‘Gentlemen . . . ’
‘We're in one hell of a bear trap here and we're shit out of ladders.’
Lousy diagnosis, even lousier prognosis. It was understandable. The facts were as plain as the hand-written missives etched into the gaps in the patterns in the company's art deco company wallpaper - an indulgence at a time of growth, now emblematic of the company's troubles. The figures were in and they were as unshakable as the Republicans' ten year stranglehold on the Congress ;- profits tanking, slate as bare as a hooker's diary over thanksgiving weekend, not to mention a forecast as gloomy as the Cubs prospects for the playoffs. That said there was no better man for the task of helming the Goliath through the amorphous swell than it's current admiral-in-chief. Squat, uncompromising and resolute in a way that made the upper floors of the Chrysler building look like they might buckle in a force seven Nor'Easterner, Luther Van Crane had in spades all the traits necessary for the job of steering the old ship through the stormy seas of uncertainty. Switching themes from nautical to geological, the very tectonic plates of the industry were shifting ; re-aligning themselves in a way that not even the founder of the great Parallax Pictures could predict. If the company was at the center of the geologic tumult, then Luther Van Crane was straddling the San Andreas itself. The malaise might easily have been transposed onto celluloid. What odds on the song emanating from the grand in the wings - being tapped out doughtily by the vaudevillian all-rounder Delilah Louisa Dalrymple - being 'Bad times are here again and they ain't on a short-let' - Larry 'chumpers' Levine in the lead ? Short. No, the bags had been packed, cabins reserved, deck chairs stacked ;- White Star's finest was about to set sail. Only there were no icebergs ahead, only the bleak finacial forecasts that not even the number-crunchers in the back room could tweak. And like that vast megalith in white, if this month's didn't get you, next month's would. Last quarter's numbers spelled out just how much of a flea-ridden pony Parallax had become. It wasn't quite skidsville as one former President had opined but it wasn't far off. The bean counters had signed off on the accounts and it was only a matter of time before the trades got wind. So who among the great and good could step up to the plate and revive flagging fortunes ? Who amongst those present would produce the golden goose that would save this turkey from Christmas ? Not everyone need talk at once. Heads remained lowered, ties caressed and handkerchiefs pocketed and re-pocketed. Had there been a lady present, no doubt a hemline or such would have been adjusted. As for the boss, he chose for the moment not to elaborate on the stark analysis. Instead he paced. Nervous backsides squirmed against moist leather upholstery. It was a fact that most men ensconced in positions of authority developed mechanisms to reinforce their authority. A vocal style, a facial gesture, perhaps an interpersonal approach that carried with it the threat of sanction. LVC was a pacer. A squat man, it was a style he'd made all his own. If a particular mood or sensibility had to be conveyed, Luther needed nothing more than a length of carpet. And what he gave away in height he more than made up for in girth. He digested the faces of the characters around the table, instinctively lapsing into his best Jimmy Cantor from 'An Angel on My shoulder, a Dame on My Arm'. Incidentally, for the range of movies that Jimmy signed on for it was perfect for an edgy desperado on the run. The old man might have a lazy eye that had kept him out of front line conflict in the Great War but his one good peep-hole could sub-contract for naval intelligence. Accordingly he scanned the faces of those around him for a flicker of inspiration or a moment of genius which might alleviate the fortunes of a company teetering on the brink. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. So things had come to this had they ? Parallax Pictures in trouble ? On the verge of bankruptcy ? You'd better believe it. Only the press and the networks didn't know the half of it. The company was leeching money away like a drunk with a Friday paycheck and no amount of spin or PR could glam-up those kinds of numbers. The half-yearlies were out and not only did they not look good but they had the kind of albino pall that wouldn't have disgraced the average emergency room on a Saturday night.
So how had things come to such a pass ? Only a few years ago Parallax had been riding the wave, pushing forward the boundaries of a new genre of film-making ;- bringing enlightenment, and more importantly entertainment to the massed ranks of movie-goers across America. Not so long ago, Parallax had had it's pick of actors and actresses. Whatever it wanted to do, it did. If the company wanted to work with someone, it happened. 'Director or actor wanted to put a project through the Parallax lens ? It went into production.On the flip side, career taken a downturn ? Same deal. Casting calls no longer blotting the diary ? Agent on vacation ? No problem. Try Parallax. At Parallax the sky was the limit . . . Once ascendant careers could be revitalized on the outcome of a single telephone call to the Parallax front desk.
'Oh, she's just done a picture for Parallax. Well why didn't you say ? Sure, we'd love to have her come in and and see us. What's good for her ?'
Or, 'What's so-and-so doing now ? I heard he couldn't get arrested . . . Uh-huh, uh-huh. Parallax, you say ? Really ? You'll have to give me his number.'
Luther Van crane was the executive every other executive wanted to sit down and shoot the breeze with. First choice at 'Spando's' or 'Marguerite's', he had it on the arm with every restaurant and club in town. And that was when proprietors didn't seat Luther's party 'a la maison', which wasn't often. Nothing was a barrier to Parallax's meteoric rise. For a decade or so, little happened to suggest things might not continue in that vein. The company expanded, even threatening the majors, all too frequently besting them at the box office and sending a shudder down the collective industry spine. But like a casual laborer living high off the hog during the boom times, Parallax couldn't resist taking it's eyes off the road ahead. And sure as eggs were eggs until they hit the bottom of the bowl, Parallax didn't see the precipice until it was too late. Within the space of four weeks, the company went from 'Great Fright Hope' (L.A Gazette) to 'Locker Room Dope' (Washington Chronicle) Ticket booth and trade alike, no-one wanted to know. Product from Parallax, was, as they say, cold. In a town where 'Superman' was the new buzzword, anything that the company touched turned to kryptonite. For a perilous moment in it's history, the house that Crane built was on its uppers, with only it's glorious past to reflect upon.
'End of the decade and Parallax's feature 'Armageddon in a Small Town' was up against stiff competition from it's downtown rivals. Indeed, in just seven weeks, it would do it all for real-and in front of a live audience-at the industry's showpiece event. The centerpiece of the motion picture calendar. The 'Annual Film Awards'. Named in honor of the great revolutionary South American bandito Cesar Oscarino - who would inspire his men with graphic renditions of great historical leaders and their foibles - the night rightly reflected theatrical talent. Traditionally the majors swept the boards. Leviathans, they dictated what product made it into the big-town theater screens, and by the same token what the hacks contented themselves with in their brick-facade corporate offices downtown.
'Distributors in the pocket. Stars in the bank. Votes in the can.'
It might have been the motto on the four paperweights on the desks of the respective heads of the big four studios. Since the inauguration of the event, they had enjoyed a ninety five per cent plus hit rate. From 'Best Picture' to 'Third Assistant Costume Director' you were on safe ground betting with the form book. If the majors didn't disappoint then neither did the judges. It was the coziest relationship in Hollywood since Barrenbaum & Schultz, eponymous dilettantes to the shmutter business. How queer then that Luther Van Crane should look to upset that form book. His baby 'Armageddon' would go toe-to-toe with offerings from each of his heavy-hitting rivals. To wit, three of the bigs had feelgood war films up for examination. The plots of the three extravaganzas were by-the-numbers ; strapping American heroes defying entire platoons of enemy aggressors, hoisting aloft American flags from hills, mounds and trenches - wherever the enemy might labor under the delusion of it's futile grand plan. Either that or our brave hero was invalided home after honorable service in the face of insurmountable odds. The nationalistic spirit was epitomized doggedly in, 'In the Face of the Enemy', 'Leopards of War' and 'Yellow Hell'. Only Vistavision moved away from the nationalistic-cum-xenophobic mood, with a forgettable melodrama starring the ever-schmaltzy Dana Devine. Over at Parallax, the anticipation was palpable, much like a love scene from the Dana Devine playbook. As the weeks passed so the hub-bub intensified. The questions rolled off the presses as easily as the quips escaping from the pens of the monologue writers working for Lyndon Laing at the United Broadcasting Company. Was gore a wholesome medium for mass entertainment ? Was there sufficient moola behind the Parallax muscle ? Luther would answer them all in turn. Right now he had a long-overdue vacation to take. Ten days in the sun and he would come back in good time to face his critics. True to his word and ten days later and suitably refreshed, Luther returned from a sun-drenched Caribbean idyll to face the melee. Tanned and brimming with exuberance, the boss of the most exciting prospect in town denied rumors that the trip had been a ruse to prolong the suspense. Instead Luther indulged his audience with speculation as to this year's host and master of ceremonies. The fact that it had been in the bag for weeks was immaterial. Fatty 'Fats' Carmichael would be doing the honors A journeyman actor and comedic turn, Fatty had been around for an eon - which in showbusiness terms was a lifetime plus ten. He'd played just about every spot in town and had a residency at the 'Laugh-Inn' on Sunset. A shoe-in he'd hosted twice in the previous three years. A bout of intestinal pain had forced him to defer the privilege just twelve months ago. All in all he was shrewd enough to take the Academy's cent and mosey on down to the bank Monday morning, a spring in his step and a bulge in his wallet. Besides which, Fatty's agent, the infamous Hollywood savant Marty Pinkel was no spring chicken. An industry lifer with two heart attacks under his belt, or rather above it, as well as several unattested bouts of angina, old 'Pinkel Toes' would have swiveled in his leatherette armchair at the news that Fats had turned down the hottest gig in town. The larger-than-life entertainer had been many things over the course of his career-comic, jobbing actor, promotional groundhog, stuntman - but one thing he wasn't, was a killer.'
' . . . And so ladies and gentlemen'
Fatty Carmichael reveled in the pomp, rolling the audience through his fingers like a physician conducting his umpteenth examination of the nether regions of one of his patients. For the most part Fatty stuck to the script, ad-libbing only if the urge proved irresistible, teasing his audience by holding back from revealing some of the more salacious details of their private lives. In that respect Dana Devine had good reason to be thankful. If the truth had been known about her multiple bigamist marriages, Hollywood might have better understood the impulse that lay behind her particular brand of screen theatrics. Fats was the epitome of discretion. Naturally when eventually it came time for the awards - the anti-climactic finale for legions of Fatty's fans - the trinkets went with the short money. Best actor and actress went to Harry McLean and Lucille Loeb, Moviescope stalwarts whose national service on the epic, 'In the Face of the Enemy' was rightfully being recognized Harry and Lucille sat down to applause, clutching their awards, hands unconsciously having been locked in that position since the start of the evening. For Luther, the hard work, the tight budgets and the ass-kissing were about to pay off. Guest award-presenter Marvin Deane, star of 'The Marvin Deane Show' opened the envelope.
'And the award for best director goes to . . . '
Luther Van Crane's world morphed into slow-motion cartoon form. His body went into the equivalent of automatic writing and within the space of five minutes he'd risen and sat twice, collecting awards for 'Best Picture' and 'Best Director'. It was the grand slam. 'Bottom of the ninth squeeze play, homer in the twelfth. Luther floated Seraph-like through the auditorium, an observer outside his own body, congratulated by colleagues and strangers, the culmination of years of hard work. When finally he fell back to Earth, he was the man of the moment. Lauded, praised and unquestionably in the ascendancy. The industry had decided to reward courage, fortitude and creativity. It might be the case that outside industry circles few had heard of 'Armageddon in a Small Town' but what they didn't know about the film, they'd soon learn about it's director. In honor of it's win, the Hollywood Inquisitor threw a themed party for 'Armageddon', guests turning up in full slasher garb. It was a hoot from start to finish. When Luther arrived, think Mario Lanzini climbing onto an ad-hoc stage, microphone in hand at the annual Italian-American festival on Mulberry Street and you were in the ball park. Everybody was going 'Armageddon' crazy. The merchandising deals were inked in time for the Easter weekend. A rubberized version of Luther's homemade protagonist was made into a twelve inch replica toy. The stores sold out in a fortnight. Parents fought so frequently to best one another to get their hands on one of Luther's little monsters for one of their little monsters that police across America had to be recalled from leave to patrol malls and main streets in order to keep the peace.
