Back when I was cutting my teeth on American auteurs, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) was probably the film that confused me most. I'd seen just about everything in Budd Boetticher's celebrated Ranown cycle, the series of low-budget westerns with Randolph Scott on which his reputation largely rests, and didn't quite know what to make of this anomalous black-and-white gangster melodrama. Since where the Ranowns were naturalistic and gritty, behaviorally laid back, even ramblingly philosophical, Legs was all stylization and cartoon surface, a wholly artificial concoction, with a kind of studio glitz and polish that seemed utterly alien to what Boetticher's "artistic vision" ought to have been about—or so I thought at the time. (Dave Kehr remarks on its "newsreel surrealism," with "overcontrasted" images and "shoddy cardboard sets," but what I seem to remember is a slickly styled noir, deep darks and dazzling lights with a high Hollywood sheen.) In the Boetticher canon, I'd probably rank Legs among my three or four favorite films—a superior old B, maybe even a bit retro before the word was coined. And Karen Steele, whose cover-girl glamour verged on the grotesque in the hardscrabble desolation of Ride Lonesome (on my all time top-50 list, incidentally), seems to have found her true ornamental calling here.
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond screens Thursday, August 21, at 8 PM at University of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th Street, Ida Noyes Hall. The print is 16-millimeter, apparently the best available in these celluloid-straitened times. For more information call 773-702-8575.