The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond

(Budd Boetticher, USA, 1960)


The particular genius of Budd Boetticher‘s film arises from the way it exaggerates the symbolic, performative function of his gangster hero – the slick charisma of Legs Diamond (Ray Danton) expresses itself not only in action and seduction, but also in the literal performance of being a prize winning dancer. More than any other film made up to 1960, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond quite rigorously and systematically works out on the level of its filmic style and structure the metaphor of gangster hero as metteur en scène of the very movie we are watching. He both drives (on the level of energy) and articulates (on the level of logic) the greater part of the film. He is its consciousness.

This occurs, for instance, through Legs’ eyes, in the way his point-of-view shots mesh in with the gradually accumulating implications of the editing sequences. A point-of-view swish pan near the start of the film takes in Legs’ lateral association of jewels in a shop window, an adjacent theatre, and a sign advertising a dance class. The plot is hatched in this moment: to get a partner for a dance contest, enter a competition at the theatre, make an excuse to get to the toilet and through the window into the jewel shop. On the level of the larger shot and scene articulation which carry the film’s gradual implications of logic (adapting here a term of Jean Mitry’s), we can note how Legs’ consciousness seems to drive the film through the apparent forcing of strong transitions, for example, his declaration “I’m going to Miami” calls up the subsequent stock shot of the town, as if the film were following him.

Often these transitions are strong ellipses, leaps that require the spectator to take a moment or two to figure out the missing item of knowledge which is, as it were, locked already into Legs’ controlling consciousness. These ellipses either pivot around an object which is part of Legs’ schemes (a trophy, a necklace, a gun) or jump from the beginning or planting of a move to its successful completion (a particular treatment of Barthes’ proairetic code). Legs is always one step ahead of us in the figuring of the plot, as for instance in this sequence of shots: a) Legs at prison grill performing his contrition; b) reverse shot of Alice softening, taking pity; lap-dissolve to c) Legs on his knees with outstretched arms – but now (it takes the second until Alice dances into frame to work it out) released from jail and dancing in a hall once more. Many such ellipses function as "winks" to the viewer that Legs is in complete control of the logic and flow of events.

Legs Diamond shows us another instance of the mapping or doubling of form in relation to content that is perhaps distinctive, in its inflections, to the gangster film. Plot comes to be interdependently exploited in its two senses – the hero’s plot, or scheme, with the film’s own narrative plot. Certain gangster films run these two together until the moment is chosen to split them apart, with all the apocalyptic consequences that follow. Insofar as a film’s plotting, its narrating, concerns how much information it chooses to convey or tell at any given moment, it creates for itself the opportunity of implying throughout that there is a certain sum of knowledge that is not being entirely revealed, but rather, leaked out slowly to the viewer. And thus it can trace a set of shifting relations between what the viewer senses he/she does not yet know and what the film and/or the central character seems to already know. This is a complex game-structure (familiar from the films of Lang, Hitchcock, De Palma) that we will explore further in a moment.

Why does Legs fall? According to a scenario familiar in the genre, the times change, i.e. a new power game is installed – a move from individualist gangsterism to corporate based criminality. A few aspects of this shift are particularly worth noting. Firstly, Boetticher underlines the idea that the gangster hero’s grasp on power is conditional on his management of (omnipresence within) space. He does this by marking Legs’ fall from the precise moment that he removes himself from his immediate location – by taking a holiday. Overseas, he impotently and frustratedly watches the newsreels that herald the arrival of the era of the New Deal.

Secondly, the film, when it shifts from rise to fall, renders pathetic the means and strategies of Legs’ particular power game. For him (as for the gangster hero generally), power is in what he "has" over other individuals – concentrated here in the singular key object of the little book which alone contains the master index of names, addresses, phone numbers, ledgers of debit and credit. Earlier in the film Legs has struggled to win control of this document, for once he possesses it he possesses all of the people inscribed within it. This generic icon of the magical book or tape or piece of film, mystified because apparently beyond or before modern technical reproduction, a sort of analogue to the pristine individual body, structures many fictions including CassavetesGloria (1980) and Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981). When Legs waves his little book around in the corporate boardroom near the film’s end, he is informed curtly that his information is outdated and his methods outmoded – little books can no longer secure power.

Thirdly, the film’s principal theme is one involving self/other relations and Legs’ fatal misrecognition of the basis of his power. Legs’ rise is more crucially achieved through seduction than the brute force of eliminating opponents. As a seducer, Legs’ overpowers others while still keeping them alive – but without realising that his game then depends on maintaining the spell of seduction. He is as dependent on these others (such as his wife and brother) for the (illusion of) power as they are dependent upon him for (the illusion of) love. One senses they are in fact fully aware of the illusion and pretence involved – they are masochists happy and willing to be the victims in an intersubjective game – but it is precisely this game which Legs ends up failing to honour.

When Legs’ ego inflates – when he himself comes to believe the illusion that power is constituted wholly in a self – he lets the seduction slip and promptly loses his power base. His game-plan becomes contradictory, incoherent, counterproductive: “Whose bluff were you calling when you let Eddy [Legs’ brother] die?” While he believes his "magic" is in his self-indestructibility (“The bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me!”), his wife reminds him, when he is beyond salvation: “That was the magic – as long as someone loved you, you were OK.”

The bitter final-line epitaph of the film is a pragmatic rather than simple humanist (or tragic) judgement on Legs as a failed Mr Big – “he never loved anybody; that’s why he’s dead”.

MORE Boetticher: Ride Lonesome

OTHER fables of male power: Extreme Prejudice, Brother, Mixed Blood

© Adrian Martin December 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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