Armageddon in a small town, indeed.
Luther paced. He was getting nothing out of his cadre of lieutenants and inspiration was as unforthcoming as passing trade to the shoe-shine boys of thirties Wall Street. Sure, difficult patches had been weathered in the past but there was an air of terminality about this one. If that was even a word. The elephant cadaver in the corner of the room was testament to that. Talking of things that had died a death and were now stinking up the place, the studio's last three pictures were still padding out copy in the entertainment sections of the dailies, each a poignant case study in how to blow it in the movies. They hadn't so much tanked as been hauled out to sea, loaded down with lead weights and left to sink to the bottom of old Davy's locker. If a salvage team ever chanced upon them, pity the luckless insurers putting up the front money. It all begged the question no studio director or company C.E.O ever wanted to ask. Was the outfit in so deep a hole that it couldn't dig it's way out again ? Was the firm really having it's last hurrah, drinking in the last chance saloon, grabbing the last bottle from the shelf only to find that the town wino had got there first ? Boss of Parallax Pictures and Chief Executive of long-standing Luther Van Crane was never apt to shirk a challenge but questions like these were unpalatable to a man who'd only known success. Anyone who could read the broadsheets could see in painful luminosity the jaundiced hue that distinguished the company's finances from it's competitors. Luther's culpability or otherwise for it weighed heavily on his mind. And so cometh the hour, cometh the man.
‘When I founded this company, everybody said it couldn't be done. Everybody.’
His voice rose as he spoke, much as a barometer might in a boiler room that had sprung a leak on labor day.
‘No-one gave me a hand-out, no-one gave me a leg-up and no-one ever gave me a dressing-down. You know why ?’
His audience deferred.
‘Cos I didn't take any shit !’
The finger went up. Trademark Van Crane.
‘Every step of the way, every decision I made, there was someone waiting to tell me it couldn't be done. Aaah, some kid wet behind the ears, who do you think you are ?' You come out here and tell me how things should be done. You don't know jack about this industry. 'Need a studio behind you. 'Can't be done by one guy. 'Can't do it without serious money. But I took it on the arm, called in a favor here and there and you know what . . .’
Rhetorical question. Silence.
‘I pushed through that barrier. 'Even started to get a little recognition. Yeah. A little respect. Finally. And then the next wave of naysayers. 'All telling me I'd got lucky. 'Got lucky once kid, won't happen again. Can't make it without studio backing. But you know what ?’
LVC broke into a grin.
‘I did it anyway.’
It was a speech Luther had given a thousand times, a thousand more in his own mind as a pep talk at times of limp morale - his own as much as anyone else's. The grin broadened as he strolled. The room offered ample opportunity for both.
‘But I didn't spend forty years of my life building this company up to see it collapse after a couple of bad years. And that's all they've been ! A couple of bad years. Okay, so we took a gamble on the European market. It didn't pay off.’
His tone was part accusatory, part inspired general on the eve of battle rousing tired and half-hearted troops.
‘You take risks in this business to make money. Some pay off, others . . . ‘
It was a sentence he didn't finish. Much like Napoleon facing an unlikely last-gasp return from Saint Helena, he knew when the game was up. And like the diminutive great man, Luther's problems originated fully three thousand miles away. As per his embattled counterpart, Van Crane had not shirked an imperial foray to secure new markets. He'd hot-footed it over to the old country on a mad three week bender, pressing the flesh, jetting back and forth across the continent in a mad rush to ink deals with the heads of the five big theater conglomerates.
'The Blood and the Fear.' 'Invasion at Midnight.' 'Tremors Underfoot.'
They would launch in the Italian market. It met the right demographic and Luther waited for the news stateside. Initial reports were promising but they proved to be a false dawn. Parallax took a hit on the markets and pulled out after six months. It was a learning curve experience and Luther had grown as a result. It was what he did best. He acclimatized.
‘What was that series we ran on real life execution-style beatings ?’
LVC's manner changed as a flicker of inspiration charged his thinking.
‘Blood in the suburbs.’
‘Exactly. Blood on the sidewalk. 'Suburbs, whatever it was. Went down a storm. 'Public loved it. 'Herald a new era of gruesome real-life dramas. 'Memorized the headline. Even got it framed. 'Turned out to be bullshit, but it put us on the map. And that's what I'm saying. Right now, we're off the map, off the radar.’
Forty years ago a summer news story had caught the eye of a young go-getter on the Associated floor.
'Fourth woman murdered in series of brutal slayings. '
Nearly half a decade later and Luther Van Crane was still drawing from the same creative, if macabre well.
‘We need something to put us right back in the middle of things.’
He clenched his fist and slammed it onto the table.
‘We need a hit !’
It was a call to arms. The behemoth, as it was once affectionately known, was certainly due one.
Boom times for the average American. Sub Median-income or millionaire, you couldn't fail to be affected. Stock prices were on the crest of a ten year wave and there was collective optimism about the forthcoming decade, just a few months around the corner. A new type of jet propulsion system looked certain to revolutionize travel and baseball's home run record had been smashed two years in succession. Model 'A's were rolling off the production lines like they were blueberry muffins at Lucille's mom-and-pop bakery and labor-saving devices that helped free the average housewife from her humdrum shift at the grindstone were all the rage. 'Why tie yourself to the kitchen sink ?' . . . 'No more dishpan hands !' . . . 'Housewives, experience the exhilaration of food in an instant with the new 'Micro-Cook' from Varlon.' Even more thrilling than Mr. Ford's new roadster, the Insta-Cook and the joys of watching two of baseball's greatest sluggers go head-to-head in the run up to the playoffs, was the new pastime a-la-mode. The motion picture. Now with added sound ! Sure, movies had been around for donkeys years but with the advent of technicolor and the teen-friendly 'drive in', nine out of ten adolescents looking to get away from the 'squaresville' work-a-day routine of family life could 'hang out' and catch a picture at the same time. With the President's bill to put a movie theater in every small town across America by the middle of the next decade, the clarion call had gone out to the motion picture industry-and everyone connected with it-that the public was eager for entertainment. It had a buck in it's pocket and a seat on the passenger side for anyone who was looking for a cheap thrill. On the other side of the silver screen, a generation of starlets and soon-to-be household names were about to be introduced to kitchens and living rooms across the nation. The very thought of it was tantalizing. Imagine the housewife's glee in discovering a Roscoe Arbuthnott or Rudolph Valenzuela in her living room Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Well, quite. Movie stars brought glamor and pazzazz to lives that were devoid of glamor and pazzazz. Flick through any copy of 'Entertainment Today' or 'Star Spotlight' and you could knock yourself out on the gleaming white smiles and perfectly coiffured hairpieces of the blessed and the beautiful. And this was betting without the new craze for 'talkies'. The name was a gimmick and like the technique of sound incorporation, it was uncertain whether it would find a home in mainstream society ; but one thing was clear - 'star' value was here to stay. As if the new entertainment craze needed a testament, the West coast recorded the foundation of thirty seven companies dedicated to the motion picture industry - together with it's ancillary support services in just the month of August alone, each of whom had an eye to the main chance. Carry on at this rate and a decade from now, practically the entire state would in some way be connected with showbusiness and the movie industry. That said, anyone pitching up in the dog days of the decadent decade was sitting down at a game whose high rollers had so deftly stacked the deck that the life-expectancy of a new player at the table compared unfavorably with that of a manager for the Blue Jays charge with breathing new life into the rosta. It was an open secret that the movie industry in 1929 was sewn up. To all intents and purposes, tighter than a duck's behind and more conservatively-run than Washington's inner circle. Associated, Moviescope, Cinetone and Vistavision. Between them, they constituted the 'big four' and together, were the movie industry in 1929. And if you were sitting down at that table with a weak ace or a pair of deuces, then you'd better have more a high school diploma in the subtle art of bluffing. Put simply, if you wanted to get a movie made, you went to one of the majors. And that was never more true than for an actor of the caliber of Douglas Freebanks. Only Associated could ink a two picture deal with the great man and still have cash left over to buy out his contract from Cinetone. Only Moviescope could bring an actress like Lucinda Lake on board. And boy, when she was on board, did the picture fly. Think of it like the evils of liquor and ways one might employ to get around the official embargo. If you wanted the go-ahead to operate a club or open a flesh parlor then you had to sit down with one of the top enchiladas from one of the five families. Same with the movies. Sit down with Big 'Al' to work out the take on a new gambling joint or shoot the breeze with the boss of Moviescope about a points split on a three picture deal. You paid your money and you took your choice, or in 'Al's case, you paid your money and hoped to come out of the place in one piece. Associated, Moviescope, Cinetone or Vistavision. You choose. Of those thirty seven companies that came into being in the late summer of 1929, some twenty eight filed for bankruptcy within six months, leaving only a pallid eight to offer post-production facilities to the majors. A single outfit bucked the trend and chose to swim in shark-infested water. That outfit was Screenscape ; run by the one-time protege of Moviescope head F.M. Murray, Larry Lipton. Lipton or 'Larry L.' to his friends was an extravagant S.O.B prone to occasional bouts of artistic genius. Too sporadic for Murray's liking, Larry was eventually let go but what Larry L. inherited from his praetor was a penchant for lavish pictures. And that was fine - on the kind of budget F.M. could pass down to his 'Beaux Du Jours' but even Larry Lipton's dog and pony show, ably financed by the great F.M Murray could not withstand the pressures of a marketplace dominated by the 'big four'. Others presented the collapse in less prosaic terms. Whereas Murray had been the kind of work-hard, play-hard, good-to-be-around guy who unfalteringly got the best out of his people, Larry had been the exact opposite. If Forester M. (the 'M' stood for Mordant) Murray brought the requisite gravitas to his dealings with his employees, Larry hadn't been able to see past his own ego. Added to which, he spent like a pharaoh For the compilers of the official record, Larry Lipton skulked back to the Moviescope boardroom, any animosity between him and Murray brushed aside for the benefit of the public relations crowd. Murray retained a 'We felt Larry's talents weren't being fully utilized in that area' facade for the trades and networks. Backstage, Larry took it like a man, chastised for his wayward operation of the Moviescope purse strings, but in practical terms it was back to the normal rules of operation. As you were then. In the midst of all this, Parallax Pictures was a name no-one caught up in the hullabaloo of movie-making could rightly have been expected to have heard of. Gore, though it had yet to be classified by any single moniker, had yet to infuse the popular consciousness. Slasher films, though lauded by a tiny minority of arrivistes in the undergraduate community were still very much a 'niche' market place. Understandable. Undergraduates were nothing if not 'niche'. But thanks to the habits of a generation of teens and drop-outs sequestered on campuses and dormitorys across the nation's colleges, gore was undergoing a ghoulish rise in popularity. Indeed, the entire appetite of cinema-goers was changing. Infused with the profits from two decades of feeding the public what it wanted, the major studios had got fat on the rich pickings of force-feeding the public a diet of bland pap. Though no one knew it, gore was about to replace the twee, dainty romance yarns that had made actors like Freebanks and Salenzuela household names. Instead of saving our heroine from imminent danger, our protagonist now put the fear of God into her, escorting her to some godforsaken domain before unleashing all manner of horrific torment upon her. After a full two years of flying under the radar and with every last brick and square foot of concrete mortgaged to the hilt, Parallax's first feature opened in the fall of 1928. Could a movie studio owned and run by twenty-something Luther Van crane really challenge two full decades of dominance ? America was about to find out. As it was, 'Vampire Hordes from Space' was nothing to write home about artistically. It represented far more in terms of the ambitions of it's young creative producer-director. A trickle of diehards bombarded daily showings looking to get scared out of their wits. Some stayed, catching two offerings a night. The nation's youth had developed a bloodlust, albeit an underdeveloped one. Parents expressed their unease. But theaters were duty-bound to do nothing if not follow the almighty dollar and where the money went, so did the market. In keeping with the mediocre response, Parallax's next four pictures flopped. At least three were barely watchable, and following several walk-outs from paying customers, theaters across the state closed the show on the 'Gore Factory', at least temporarily. They lost money, as did Parallax, but Parallax C.E.O Luther Van Crane was on a learning curve. Failures were many things to many people but they were at their most valuable when they were springboards to success. Two more failures followed - in quick succession. Luther learned something valuable from each. And each time, he made adjustments. For his seventh picture-and what many predicted would be Parallax's final foray into film-making before it's CEO resumed a mid-level management position in marketing-Luther went back to basics. He borrowed and begged for the cash, such was his economic standing within the financial community. It would be a hometown mom-and-pop affair. Your standard, 'alien-from-another-world-masquerades-as-a-stand-up-member-of-the-community-gaining-its-confidence-before-unleashing-terror-on-a-grand-scale kind of set up. 'Armageddon in a Small Town' came out on time and under budget. The company, as well as Luther's assets, were on the line. 'Movie News Weekly' hit the nail on the head.
