Saturday, September 21, 2013

True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders by Dina Di Mambro

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book. This did not in any way influence my review.

As shocking as some film plots are, they pale in comparison to the real lives and dramas of some of the actors and writers who brought those stories to life. And while we may think of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies as the "noir" period of American life, as Di Mambro shows, the Twenties were just as wild if not wilder. And while we may have forgotten William Desmond Taylor and Thomas H. Ince, Di Mambro paints a convincing picture of how important they were during their time and how their influence affects us to this day.

While most of the victims, perpetrators and bystanders were famous and glamorous- Jean Harlow, Thelma Todd, George Reeves, Bob Crane, Gig Young, Natalie Wood, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Robert Blake and Robert Wagner- most of the crimes came down to the mundane that drives most crimes: money and love (or at least its substitutes, sex and jealousy). There were, however, a couple that made you cringe, particularly the stories of Bonnie Lee Bakley, Lana Turner and Bob Crane (but that's child abuse and sex addiction for you).

While the mob haunts several of the stories, particularly Lana Turner's, the last chapter focuses on Mickey Cohen, the famous (and beloved) mobster from Cleveland who started out as Ben "Bugsy" Siegel's right-hand man. As told by his longtime friend and employee Jim Smith, Cohen was a mobster who believed in "honor among thieves". He was a murderer as well as a robber, but as his boss Siegel once said, "don't worry, we only kill each other." (But weren't there plenty of bystanders hurt as collateral damage when mobsters were "hurting each other"?)

As juicy as the other chapters were, the one on Cohen provided for the biggest surprises. Yes, the Rat Pack hung out with Cohen, but Sinatra was a prima donna and Dean Martin was kind to almost everyone; Pat Brown was on Cohen's payroll, Billy Graham was a transparent con man, and Richard Milhouse Nixon got his start thanks to Cohen (is that really a surprise?).

I found this book to be informative, but for most of the chapters the author appeared to favor a certain theory or person. She writes almost affectionately of Cohen, but while we can believe that he did all of the charitable contributions and gestures he is said to, that chapter is unbalanced. To read it without question, we'd presume that everyone Cohen ever hurt deserved it.

Recommended for fans of Hollywood history and true crime who can take the information with a grain of salt.

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