magnum, P.I. at the same time.
Released today in 1984, Lassiter starred Selleck as the titular jewel thief—Nick Lassiter—crafted in the daring and debonair tradition of cinematic cat burglars like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief and David Niven’s “Phantom” in The Pink Panther. Much like his previous film, High Road to China, this movie compensated for the fact that Selleck had to pass on the role of Indiana Jones by giving him the role of a charismatic, resourceful, and risk-averse rogue facing danger from under the brim of a fedora in the years leading up to World War II.
James Cagney as Tom Powers, dangerous gangster and bootlegger
Chicago, Spring 1922
Film: The Public Enemy
Release Date: April 23, 1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Wardrobe Credit: Earl Luick
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
One hundred years ago at midnight tonight, on January 17, 1920, the Volstead Act went into effect, beginning a 13-year prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States… and kicking off what Herbert Asbury referred to in his informal history of the Chicago underworld as “the saturnalia of crime and corruption which has been called ‘a noble experiment’,” due to the resulting surge in organized crime that effectively gave rise to the modern gangster.
As moving pictures evolved as a popular medium in the waning years of Prohibition, so too did the gangster movie. Warner Brothers took the lead, exposing audiences to snarling violent hoodlums based on the real-life criminals who bloodied the streets of New York and Chicago. It was in the 1931 hit The Public Enemy that James Cagney made his star-making turn as the psychopathic gangster Tom Powers.