'Make or Break for Freak Show Central'.
‘ . . . And we haven't had one in God knows how many years. That's God knows how many years too long. When I started this company, you made films and people watched them. 'Flocked to the theaters. We couldn't make enough of them. I remember we churned out twenty nine, thirty films in one year. Broke the record. 'Public loved 'em all.’
LVC was apt to infuse his voice with a richness of tone when he was reminiscing.
‘Who can forget the great period in this company's history, thirty nine to forty nine.
‘And what's more, it lasted a decade. We were number one for fifty four straight months . . . Parallax. Number one. Fifty four !’
He eased back on the throttle.
‘Now no one can tell me the public's lost it's appetite for entertainment. Damn it, we need to start doing what we do best. We're in the entertainment business, people. Let's start acting like it.’
He strolled as he glanced. Another fist, another table.
‘Don't buy into the hype. 'Public doesn't care for it anymore. Appetite diminished. Bullshit. You know what I say ? Garbage. BS. If there's one thing I know, it's the public - and I know it's appetite for the honest-to-goodness blood and guts slashfest has not diminished.’
There was a silent murmur of enthusiasm from the board. Either that or fear had a voice.
‘We get back to doing what we do best and we'll be back on track. Christ, you have a bad patch in this industry and everyone writes you off. Go through a bad spell and the obituary's ready to roll.’
The frugal decade had chugged into view, like a tired-out old jalopy from one of Mr. Ford's factories. A lousy pun for a lousy end to the decade for thousands of middle Americans. Late-breaking hurricanes had hit Christmas night. Farmland in three states had taken the brunt of the destruction and no-one felt in the mood for celebration. Communities were suffering. Like a premiere that had had it's run slashed at the single stroke of an embittered critic's pen, party-goers had packed up the decorations, decanted the punch and put furniture into long-term storage. Nevertheless erstwhile commentators rushed to pen their visions of the coming epoch. War was a continent away and the nation was savvy enough to remain out of the conflict. Depression was a decade away ; at least it was if you were rounding down. Perhaps the years to come would sweep away the old ways ; boom and bust. Poverty and penury The generation that had lived through one of the worst decades in the nation's history was certainly caught up in the rhetoric of new-found co-operation and can-do optimism. In that vein the president had delivered. As a second-term big spender he'd already gone down in history. Whoever came in had big shoes to fill. Take 'leisure' for example ; the new past-time 'a la mode'. Businessmen could head off to the golf course or private club and spend a couple of hours with like-minded souls, swinging away on the fairway or working up a sweat on the squash court. Back in the sweet magnolia-scented bosom of the white-stuccoed family home, housewives were no longer tied to the sink or slaving away to put a meal on the table. Strange wonderful new devices were accomplishing the same tasks in a fraction of the time. 'Labor-saving' had become 'labor-eradicating' with the new Omniplex(TM) Multiserve(TM) and the Homechoice(TM) De-Clutter-Vac(TM). Imagine what the country could accomplish if it set it's mind to it. The scourge of prohibition was no more and boy did America need a drink. At the bar of America's hopes and dreams, a pick-me-up consisted of seventy two minutes of thrills, spills and heart-stopping terror. Pure terror. And we weren't talking the rebirth of the Republican party here. No, the movie business had stepped up to the plate. That pipe dream to put a theater in every town might still be a ways off but the majors were attempting to make up for the dour state of the union. In fact, they were all too often their own worst enemies ; saturating the market with a glut of titles that no serious movie aficionado could ever hope to wade through. Speaking of the majors, four had not so long ago become five. Another chair had been put out at the table ;- a gold-embossed invitation to the golf club hand-delivered and praise lavished on a director who'd barely learned to tie his own shoe laces. One scandal mag told it like it was.
Now by way of backstory, the Hollywood 'Inquisitor' was the rag du jour when it came to the more salacious coverage of Hollywood's scandals and exposes. And since exposes were Hollywood's stock-in-trade, the 'Inquisitor' didn't need to go far to fill it's weekly quota. Depending on whose counsel you courted the 'Inquisitor' was a no-holds-barred, take-on-all-comers down and dirty gutter rag with barely enough morals to qualify in the broader category of news. That was, unless you were in federal court, in which case the platitudes might not be so respectful. But whether on street corner or corporate office, the 'Inquisitor' was rapidly earning a reputation for itself. In a town famous for pandering to the lowest common denominator, the 'Inquisitor' set a high benchmark. It was the paper that snapped first and asked questions later. If the readers were demanding the latest scoop on the new Lothario ; the dope on the ditzy blonde fresh from rehab, the paper spared them none of the sordid details. And there was usually plenty to go around. One case in particular blew the roof off . . .
Giordano Anselmo was your average run-of-the-mill low-rent bagman for the Chicago mob who, having got himself out of sorts with his padrone, had ventured to California and by a convoluted series of misadventures embroiled himself in the movie business. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Plenty of mob laundry washed up 'out of state'. Only this particular laundry service had one or two very high-profile clients. When the story broke the connection between mob and movie industry was nothing to get your Pulitzer's in a twist about. What was surprising was the supporting cast. To wit, the co-conspirators. The 'Inquisitor' placed three very firmly in the frame. Ronnie Dillman, head of the Artists and Actors Union, Lou Pynchon, Senior Vice-President of Kruft Finance, a chief underwriter to the movie business and Troy McGarry, part-time mainstream movie actor and a-hem 'dick' for hire in certain underworld productions whose titles might not be a million miles away from 'Denny Does the (Dallas) Cowboys' and 'Harry Steam and the locker-room Gang'. So for the literate-minded we had a lineup that included out-of-favor mob enforcer, union lackey, insurance jock and part-time stag john. It was the unholy trinity. Plus guest. The 'Inquisitor got it's ducks in a row and went to print.
'Mob muscles into Movietown.'
If trade weeklies were to be judged on the success of their first home-run headlining splash, then the 'Inquisitor' had just banked it's survival into the next decade. The hows and whys of the story got lost in the archives of the LA criminal justice system but the one thing that stuck were the names. For the pedagogues out there Mcgarry had been the main conduit between Anselmo and his cohort. Extra-curricular activities had brought in Pynchon and Dillman and like rats in a sewer they'd coalesced for mutual protection - and in this case, advancement. Each ended up cutting a deal implicating the other. Step forward an old-style beak from baptist country and you had yourself a stink the likes of which hadn't been since a firebrand preacher from Louisiana had had the gall to suggest that great apes weren't all that great at all. As for the set-up itself, it couldn't have been simpler. Anselmo's mob cash would be funneled through Pynchon's various finance companies and from there into productions green-lit by Dillman who would also supply the acting talent. All they needed was the talent. Enter stage left Troy McGarry. McGarry was a heard drinker and party fiend who'd hooked up with Anselmo at a notorious LA haunt. The Mob took a dim view. Dillman took it worst. Family man, three kids, home by six kind-of-guy. Golf course on the weekend. Classic closet case. The key element, as far as the 'Inquisitor' was concerned were the union and financial angles. It amounted to nothing less than money laundering. A couple of off-kilter mob guys funding gay porn was nothing to get excited about. Union corruption and fraud were high level. The paper was resolute on it's editorial line. A late night visit by unnamed union heavies to the 'Inquisitor' offices ramped up the stakes but the paper held firm. For the first forty eight hours the presses didn't stop rolling. Copies were flying off the shelves. The networks could do nothing but run with it. McGarry largely was unaffected. For Dillman, the allegations-and that was all they were-of marital infidelity were enough to sow the seeds of professional and personal destruction. However for his Cosa Nostra cousins, Anselmo's public 'outing' was a step too far. His body was discovered in an abandoned meat truck tucked under a freeway overpass out of town. Let's just say that of all the corpses hung up in the refrigerated section when the police opened the doors, there was one meat hook jammed into one cadaver that health and safety officials had good cause to query. Pynchon took it where it hurt the most. In the pocket. The only remaining judgment was made by the Investigative Journalists Academy, who chose to award the paper with it's 'Award D'Excellence' for outstanding journalistic performance on a matter pertaining to current affairs. And that, in a nutshell was the Anselmo-Pynchon-Dillman affair. It was the 'Inquisitor's high water mark, the case having met the official criterion for 'probing journalism' whilst simultaneously fulfilling the much higher moral prerequisite of satiating the public's lust for salacious gossip. Murk and mire ; the 'Inquisitor's' stock-in-trade. Now flick through that copy of the 'Inquisitor' and take a closer look at the name on the last-but-one page, gold embossed and the subject of his own editorial. Luther Van Crane. Three words, but what a one-two combination. For the time being, Luther was the golden child. He could do no wrong and the 'Inquisitor' knew it. Last year's 'Armageddon in a Small Town' was the breakthrough hit for Parallax Pictures and was still doing respectable business. No mean feat considering the sharks swirling in the same water. The merchandising sideline 'Armageddon' had spawned was a runaway success. Dolls, masks, wigs - you name it. Kids everywhere were going nuts for the stuff. It was all heat beneath the Parallax saucepan. The up-markets intellectualized on the issue.
'Crane builds on success.'
'Crane swoops low to conquer.'
For all those die-hard cynics predisposed to the 'can't follow it up' thesis, Crane was about to answer all the 'Got lucky once, kid' skeptics and nay-sayers.
'Iron Maidens Ride !' was an out-and-out biker flick and spanned the worlds of gore and glamor deftly.
