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Monday, 31 August 2009

Mad Dog Coll (1961)

Director: Burt Balaban
Stars: John Chandler, Kay Doubleday and Brooke Hayward

Sometimes films leap out of the schedules for reasons entirely unrelated to their quality or subject matter. Here's a 1961 biopic about a 1930s gangster with the title character played by John Davis Chandler, an interesting actor but nothing special to posterity. But what a cast! While it was Chandler's first film (and the only film in which he led the credits), it was also the debut of a minor little name called Gene Hackman and another one called Telly Savalas (discounting one other film made the same year in which he was credited as Telli Savales). There's also Jerry Orbach from TV's Law and Order.

It leaps out from the screen from moment one too. In a graveyard scene that could have been in a zombie flick, Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll fires his tommy gun at his father's tombstone. Then, as the credits run we're get a theme tune that wouldn't have been out of place opening up a Bond movie. It even sounds like Shirley Bassey but it's really a guy called Hal Waters. Then we meet a burlesque dancer called Clio LaPatra who tells us our story in flashback. We watch the little Vincent get abused by his dad, who really wasn't a nice guy, though it would seem a little excessive to suggest that he's a valid excuse for what Coll becomes. He's just no good.

Fast forward a little way and he's a young thug getting into trouble and not even being too careful about it. Chandler makes a memorable gangster, somewhat like Steve Buscemi playing Peter Lorre, if you can imagine someone that freaky. Nicolas Cage played the same role in The Cotton Club in 1984 but I bet he has nothing on Chandler who revels in the role as much as his character revels in being tough. Only Lt Darro, a decent but hopeful cop, thinks there's hope for the small scale hoods like Coll who haven't been caught yet, but that hope isn't met in the slightest with him. Coll has a destiny of violence ahead of him that reeks of inevitability.

Five years later Coll is a wannabe gangster getting ready to take on Dutch Schultz and leap on into the big time. 'I'm gonna be number one right off the bat,' he says, and he isn't kidding. He has a taste for cruelty and by the time he interrupts the unloading of a boat by machine gunning the entire crew it's become orgasmic for him. Even when Schultz sends an assassin to take him down and gets one of his best friends instead, he just takes it as confirmation that he's got to Schultz. Never mind the corpse: it isn't Ralphie, it's just a stiff.

The style definitely outweighs the substance here. There's a jazzy score underlying everything and some of the characters play more like cartoons than real people. Chandler himself plays Coll like acting is going out of style and scenestealing has come in. He's the lead character, the title character, the character that the whole film is about, but he spends half the time stealing scenes from anyone around him and the other half trying even harder to steal them from himself. He's fascinating to watch and I'm not going to say he's not magnetic but he's utterly over the top.

Coll was a tough hombre back in the depression and screenwriters Leo Lieberman and Edward Schreiber show it here, but while the spirit is true the details don't match up to real life. In truth, Coll was Irish born and grew up working for Schultz rather than just targetting him later. His court appearances aren't mentioned at all. In real life he killed a five year old kid during an attempted kidnapping, but here it's a couple of bystanders while escaping from an attempted hit. It was the Mayor of New York Jimmy Walker who dubbed him a mad dog, rather than a lowly police lieutenant. He's killed in the right place but by the wrong people.

Yet for all the discrepancies and the fact that his powerful underworld gang apparently has a sum total of five people in it, the 88 minutes zip by like lightning. It's low budget but it's more than capable filmmaking, and there's that cast that can't be ignored. Orbach is a little too nice to really hang out with someone like Coll, but he's decent, like the rest of Coll's mob. He has a lot of screen time, much more than the two biggest names in the film. Savalas and Hackman even share the screen at one point: they're two cops watching a girl get out of a yellow cab coming to see Vincent. They're unmistakeable but in 1961 they were just two new guys who nobody knew.

What's interesting is that Savalas looks like he was the most experienced actor in the cast, the only thing that dates him being the fact that he has a little hair, but Hackman just stands there. To be fair, he doesn't even get to speak and there's precisely nothing for him to do, but it's amazing to see an actor as great as Hackman do as much for a film as a lamppost. He wouldn't make his second film for another three years. Three more after that and he was Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde.

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