Whatever respect 'Armageddon' had failed to garner in terms of it's mainstream credentials, 'Maidens' made up for in chutzpah. It was a sensible departure from the pure blood and guts milieu, offering plenty of full-breasted heroines and glistening choppers, for the discerning movie-goer of course. For others of a less neutral disposition, the rise of Parallax presented something of a dilemma. Four high-rollers had recently had their collective jaws put out of joint. They'd been forced to give up a share of their end to a kid still wet behind the ears. In plain English, certain heads of certain studios were starting to get angsty. A comparison with the situation back East proved ruefully apposite. Consider the intensifying mob rivalry in the nation's first city. Certainly if Albert Aristopolou's 'Murder Ltd' was anything to go by the West coast could momentarily burst into a bloody battle for supremacy. Aristopolou, was the notorious founder of 'Death Inc.' - the nation's premier 'for hire' waste-disposal solution. You got a problem ? 'Stone in your shoe ? Well for a price, you could get the satisfaction you were looking for. 'Murder Ltd' had later become 'Death Inc.' but for those for whom the metaphors were too cryptic, Albert was a stone-cold killer.Whether you believed them or not, urban myths abounded about the young boy's antics growing up on the mean streets of the nation's premier melting pot. Take the time he'd had an enforcer for a rival outfit stuffed into a garbage pail, limb by limb. Now the poor victim's only crime, beyond his chosen lifestyle, had been to once mistakenly shake down Albert's aged father. The offending collection agent had made the single mistake of confusing the names Aristopolou and Antonescu. On the upside, there was one relieved Albanian bakery store owner waking up the next morning to learn that his tormentor had been taken care of 'Death Inc.' style. Or how about the time the Bronx Bombers had won the title and amidst the ticker parade through the city, Albert had threatened to cut off the fingers of an errant employee and scatter the remnants ticker-tape style from the tallest building available. Needless to say the boss had no trouble from said employee 'going forward'. All in all Albert's career had progressed along a tumultuous if predictable path. The prohibition years were a much freer place for the entrepreneur operating outside the strictly-defined limits of allowable commerce. Albert's crew had taken advantage by offering decent hard-working Americans what they couldn't get in the stores. All in a convivial atmosphere. You could almost say Albert and his crew were offering a public service. The late thirties saw Death Inc.'s most fruitful period of operation. Albert moved into a palatial upper East Side brown-stone building. With a party practically every other night the police were the only unpredictable element in the equation, arriving as they did only to partake of the free-flowing booze before their shifts began. Some said Tammany Hall was the villain of the piece. Yeah? - Try Apartment 109, DeMauncey Street. 'Round 2am. Business was good too. Long-term rivals Anthony 'Lemons' Lemansky, Chuckie 'Egg' Benedictus and Sylvio Stinett met their demise in just the opening five and a half months of 1938.
The Commission met for a sit down. Albert was on the agenda.
'Death Inc.' had become a rogue outfit and the vote went five for and none against. Albert had to go. Two zips from the old country made the trip over. Ianiello 'Dead Eye' Marangaza & Luis 'Loopy' Garamanzia. Names to fear – both figuratively and lietarally if you were not of the requisite linguistic standard.
Albert's first mistake had been to isolate himself from his mafiosi compatriots. A lone wolf with a three ninety batting average was still a lone wolf. His unwillingness to play ball would put the stiletto in 'Dead Eye's capable palm. The laws of physics would take care of the rest. For the narcissistic, Albert's second-and no less decisive-mistake was forgivable ina nyone’s book.
To wit, his vanity. Albert's knew no limit. He met his demise doing what he loved most. Actually, make that doing what he loved most second. Lorenzo's Shave and Barber Shop gave the best hot towel shave in town. Albert was a regular. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The kid they liked to call the 'Executioner' arrived early. Albert's vanity put him there even earlier. The fates were in motion. By 10:02am Albert's body was cooling on the linoleum floor, blood pouring from a single entry wound to the back of the neck.
R.I.P Albert Aristopolou.
Now Luther Van Crane's troubles might be serious and no less financially troubling but one element that didn't apply was cold-blooded murder. Contract killing had never been on the company agenda and that was unlikely to change.The ritual disgorgement of hapless victims-invariably female-might be a stock in trade but limbs in garbage pails wasn't a subject for polite dinner parties, certainly not in the circles in which Luther circulated. His problems were of a more 'arithmetic' nature. Consider the following equation. Four into a hundred gave an even twenty five per cent. Throw another fish into the barrel and each quarter share was down to an even twenty per cent. Now, five per cent was five per cent less than ten but it was also five per cent more than certain studio moguls were prepared to hand over to a johnny-come-lately wet-behind-the-ears interloper-type. Something, or rather somebody would have to give.The only question worth asking was, Who would show aggression first ?
'Associated Pictures signs Ulvaessen twins.'
The headline was as stark as any movie headline from the past decade. And for anyone unaware of just how exclusive scoop it represented, the Ulvaessen twins had just been voted joint number one hottest product in 'Teen Dream' magazine. And that wasn't all. The pair had been recipients of lifetime achievement awards from the academy. Repped by the no-nonsense 'Creative Management Inc', the girls had been keen to maximize their potential. In plain speaking, they were holding out for as much moola as possible. Associated stepped up to the plate. Six figures each with a four picture deal on the slate. Their schedule would be a tight one and Associated would press the girls hard for a return on their investment. The 'Big A' had come out strong, clearly making a play for it's weaker rival. In turn, the girls were treated to a tour of the Associated lot, press on hand to cover the momentous event and capture the two starlets signing on the dotted line. Chalk one up to Associated. The company that Samuel Greenback had founded at the turn of the century could only tolerate the loss of so much market share. A line had to be drawn in the sand. A stand had to be taken. When you were down two nothing in the bottom of the ninth, a play had to be manufactured Bloop single into center field or wild pitch, it didn't matter. Take a bean from the pitcher. Anything. In mob speak, one of the five families was about to lose it's seat on the Commission.Luther van Crane nearly choked on his cigar as he read the headline.
'Teen Vacation' would be followed by, 'I Love that thing you Do' and it's sequel, 'I Hate that thing you Do'. The intention behind the rushed schedule was clearly to cash in on the girls' popularity. Van Crane threw his newspaper to the floor, rising out of his seat and storming onto the lot. Everyone present was given a dressing-down and a geeing-up. With the other studios spreading the risk of the investment in exchange for a percentage of the box office, Parallax was facing an assault from not one, but four of it's rivals. It was Edison Vs. Westinghouse all over again. The only difference this time was that there was no pitiful William Kemmler Esq. to play guinea pig for the maniacal megalomaniacs The privilege had fallen to Luther himself. Other than lacking an advocate of the caliber of Darrow himself, Luther also lacked a clear plan of action. Slasher-pics were fine but in a war of attrition, you had to appeal to the wider body politic. Parallax needed a crossover hit.
Itinerant laborer and occasional carpenter Boris E. Lebowski had done the tour of movie sets in southern California by the time Thanksgiving 1929 rolled around. His emigration to a country he knew simply as 'Cal-E-ForN-E-A' had coincided with a boom in the twin industries of construction and movie-making. Sound stages, lighting rigs, corporate offices - Boris had his pick of the jobs. The work suited his mindset ; fast-paced and unconstrained by the pressures of working for a suit. At Parallax, nothing less than expansion was on the agenda. CEO Luther Van Crane was in ebullient mood. The lot was expanding. A larger lot, enabling greater production and more rapid turnover would put Parallax on a more competitive footing. It might even give them an edge on the majors. Workmen, carpenters, bricklayers and electricians were all busy making it a reality, collectivity putting the studio onto their shoulders and inching it up over the parapet to stare in wonderment into the future. For those of a futuristic bent, the lives of the two men shortly to catapult Parallax's fortunes were about to traverse the same orbit. The day and hour were unremarkable ; the circumstances workaday. It just so happened that on one of those days when Parallax CEO Luther Van Crane, having nothing better to do, had deigned to take a stroll around the lot to cast an eye upon his empire-in-the-making, an archer named Fate fingered it's bow from it's vantage point in the wings. Most of the labor had gone home. The sound of machinery coming from a recently constructed stage caught Luther's attention.
Luther uttered the words as he tapped them out on the open forecourt door. The scene was one of planned disarray. Parallax's main stage was in a state of mid-deconstruction ; tools and timber laid out in a de facto obstacle course on the wooden floor. The obvious cause was a single worker, sequestered on the far side of the room, saw in hand, machinery operational.
Boris jerked his head, missing not a single beat as he deftly trimmed an over-sized piece of timber.
‘I'm sorry, I didn't mean to . . .’
The saw in Boris' hand vibrated vigorously. It left Luther a little cold.
‘Excuse please ? My English. Not so good.’
‘You know it's gone five o'clock. If you want you can . . .’
‘ . . . go home.’
‘I see. You vant I go home.’
Boris hung his head. Live power saw in hand, he started towards the door, shaking his head, mumbling something in a thick Eastern European accent.
‘I do good work. I don't know why you fire me. I like work here.’
Well by a combination of non-verbal gestures and unilingual half-sentences borrowed from the phrasebook of last resort, Luther managed to halt his employee's departure. Confusion overcome, the more accomplished speaker of their not-so-common language undertook the pleasantries.
‘Luther, by the way.’
He thrust a hand at his taller co-worker.
Lebowski fumbled with the tool, putting it down for what might well have been the very first time since his first day of work on the lot. Predictably it was an awkward moment for both men, forced politeness being quite alien to both.
‘Anyway, I don't want to hold you up.’
Something about the dedication to work made an instant impression on Luther. It all kind of reminded him of a young go-getter he'd once known. He made a mental note. In the meantime, Boris' work on the lot continued. An appreciation of films coupled with a slow-burning interest in improving his English endeared him to those co-workers who could offer an insight into the former and a grounding in the latter. In no time Boris was spending his days wielding planes and hand saws and in the evenings being coached on the finer points of lens choice and camera operation. Sure, it would have been a gross overstatement to say that in no time at all people were talking of Van Crane and Lebowski in the same breath as Abilene and Castillo, the infamous Latin pairing of the silent era, but a synergy had definitely bubbled from the primordial soup. Boris Lebowski had just found his calling in life. The point would not be lost on a public that was in the midst of a Parallax feeding frenzy.
LVC ventured, again more hopefully than expectantly.
It was becoming a familiar routine. Question followed not by answer but by silence. Not a single one of the assembled creatives-cum-executives had anything meaningful to contribute. Not a single one could offer up the magic formula that would lift collective spirits. What odds on one of the wise heads around the table suggesting a course of action that would revitalize flagging fortunes and put the finances on an even keel again ? Long. Had you been looking to place a bet on the disgraced 1929 White Sox team, you might have got better odds from any one of the fly-by-night bookies lurking beneath the bleachers just before game-time. Nope, the creative well was dry. It all pointed to an unassailable conclusion. The glory days-or gory days if you preferred-were over. Parallax was facing the worst crisis in it's history. Even the stenographer had shut away her equipment and left the building.
‘It's like that is it ?’
LVC wasn't a man given to idle speculation and certainly not one in the habit of delivering wildly optimistic prognoses about the future. Accordingly he brought the meeting to a close. Doleful board members got to their feet and shuffled out of the room. CEO and chief creative force behind the company Luther Van Crane was alone in his kingdom. It gave him an unrequested moment of solitude to survey his ailing kingdom. Very few positive thoughts filtered into his mind. Instead it was a chance to recollect moments from the company's history. If the future looked bleak, the past at least offered an opportunity to look back with something akin to fondness.
If Parallax was riding high with it's new directorial star-in-the-making -and undoubtedly it was-Associated had unwittingly sewn the seeds of it's own downfall with it's risky investment in the 'glam-slam' Ulvaessen twins. The deal represented a high water mark in the nation's appetite for the teen flick. In the fall of that year, 1931, 'Sorority Summer' hit the theater screens with all the bravado and hype Moviescope could muster. Though it's box-office didn't break any records, it did good enough business for the company.But, as with the changing seasons, so with the public mood. When Cinetone's' 'My Heart belongs to a Rodeo Romeo' arrived in time for the Christmas holidays, a wind of change was in the air. True to the climatological change in conditions, takings stayed flat. The kids stayed away. Not only had Romeo fallen from his horse, but the company had jumped off it with him. It was an about-turn for a studio that had publicly endorsed the Ulvaessen deal. The glam had drained out of the 'glam-slam'. Plus, true to the maxim that bad luck came in threes, pundits suggesting that the genre would go the same way as Romeo and Cinetone were shortly to be proved right.In fact the next offering in the canon would bomb so spectacularly that Moviescope pulled the plug days into it's national run. They'd bet the piggy bank on the production in question and this particular porker was stinking up the place ! Bad news for Moviescope but on a wider note, it would be a full decade before another teen movie would inspire the kind of investor confidence that got pictures through the pre-production stage. The fallout was drastic. A generation of pre-pubescent kids slid into a decade-long depression. Movie critics scrambled for copy, many suffering the fate of the Cinetone executives who'd greenlit 'Sorority Summer'. Worst of all, banks and mortgage companies began to foreclose on mom-and-pop theaters across the country. Their only mistake ? 'Banking the farm on a slew of teen sensation offerings from the majors. As ever, it wasn't the big boys who suffered, but the little man. He'd paid his nickel and bought into the dream and the bubble had burst. Associated, who'd effectively staked their 'teen' colors to the mast, took a seventy five per cent hit on the markets. A slate of upcoming teen sensation flicks had to be scrapped. Eighteen months production down the drain. The company looked for a way out. Like poor old Albert Aristopolou, Associated had taken a bullet for the industry. Parallax paid it's respects at the wake. The Ulvaessens survived, taking the flack in the press but like the true starlets they were, bounced back. A year of penitence on the daytime confessional circuit absolved them from blame. As Parallax's star had risen, Associated's had dimmed and on December 31 1933, with Parallax pictures mortgaged to the hilt, Piers Patterson signed his thirty three per cent shareholding in Associated over to Luther Van Crane. With it went the Associated lot. Lot, stock and barrel, so to speak. The big five was the big four again. Instead of smooching their way through ninety minutes of romantic clap-trap, teen starlets would soon be getting ripped to pieces and scared senseless - often in that order. Even the Ulvaessen twins weren't above having their requisite share of innards removed for graphic effect. Starlets who'd previously occupied the screens for companies like Moviescope and Cinetone were now happily filing into the Parallax lot to spend hours in make-up, dripping liberally-applied bile and guts to assuage the public's new-found bloodlust. Gore had arrived and it was here to stay. The gorier the product, the better the box-office. At the center of the whirlwind were two men. Luther Van Crane and Boris Lebowski. Lebowski had some months earlier become Lengel. In politically sensitive times, a carefully-adjusted vowel or consonant could make the difference between career success and political and social ostracization. Horowitz's and Derschowitz's everywhere had become Howlands and Duttons. Why should a Lebowski not become a Lengel ? And so, for the cost of a morning's toil, the change was made permanent. From here on out it was the Luther and Lengel show. Luther Van Crane had the sinking feeling of isolation. It was an unfamiliar feeling. Ordinarily the Parallax boardroom was a high peek from which to survey the also-rans toiling in the valley below. Certainly it was a venue which had served as the focal point for every deal and conference of any import in the company's history. A brief survey of the imposing studio lot did not assuage his downbeat mood over the company's fortunes. He ran down a checklist of the options. A financial solution was out of the question. Accounts at this stage were poison. They laid bare the full horror of the company's finances. No bank in the world would touch Parallax with a ten foot pole. He'd have more luck convincing Mr. Darrow to accept his predicament and take him on as a client.
'Your honor, what we have here is a wretch ; the lowliest of the low. A man who, having run his business into the ground was not content until he'd dragged down each and every one of his employees . . .'
Nope. Even someone of Darrow's caliber was out. Thinking outside the box was required. Some sort of publicity coup might restore flagging investor confidence even if fundamentally it bucked the Parallax philosophy. Gimmicks themselves weren't uncommon in the industry. Successful ones were rarer. Take the example of Moviescope spending ten million dollars launching itself onto a hostile market in 1916. The great star of the silent era, Charlie 'Butterbean' Horatio (Fat Charlie to his friends) had died tragically the year before and many were predicting that movies wouldn't last the season. Such was Charlie's draw that theaters-profitable ones at that-had started to sell off their assets. Charlie had been the entire industry for the first half decade of it's existence. He was charismatic, talented and nudged the scale at two hundred pounds in his birthday suit. Large in those days. Charlie liked to play multiple parts in his films, and was an early proponent of the 'auteur' school of film-making Not only did he act, but he directed, wrote, produced and operated the camera. If the script required it, Charlie would handle it. And where his female co-stars were concerned, Charlie frequently did. As his career had progressed, so Charlie's stunts and set-ups had become more outlandish. For his last film, though no one knew it would be his last at the time, producers and director had him suspended from a train, the Westbound Pioneer in fact ; a freighter which ran coast to coast and took passengers on a sightseeing tour of the country's largely unoccupied hinterland. It was a luxury liner for the well-heeled and Charlie had taken the route many times as a valued guest and occasional promoter for the company. From a safety point of view it was the most assured method of travel at the time. Not for Charlie. A scene required him to launch himself from one moving carriage to another, young starlet in arms. Well the starlet in question, whose name history would ultimately choose to disregard, made the leap, but Charlie did not accompany her. An unfortunate train coupling latched onto the toe end of Charlie's boot, his remains later to be scraped from the undercarriages of cars seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven. His funeral well attended, a memorial was erected on the very spot he was thought to have died. Moviescope announced it's entry into the field of film-making on the first day of a week long period of national mourning. Lunacy to be sure. Nevertheless the gamble paid off. Moviescope ended up using Charlie's passing as motivation to continue the grand plan that he had embarked upon. The cheek of it. But a gimmick was a gimmick Luther took a moment to consider the inauspicious beginnings of his own empire. The days at Associated, staring up from the gutter but seeing only the stuccoed ceiling of the mail room. The joy at founding his own company. The sinking feeling when three pictures in a row sunk without trace. And then the breakthrough. 'Heaven's Haridens'. Risky some said. Gutsy others said. Iconoclastic undoubtedly. But in the same way that Amalgamated electricals made the same product year on year, it didn't matter how many 'WonderBelt TMs came along, the American housewife just kept coming back to what she knew and understood. Name recognition. It was what Fatty had had. Parallax too, in the good old days. If this particular valley was to be surmounted, a tour de force of the scale of Charlie Butterbean's was in order. A real headline-grabber. LVC surveyed his domain from the open window. The concrete below stared back at him.
Herschel Klein's resume read like the kind of Harvard-educated pen-pushing homely to good-old-fashioned hard work and the Protestant work ethic resolve that any parent could be proud of. In that respect the mail room might not be the first place one equated with unrelenting ambition. But consider it's function. The mail room allowed lines of communication to flow. Without communication, business ceased to operate. Ergo, mail was essential if capitalism was to flourish. Herschel Klein was therefore a vital cog in the cycle of commerce. That said, the rumors were enough to make him question that simple equation. Could a movie studio with over thirty years good standing and public acclaim, and whose product and success was legendary really just fold like a linen suit at the bottom of an overpacked suitcase on a long-haul slog tucked away in cattle class ? Shut down by the bank ? Canceled like a bad cheque whose owner was out of favor at cocktail hour at the annual luncheon ? Of all the indignities Then again, they'd done it to Marsha Mancuso. One of the town's biggest reps back in the thirties, she'd handled half of Hollywood's heavy hitters from Bingham Cobb to Harrington 'General' Lee. Lee, an avowed racist had caused ire and indignation at a time when the nation was looking to put aside past differences and heal the wounds. Marsha took the call. What that woman couldn't do for a client in a spot wasn't worth jotting down on the back of a matchbook. 'Mancuso the miracle-worker'. But even the great Marsha Mancuso wasn't without her Achilles heel. And on one fateful mid-March day the poison-tipped arrow struck it's target. Who came forward to the authorities is immaterial. What they had to say was of more interest. The IRS took the details and resolved to investigate. So a Hollywood mover and shaker had failed to declare income. Big deal. The papers scooted over the story. And then a couple more skeletons fell out of the closet. And sure as moss on a hillside eventually peeled away under the impact of a rolling stone, it wasn't long before Marsha's clients' financial arrangements were being poked into. With all her contacts and vast artillery Marsha couldn't control the story when it hit. The headline was a lousy one, 'Top Hollywood talent scout in payola payoff scandal.' Marsha gnashed her teeth. She could have done better in her sleep. People, if that was the right word to describe the low-lifes coming out of the woodwork to testify against her, spilled their guts in exchange for immunity. And since the town was nothing if not a court of public opinion, Marsha didn't stand a chance. She would have to sell the house. The furniture went along with the horses. 'Creative Artists' pulled the plug. The names in the contact book went the way of the pool ;- siphoned. Everything dried up. Narcotics, booze and prescription drugs filled the void. In the end, Marsha's self-destruction was just about as cataclysmic as any of the notorious clients she'd represented. Now if the banks could do that to the indefatigable Marsha Mancuso, what fate Parallax ? Certainly past successes cut little ice with the money men in gray suits counting out the dimes in the back rooms. A lump lodged in Hersch's throat. Was he inadvertently playing a part in the downfall of a company for which he'd been a lifelong fan and sometime bit part player ? 'Bringing down the final curtain on the last act of the Parallax story ? If ever there was a time to spare the messenger this was it. Hersch stared at photographs of the greats - alive and dead - lining the walls of the Parallax atrium. Few places could boast an atrium. Parallax's was a shrine of endorsements from the great and even greater. Actors and actresses ran the gamut with politicians and dignitaries Climbing the stairs to the first floor he got an eyeful of Lucinda LeGrande and Marilyn Fenstra. Jerry Kerzy. Sid Gustafsson. Luther was cheek to cheek with many of them. No offense to Sid and Jerry but the ladies were rather easier on the eye.
‘Oh just go right on in honey !’
Belinda Bourne-Bodine. Parallax stalwart. As long as Bel was sitting behind the desk, Parallax was in fine fettle. The day BeBe packed her things away in a tight A-line cardboard box was the day everyone might as well pack it in. Hersch stepped over the threshold into the boardroom.
‘Are you from Oscar's ? They said they'd send a kid over.’
Hersch spun on the spot.
‘The accounts. You've got the accounts, right ?’
‘Er, no. I'm not. That is, I'm from the mah . . .’
What Hersch meant to say was, 'Er, no sir. I haven't.' Instead it came out as 'I'm not.'
‘You're not making any sense kid.’
Hersch moved aside to reveal the cart.
Luther Van Crane hid his disappointment. True to the creed that bad news come in multiples, he was about to receive a more depressing financial forecast.
‘Sorry I thought you were someone else. So, the mailroom huh ?’
Hersch tried to relax as far as his body would permit. It wasn't a good look.
LVC dipped his hand into the mail cart, as though by doing so he could extract the wheat from the chaff. It was all chaff.
‘The mailroom, huh.’
Hersch kept quite like a novice on opening day parade. The red hat and uniform might convey the de rigeur look but the trumpet was a dead giveaway. He didn't play a note.
‘Say, I've gotta take a walk onto the lot. Why don't you tag along. 'Give me the low down on all things mailroom-related.’
‘I usually take the cart back with . . .’
‘Leave it. Someone’ll deal with it later.’
Okay. A walk-talk with the boss. Off-the-cuff. Spontaneous. No strings. A slow tsunami threatened to rumble up from his esophagus
‘So, the mail room. You like it down there ?’
‘Well it . . . can get pretty hectic.’
‘Yeah, I guess it's got that stepping stone feel to it. 'Started there myself.’
Hersch played it significantly less than cool. The sunshine was a help. The effort of squinting made it harder to concentrate on conversation.
‘You know this was the first building we had.’
LVC pointed across to a disused stage which could have used a lick of paint.
‘Back then it was an office, studio and edit room all rolled into one. 'Never needed to go far to do any work. You could arrive at work at eight in the morning, stay in the same building all day and have a picture finished by six. Five if the cogs were turning.’
Luther whirled his forefinger at his temple.
‘Some of them we got through so quickly, it wasn't much more than that.’
‘You mean like 'Tremors Underfoot' or 'Maidens of Death.'’
Hersch was going out on a limb but as a virtual encyclopedia of the company's past history it would have been criminal not to. LVC threw him a knowing, if slightly suspicious smile. Nevertheless the younger of the two-and by some years-allowed his host to undertake a virtual tour of the company premises The adjoining buildings and stages that had played host to such a glorious past. The stage where 'Rites of Revenge' and 'Lust at Sea' had been conceived and brought to such lurid fruition. Luther diverged onto the subject of acquisitions - specifically the time the studio had bought up a piece of land formerly owned by the 'Experimental Theater company' which, finding itself down on it's luck had decided to wind up it's operation, it's principal participants going their various ways. The pair walked and talked. Much in the same way mob boss Luca Maranzano might deign to take a young lieutenant under his wing. And like our Italian emigre the subject soon got around to the matter of the company finances - specifically the flat and depressing production schedule that in no way looked set to revitalize those finances.
‘'Course we're not dead in the water yet.’
It was as upbeat as Luther Van Crane's mood had got all week.
‘Say, I didn't catch your name.’
‘It's Klein sir. Herschel Klein. People call me Hersch.’
LVC gave the kid an up and down look. Three names was a mouthful for anyone. LVC picked the latter.
‘So what's new around the place, Hersch ?’
Hersch resolved to play it cool by acting dumb. Careers had been made on less.
‘Y'know, gossip. You must know what the word is.’
Was he being sounded out ahead of a series of snap dismissals ? Fired for daring to speak his mind ? If the rumors were true, the company would certainly be looking to cut dead wood. And what was the mailroom if it wasn't just a collection of stacks of dead pulp. Whatever the case, it wasn't the time to start second-guessing the boss. 'Better to shift the focus of the conversation.
‘I heard Global picked up Larry Schneider for a five-picture deal a couple of days ago.’
The thought cogitated inside LVC's head for as long as it took Joe Austin to conceive the knockout punch that floored Roberto Duarte in the Heavyweight Championship at Madison in '44.
‘Larry Schneider !’
Van Crane spat the words out.
‘I thought they kicked that bum out of town for good. I remember when that prick worked a broom over at Vista. No offense kid. A pain in the ass. So Global gave the guy a hand-out did they. Gees, what the hell is this world coming to ? Pardon my French by the way.’
LVC's words came out in full rat-tat-tat mode ; verbal nebelwerfers firing off in no particular direction. It gave him an opportunity to run down form and function on everyone from Larry himself to the Secretary of State.
‘Maybe there's something to be said for the 'Global' approach.’
Hersch finally ventured.
‘Global. Larry Schneider. 'PR' coup. That sort of thing.’
Hersch was overstepping the mark. He resolved to constructing sentences of no more than four words, five at the max.
‘Uh-huh. ‘Could be an idea. 'Got anyone in mind ?’
Hersch ummed and arrghed. He couldn't think of anyone right now. No matter. LVC grinned.
‘Klein, eh ?’
The prejudicial reference was lost on Hersch.’
Herschel's got a nice ring to it. We'll stick with that.’
‘Kid, you're up.’
Hersch stood, straightening his legs to follow his soon-to-be ex-boss into the boardroom. Inside, think 'Jury of Righteousness', the Jimmy Cantor picture. Twelve executioners and one sacrificial peon.
‘Take a seat Hersch.’
Hersch sat. The blindfold he figured would follow.
‘You know it comes to something when I have to learn about the state of this industry from a low-level employee in the mailroom. No offense, kid.’
LVC threw a glance at Hersch.
‘Larry Schneider ? Global ? Anyone ?’
‘We had a cosy little chat. Just the other day. Talked, ooh, about a number of things. 'Seems Hersch here is someone who likes to keep his ear close to the ground.’
LVC paused for effect.
‘Unlike certain executives for whom the only time they get close to the ground is picking a ball out of the eighteenth hole at the Beverley Hills Golf and Country Club.’
Luther could cut straight to the heart of the matter when he had a board member in his crosshairs, or twelve.
‘He might be from the mailroom, but he knows more about this place than any of you. In light of that, I'd like him to say a few words.’
Hersch felt like the kid being pushed forward for the school football team when really all he wanted was a shot at band practice ; coupled with a stomach that was doing somersaults over a suspended high wire as a congregation of pressed-for-time office workers looked on from the intersection below.
‘Well, as I saying to Mr. Van Crane, it might be . . . I mean it's just an idea . . . I'm not suggesting . . .’
He wasn't suggesting anything yet.
‘. . . Well since 'Global' just rehired Larry Schneider, everyone's been on their case. Press. A couple of the trades. Now I know the last time, well, let's just say it wasn't such a harmonious partnership.’
Luther grinned. As for the rest, blank faces. It was only to be expected. Hersch hadn’t really yet uttered a comprehensible word.
‘Well everyone's falling over themselves wondering what all the fuss is about. What I'm saying is, perhaps there's something to be said for a 'Larry Schneider' approach.’
‘Exactly. Look at the stunt Darrow pulled out of the bag on that kidnapping case. Practically dragged the whole of the Chicago outfit into court. 'Turned the whole case.’
Hersch began, unsure of the argument he was now making.
‘He's right. The publicity factor. Take the propaganda films during the war. Okay, so the military's no Harvey Kordell . . . But they had a war in their corner. Look at the Suburb Slasher series. ‘Grabbed the public’s attention. You think we should go with the shock and awe approach Hersch ? Blood, guts ? Risky. 'Public might not go for it.’
‘Well . . . .’
‘How about bringing a Larry Schneider-type on board.’
‘I didn't know there was a Larry Schneider-type. Who you got in mind Hersch ? Victor Margolis, Merle Edwards ? Both did good work in the past. Blast from the past. Too low-ball, whattaya think ?’
Luther was a freight train when he got going.
‘Okay, how 'bout Nathan Van Der Beek ?’
‘Too . . .’
Hersch searched for the right adjective. ‘Long-winded’ was the obvious choice.
Collective heads ruminated.
Hersch came at it from another angle.
‘Look, when was the golden period ?’
‘Forty Three to Forty Nine. Seventy eight pictures ; twenty two of which made the top spot in 'Screen Illustrated.’
‘What did I tell you about this kid !’
Luther chomped on a cigar.
‘During that time, one director more than any other hit the top spot. And on more occasions.’
Hersch overplayed the suspense and got a ‘come along’ look from his boss.
'Give us a name Hersch.’
‘Boris Lengel !’
Somewhere an old town clock suspended over a saloon struck noon, any townsfolk not smart enough o have left already scrambling for the last stage. A dustball rolled into view and in the distance, a posse of too-long-in-exile no-quarter outlaws rode majestically into town, shotguns mounted across rough-hewn saddles. Hersch glanced at his feet, catching the reflection from the starred bronze sheriff's badge on his lapel. It hung limply.
‘Boris Lengel ! You mean Boris Lebowski ?’
For those not in the loop, Boris Lengel had pioneered film-making of a kind that didn't exist anymore and indeed hadn't existed for some time. His contribution to the canon could fairly be described as seminal. A couple of board members mumbled unenthusiastically. The remainder twiddled with fingers and peered at the carpet. The silence was palpable and somewhere a murderous posse of outlaws closed in on their target.
‘Why not Lebowski ?’
LVC said after an age.
‘He's perfect. We need a fall guy. A headline. Why not drag the old bastard out of retirement. What is it ? A decade ? Two ? He's still alive for Chrissake ! He's still alive, right Hersch ?’
‘Well, er . . . ‘
‘Exactly. Hersch has done the research. I say we put the offer to the old bastard. Come back, direct a picture or two, be seen around the place, press the flesh. 'Trades'll love it. Whaddaya say ?’
The board murmured amongst itself. No one had any counter to the suggestion and it was the assent LVC was looking for.
‘It's the match-up this place has been looking for.’
Whatever their past history-for good or ill, Parallax and Boris Lebowski were two names eternally entwined in the minds of film fans everywhere. So Lengel might have publicly admitted to hating Luther Van Crane's guts, but that aside, the camaraderie was of the ages.
A new sitcom, 'I Love Lucille' was debuting on the Thursday night schedule and two Goliaths from the world of motion pictures were lined up to appear side-by-side on the ersatz chat show of the moment, 'The Bob E. McQueen Show.' The Bob E. McQueen Show was, to borrow a phrase from the young generation, 'where it was at.' It was a big week for radio all round. Bob E. opened his monologue with a line about the Republican nominee, politics being the gift that kept on giving, it teed up the show nicely. He was having a hard time of it in the press and allegations of indiscretions dating back to more youthful days were causing embarrassment to family and party alike. Speaking of which, if only 'Bob E.'s audience knew a little of the entertainer's backstory themselves then the boot may have been on the other foot.
‘Ladies and gentlemen . . . you've heard of my next two guests I'm sure. If they're not lurking on Sunset . . .’
The audience chuckled. It was an old reference to an even older joke.
‘ . . . they're picking up awards at every show in town. Ladies and gentlemen, Luther Van Crane and Boris Lengel.’
The audience went wild. The two headliners strolled on stage, leisurely taking their seats, smiling broadly for the audience and camera.
‘Let's start with an easy one, fellas. Tell me, what's it like to be bona fide superstars ?’
The audience let rip with a barrage of laughter and applause. Luther and Boris flipped glances at one another. Luther and Lengel - it would be a while before those two words were decoupled in the public consciousness.’
‘So where does this kid fit in ?’
The board found it's skepticism in a single defiant voice.
‘Gene, you know I love you but for fuck's sake, don't you see ?’
Evidently nobody did.
‘He's perfect. 'Knows everything there is to know about the guy. Herschel's a goddamn movie encyclopedia forchrissake. I had to go down to the mailroom myself, 'check this guy out. He's perfect.’
LVC was apt to embellish for effect.
‘Exactly, this kid was languishing in the mailroom. Moreover, he knows the Parallax philosophy inside out. 'Can't lose. More importantly, 'can't fuck things up more than they're already fucked up.’
In a roundabout way it was a vote of confidence.
‘And what's more, he's not jaded like a room full of overpaid accountants sitting not a million miles away from me.’
It was a Van Crane trademark. Couch the best from your people by ritually abusing them.
‘Do we know where this guy lives ?’
‘Never mind. We'll find out. 'Old fuck likes the sun too much. Always tell you it's too hot. Bullshit. Don't believe a word of it.’
LVC was taking the fences two by two.
‘Hersch, cancel whatever mailroom cockamamie you're doing. Get a few new suits. Smarten yourself up, no offense Make yourself presentable. We'll get the old warhorse in and see what the press has to say about the place then.’
LVC made a play to the gallery.
‘Hersch is the man.’
‘Look, when Buddy Black told the Rangers' in 51, I'll be back, did he come straight back in '52 ? Hell no. He waited. Not a year, not two but five. Five years. And when he returned, not only did he win the next year's pennant with the Dodgers but after two world series wins, bought out his old team. 'Sacked the entire board, by the way.’
The room was quiet.
‘Hersch is our Buddy Black.’
It was classic Luther-speak. Impenetrable.
It was a fait accompli. The details would take a couple of days to finalize All things being equal, Hersch was the new Parallax point man. There was a story Boris Lebowski liked to tell to anyone who cared to listen about an occasion, not long after Parallax had put him on contract when mobsters had showed up on the lot, intent on shaking the place down. The way Boris had it two larger-than-life enforcers from the Elefante crime family had muscled into town, all cheap suits and linguini hair, 'middle of a heatwave, staggering onto the premises, puffing breathless like a whale beached on the shore. Summer could do that to a three hundred pound man. What it could do two three hundred men didn't bare thinking about. At the very moment the Elefante boys deigned to pay their visit Boris was doing post production on 'Message from Beyond', his concentration buried in reels of film tape, swirls of it hanging from cameras and makeshift stands. There was a polite but insistent knock at the door.
‘Come back later.’
‘Can't you hear ? I'm busy in here.’
The door thudded inwards under the pressure of a twenty pound shoulder.
‘Whoa, what the hell ?’
Swirls of film tape flew in the air and drifted back down to Earth in a ticker-tape parade of celluloid. The door hung off it's upper hinge. Two huge figures, knuckles scraping on the floor blocked out the sun.
‘Vat ze hell is zis ?’
Boris slipped into the old country accent as easily as bristling at criticism. From his account, the conversation went as follows.
‘Are you the boss around here ?’
‘That depends ?’
‘On what ?’
‘On who you ask.’
‘Well we're askin' you.’
‘Then yes I am ze boss.’
‘In that case, we'd like to put a little business proposition to you.’
One of the men unbuttoned the lower button of his shirt to reveal a small caliber gun tucked into his pants. Boris would have settled for a higher caliber weapon if the gun had been unloaded. His luck was out.
‘I hope I don't need to tell you I know how to use this.’
‘If it's the thirty eight caliber, you don't. Otherwise I might need the brush-up.’
‘Pal, I'd cut the chat if I were you. We're not here to joke around. Now, about that business proposition.’
Boris pointed to an unoccupied chair. The quieter and more ample of the two sat.
‘Get up you fool.’
The fuller-figured of the two reluctantly got out of his chair. It wasn't as easy a maneuver as it sounded.
‘Listen buddy, I suggest you pay attention.’
The Elefante trigger man went on to detail how the movie business was enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Accordingly, profits had been realized Monies were, how to put it, liquid. Boris was getting a shakedown and an economics lesson at the same time.
‘With that in mind, we think it would be un-charitable not to redistribute some of those profits.’
‘Gentlemen, that is interesting but let me put an alternate perspective to you.’
Boris went on to outline the good standing in which the Italian American community was held within the film community. How it would be advantageous to keep that relationship on a status quo basis. How rocking the boat might not bode well for all concerned. All the while, a pudgy Elefante hand rested on cold steel. At least that was the way Boris had it. One thing wasn't in doubt. He had the kind of chutzpah the Elefantes understood. Call him cantankerous, call him a genius but one thing Boris Lengel was not was flaky. Think of Boris' fronting-up to the Elefante family in terms of one-man's stand against corporate intransigence.
By anyone's reckoning, Las Vegas wasn't the kind of place suited to anyone looking to ease himself into a life of gentle retirement or failing that, anonymity. For those interested in the statistics, the metropolitan area registered annual sunshine hours of thirteen point five per day - higher in the summer months. The town itself was barely a decade old. A couple of penny-ante casinos and resort hotels aside it was a layover in the middle of the desert for sunshine-seekers and GI-types, comfortable with the poolside resort atmosphere and laid-back in-house entertainment. The story had it that When New York high-flyer Lou Dietz was looking for a project out West, the availability of a large plot of land for sale in the backwater state of Nevada proved too tempting an offer to resist. Dietz immediately saw the potential. A lazy hick town with an airport catering to GIs on furlow and a steady stream of blue rinse widows looking to offload generous endowments translated into opportunities to earn. Dietz's immediate idea for a single venue stop-over, cashing in on passing trade, soon escalated. Plans for a 16-bed motel expanded to incorporate what Lou and his friends hoped would be the swankiest resort west of Chicago. Naturally Lou needed money. Luigi 'Loopy' Luziano was the biggest player on the East coast. An inveterate gambler, he had an alchemist’s touch when it came to investments and risky decisions. Anything he touched . . . well, the saying was an apposite one in ‘Loopy’s case. Lou adopted his best salesman’s patter and took the trip back back East for an audience with his paymasters. Dietz sold the place like a professional. The Pelican Casino & Holiday Resort was a haven in the middle of the desert ; a chance for the mob to broaden it’s appeal. It was another state to add to the list of areas of control. ‘Loopy’ would come on board. He would advance half the money for a thirty per cent share, an arrangement which all parties agreed to. Well a creative genius with an eye for the spectacular Lou Dietz may have been but a natural with numbers he was not. It was not infrequently remarked that fifty per cent or half of Lou’s marks on the street routinely stiffed him on the vig ; not through any acute chicanery but rather down to Dietz’s sheer incompetence with figures. Lou, not wanting it getting around that his intellect wasn’t up to Einsteinian standards never spoke about it, preferring the veneer of financial respectability. It left only one snag in the context of the current arrangement. Lou was in sole control of the budget for the Pelican. In fact he managed it like an incumbent mayor in a sleepy Southern state four weeks out from electoral annihilation. He spent like a Sultan. There were no limits and no oversight. Needless to say it wasn’t long before the numbers filtered back East, landing up on the desk of the watchful-and if needs be, vengeful-‘Loopy’ Luziano. 'Turned out, Dietz owed close to a hundred thou’ and it was money the old mustache Petes couldn't forget - or forgive. Lou would have to make restitution. The Pelican opened January 1st, 1947. Dietz made it to opening night but disappeared shortly thereafter. No one ever found the body and theories trickled forth as to the specifics of Lou’s demise. Had he high-tailed it to Rio with a suitcase full of green in tow ? Perhaps he’d taken a slow boat to China to ponder life's imponderables. Lou was of an age where men were apt to question their life choices. Actually the answer was much simpler. In light of his love of the Pelican-or perhaps in spite of it-it was decided that Lou be a permanent fixture – a six feet in a Southerly direction kind of fixture. Lou Dietz would remain an integral part of the Pelican Casino & Holiday Resort, a memorial in the very concrete he’d sweated to get built.
Of course the town had come a long way since Dietz's vision had risen phoenix-like from the desert sands. These days the Pelican was just another resort complex amongst a coterie of resort complexes ; catering to a population whose mean average age was sixty two - and that included the resort staff. That number came down during the average GI furlow, but you got the picture. Given that mean age of sixty two the Sunset Lodge was aptly-named. If it had a failing, it all too often resembled the cancer ward of a residential hospital on a bleak Thursday in late November. One resident with more reason than most to take advantage of the quiet and ambling approach to whiling away one's retirement, not least to cure a persistent hypertensive problem, was Boris E. Lengel, former filmmaker and delinquent, not necessarily in that order. The pool he could take or leave but the average yearly sunshine hours were a deal-breaker. In his case, retirement was a well earned chance to reflect on a life lived. And whilst the 'Apple Core' crocheting circle that met Thursdays in the community center wouldn't describe themselves as devotees of Lengel's particular brand of filmmaking, they nevertheless appreciated an acclaimed auteur living amongst them. Boris reciprocated with anecdotes of on-set bust-ups and barbs too salacious to be heard outside a courtroom. And then there was the Friday night card game. Boris' idea, an avid card player - he still retained a keen eye for the main chance. Any opportunity to earn a dollar - or dime in this case. Four way, no-limit hold 'em with three of the community's finest sharps never to have graced a world series table. Alphonse De Angelo, Meyer Linscombe and Howie Zimm. You could usually find the group on Monday and Friday afternoons in the Lounge bar of the Pelican and most afternoons and evenings in between.
Herschel Klein held a miserable umbrella aloft. It was raining and dark. A thin covering of fabric was his only defense against an improbable plan and an even less likely signature on a dotted line. For a place that listed year-round sunshine as one of it's ticks in the win column, Las Vegas needed to work on it’s approach to welcoming folk to town. Added to which it was three hours later than he'd intended to arrive. A delayed flight and a cab ride that took in more of the local sights than was strictly necessary added to his unease about the whole venture. If you wanted an analogy, take the Yankees trade to the Reds for Bobby Blundell in ‘33. A blunder whichever side you looked at it. He just had to hope his acquisition was gonna pay better dividends.
‘Herschel Klein. To see Boris Lengel. Lebowski. Actually Lengel.’
‘Well which it is ?’
‘Lengel . . . Also known as Lebowski.’
‘Kid, I don't have all day.’
‘Lengel. It's Lengel.’
The rain was sliding off the fabric of his umbrella, angling back towards the gap between his pants and shoes.
‘We normally don't like to bother our guests. Especially this late at night.’
‘I'm sorry. I didn't intend to arrive this late.’
‘Perhaps you should have left earlier.’
He was getting wetter and wetter. Time for a little hardball.
‘Can you keep a secret ?’
‘I work in the movies. Mr. Lengel used to direct at the studio I represent.’
Hersch showed him a business card with the Parallax logo on it that could have been dropped on any sidewalk by any nutcase.
The guard looked at it like it was a candidate’s pledge card, mildly amused by the typeface but otherwise disinterested.
The first day Bobby Blundell had arrived in the clubhouse, Lou Meigs had taken him out to meet the regulars at Yankee Stadium, a few trusted press on hand to convey the good news to the reading public. Bobby’s first question did not go well. Asked whether he wished his new team well for the upcoming season ‘Ballpark’ Booby had declared that the Reds were a shoe-in for that season’s pennant. Never an over-acheiever in the brains department, it was several seconds before one of the press men was able to point out that Bobby was no longer with the Reds and protocol demanded – at least hinted – that he throw his not inconsiderable support behind his new team.
‘I can’t say too much but between you and me I’m here to negotiate a substantial pay-off to Mr. Lengel on the basis that he return to Parallax and resume his directorial career.’
‘You got it.’
‘How ‘bout I grease the wheels for ya’
A hand stuck itself out in Hersch’s direction. In far less time than it had taken Bobby Blundell to realise his mistake, Hersch/the kid was mentally scolding himself for a case study in how not to negotiate.
‘How much ?’
Hersch fumbled for his wallet, umbrella resting precariously against head and shoulder. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.
‘I see at least ten bucks in there.’
The hand made it’s thrusting move again. Hersch maintained an emergency fund. Y’know – for things that might come up. Overnight stay in a hick town, food, cab ride to the airport. Say ten bucks all in. Hersch handed across his emergency fund, receiving in return about as much as the Yankees did for the very season in question.
‘Second floor. Take the stairs at the end of the corridor.’
The gate opened just wide enough for him to pass. Hersch didn't bother collecting the card.
The interior was sparse but modern. Of the age you might say. A few decorative touches but nothing to distract or trouble minds that were in the final stretches of contemplation.
Hersch stared upwards through the bars in the stairwell.
‘Hey, you down here. Yeah, you. Are you here to take him away ?’
Hersch put a foot on the step.
‘No. Don't come up. I'll come down.’
A nervy figure clutched at the railings, siddling down from the upper floor.
‘I watched you from the balcony. Getting out of the cab. No-one takes a cab. I figure you gotta be government or mob. Let me guess, the guy owes money.’
‘Which guy ?’
Hersch took the initiative.
‘Mad Boris. The Looney tune. He just got done playing cards. They do it every week.’
Hersch glanced at his watch.
‘So have you come to take him away . . . or put him away ?’
The figure, older, hunched, addressed him square-on, eyes squinting double-time.
‘You mean Mr. Lengel ?’
Hersch settled on dumb but polite.
‘Lengel. Huh ! Is that what he calls himself. Lengel. Lebowski. All I know is he's nuts !’
The last word came out in a whisper.
‘And you are ?’
'Me. Don't worry about me. It's you I need to know about !’
Hersch's inquisitor pointed a finger at him.
‘I'm a colleague. That is I used to be. I mean I work for the company Mr. Leng . . . Mr. Lebowski used to work for.’
‘'Sounds like a lot of bullshit to me.’
'I assure you, I have no ulterior motive.’
‘I'm not here to take him away.’
‘'Shame. 'Drives me nuts. I think he's trying to get into my psyche. Y'know, phase me out.’
The little man tapped furiously at the side of his head.
‘One minute he's all up on the movie business, the next he tells me he's got plans to get back at every motherfucker-his word-he ever met in that goddamn business. You know a Larry Crane ?’
Hersch prevaricated, settling on a less-than-convincing shake of his head.
‘I tell you, that guy sure sounds like one gigantic son-of-a-bitch. The way Boris tells it, this Crane royally screwed him up the . . .’
The little man pumped his fist repeatedly.
‘Up the ass if you know what I mean.’
Hersch nodded. He did.
‘So you ain't here to take him away ? Take him to the big house ? Shame. You know what 'zen' means ? It's a kind of philosophy. That guy is beyond 'zen'. He's like karma personified. 'Wore a dressing gown to dinner once. Undressed down to his you-know-what and stood on the table, hands full of mashed potato. Warden had to beg to get him down. And you know what ? He got us fresh fish twice a week. Hey, if that's what it takes, I'll smear custard on my privates. 'Guy from the next block along tried the same thing two weeks later ; they took him away in a sheet. 'No one seen him again. Not Boris. Boris gets what he wants. And what he wants is to get me out. Out !’
Hersch checked left and right for exits.
‘He's sending messages about me. He's got this link with the guards. Telepathic. It's why I wear a protective helmet. I got it in my room. You wanna come see ?’
‘Maybe another time.'
'You'd only try and take it from me. Use it for your own protection. If you're who you say you are, then you're gonna need protection. Anyway I gotta go. He can't see me when he comes out of the restroom. If he does, I lose my protection.’
The small, wizened figure scampered back in the direction from whence he'd come. Hersch mentally counted down from twenty before taking the stairs. On the top floor he paused a moment outside the door to Lengel's apartment.
‘Can I help you ?’
A pallid man appeared from the restroom, threadbare towel wrapped tight around his waist, the rest of his skin uncovered. Steam was rising off his shoulders and thick white hair zig-zagged out from the top and sides of his head.
‘I was er, just er . . .’
Hersch was a natural stumbler in situations he hadn't prepared for.
‘I'm here to see Mr. Leng . . . that is Mr. Lebowski.’
‘'Don't know any Lebowski. Now move aside.’
The man barged past Hersch and opened the door to Lengel's apartment.
‘Are you sure ? It says downstairs that . . .’
‘That's wrong. They gotta fix that. Now move out of my way. I need to close my door.’
‘Perhaps you can tell me where Mr. Lebowski lives ?’
‘I think he left. Government flunkies kept coming around. I think they gave him a heart attack in the end.’
‘I'm not with the government.’
‘You're not from the IRS ?’
‘You know if you are, you gotta tell me. If you don't, it's entrapment.’
Hersch held his hands up. If it had been a Charlie Butterbean picture, his braces would have snapped causing his pants to fall down. As it was, his dignity held.
‘You look like you are. Either that or you're trying to sell me insurance. I got it already, kid.’
The tall pallid man gently but forcibly thrust the door against Hersch's foot.
‘I'm from Parallax.’
The grasp on the door eased and the frame visibly lost a couple of inches in height. Added to which, a fraction of the hostility dissipated through the damp patches beneath the feet.
‘My name's Herschel Klein.’
‘'Don't know any Klein.’
The voice was soft.’
I haven't been there long.’
‘Neither was I. So ?’
‘You might want to hear what I have to say.’
‘I doubt it.’
Hersch was in his second Bobby Blundell situation of the night.
‘Can we at least do this inside.’
It was two outs and Hersch was determined to swing. Make contact and who knows what. Strike out and you were gonna lose anyway.
Lengel sighed, moving inside the apartment.
Impatiently Lengel/He called back to his younger tormentor
Herschel followed his host inside. Lengel double-locked behind him.
‘As I said, I'm here on behalf of . . .’
‘I heard what you said, now what are you doing here ?’
‘Well I wondered if we could talk.’
‘Perhaps I . . .’
Boris motioned to an armchair.
‘I meant stand over there. The chair’s for me.’
Hersch remained standing.
‘So whaddayou wanna talk about ?’
‘Well, I know you enjoyed a long period of success with Parallax.’
‘We thought it might be nice to touch base. See how things . . .’
‘Bullshit. Why are you really here ?’
Hersch tried a different tack.
‘The thing is . . .’
‘I hate people who start with 'To tell you the truth, 'To be honest', 'The thing is'. They're either going to lie to me, have already lied to me or want something. They don't allow liars into the building and I don't have any favors to give. That in mind, please carry on, Mr . . . ?’
Lengel flipped his arms into the air theatrically, as though advising an actor on the rudimentaries of a particular scene.
They're everywhere ! I tell you there isn't a part of this god-forsaken business that isn't run by them. I advise you to get out now kid - while you've got your sanity.’
‘Is that why you left ?’
‘Leave ? Leave ? You think I left ? I didn't leave. The phone stopped ringing and suddenly my pass wasn't good at the gate. Six years making money for people and that's how they tell you goodbye. There's no resignation speech and no pink slip. Several million dollars I made for that company. 1930s money remember. Several million dollars in 1930 is not several million dollars today. I don't know what it is but whatever it is, it's a lot of money.’
‘Well that's what I wanted to talk to you about.’
Lengel began combing his hair.
‘It's the studio. They're . . . how can I put it ?’
‘Apologetically ! And from a far-away destination.’
‘ . . . in financial difficulty.’
‘I don't know if you've heard anything . . .’
‘ . . . And so you thought you'd pay me a visit . . . sound me out about coming back, am I correct ?’
‘Well . . .’
‘Ha. I knew it. So the boss told you to come out here to sound me out, huh ?’
‘Well not exactly.’
‘Well tell me exactly.’
‘Well Mr. Van Crane . . . ‘
‘Crane !! Crane ? You mean that asshole still runs things ?’
‘That tight-wad, ass-clenching, heart attack Kraut bastard ?’
Hersch shifted his weight from one leg to the other.’
You come up here on the orders of that shit-stirring ego-maniac, son-of-a-bitch ? Listen kid, that is your name right, kid, go back to your penthouse apartment and tell fat-boy Crane that he can stick his offer up his ass. And I mean his anal rectum if you know what I mean ! Good day.’
Lengel marched to the door.
‘He's willing to make it worth your while.’
Hersch was floundering. The conversation wasn't going according to plan. Not having a plan to start with didn't help in that respect.
‘How worth my while ?’
Lengel had his hand clutched around the door handle. It could go either way.
‘What would you want ?’
‘An apology. From that bastard. And that's just for starters.’
Hersch was tight-lipped, not that it mattered now. Any advantage he'd wielded on the way up here had been washed away with the unseasonal weather conditions.
‘But more importantly, I'd want my old job title back. My former position at the studio.’
Hersch wondered what Lengel's position had been.
‘I don't know.’
‘Well who does know ? Perhaps they should be here instead of you.’
‘I mean, I'm not sure.’
‘You mean you're not sure you're in a position to negotiate or you're not sure if you should be here at all. Never mind. Here's what I want. My old position, in case you need to ask, 'Director-in-Chief'. Second, my old salary - adjusted for inflation.’
Hersch wasn't sure if the post of 'Director-in-Chief' existed anymore. Lengel held a single digit aloft as he spoke.
‘ . . . And I reserve the right to amend the arrangement at any time.’
It was true to say that the negotiations, if they'd ever been that, were running away from him. Touching base was one thing but he was in danger of getting picked off in a force-out at the plate.
‘I guess that would be okay.’
‘Now please leave I have things to do.’
Lengel made a declamatory statement, opening the door.
‘So I can say you'll at least think it over.’
‘Like I said, if my conditions are met, I'll think about it.’
Hersch was in danger of looking pitiable.
‘Look, come back in a couple of days. If that asshole Crane is prepared to lay out the red carpet, I'll consider it.’
With that the conversation was over. Lengel retired to catch the evening news, Herschel for a cab that would take him to the airport. All told he'd spent a total of less than six hours upstate. After the awakening of being in Lengel's presence, the red eye home was a relief.
‘So he agreed to it ? Or he didn’t agree to it ? I gotta know. Which is it ?
‘Sort of what ?’
‘He wanted certain conditions met.’
Luther stopped dead in his tracks.
‘Well, there was one minor thing.’
‘What ? What did he want ?’
Luther was insistent.
The rising inflexion gave the lie to Van Crane's compliance with the arrangement as it currently stood. His color shifted from dahlia to burgundy rose in two shades and as many seconds.
‘That asshole wanted an apology ! If that old fuck thinks he's getting an apology out of me he's more deluded than I thought.’
‘Well, he had a particular view of how things were left.’
‘Let me tell you about how things were left. He walked out of this place. No-one pushed him. I didn't ask him to leave. In fact, I asked him to reconsider. You know what that son-of-a-bitch said ?’
Hersch knew better than to get in the way of a rolling stone as it was gathering moss.
‘You can stick your lousy company. I vant nothing more to do viz it !’
LVC had a mimic's instinct.
‘I don't suppose he told you that did he ?’
'We didn't get that far into the discussion.’
‘Kid, I thought we agreed you'd pay the guy a visit. Listen to a couple of his old bullshit stories, finesse the prick a little and put the offer ? Listen to me. If you don't think you're up to this, let me know. 'Cause if you're not, I can put someone else on it.’
‘It's okay. Don't worry.’
Truth be told, there was no one else, at least no one with Hersch's encyclopaedic knowledge of Lengel's celluloid career. Van Crane knew it.
‘Okay, okay. This isn't unrecoverable from. Go back, tell him I'm amenable to sitting down and talking things through. Be vague about the apology. If he presses you, tell him I signed off on it. If we can get him down here, we can put him up at the Rialto, maybe the Continental. He'll soon get re-acquiant himself with the place, the old fuck Trust me, no-one gets to the top, sinks that low and then doesn't want a shot at the big time again.’
Luther's non-cigar hand waved demonstrably.
‘You go back up there and put the offer again. Tell him he can have his old job, old salary - adjusted for inflation of course. And anything else unresolved we can talk about when he gets here.’
The boss always blew a contented puff of smoke straight up before he veered off at a tangent.
‘You know it was '32 and we were up against it. Boris was in the saddle. 'Industry was expecting something special. And I mean hot. Well there were only two words on anybody's lips. Abilene and Alvarez. The hottest names in town. Both wanted top billing of course . 'Thing was, if we gave it to one, the other was gonna walk. 'Threatened to sign for Vista. 'Would have been a zero sum game. And Shit Central for us. Boris went nuts. No picture of mine canceled because of actors.’
LVC mimicked the accent.
‘Not von of my projects derailed because son-of-bitch actor got ideas above his station.’
Accent and intonation were dead on.
‘Wanted to bang both kids' heads together. Now since both of them were staying at the Belmont at the time and since neither was prepared to sign on the dotted line, Lengel put hiw own deal to them. 'Slapped it right on the table. Or rather, under it.’
LVC smiled quizzically.
‘He arranges a sit-down with Abilene ; 'tells him Alvarez is on board. 'Tells Alvarez the exact same thing. 'Draws the whole thing up. Bare-faced lie, of course. 'Could have cost us six months in civil court. Anyway . . .’
LVC's tone lightened.
‘. . . We ended up getting them both - and for just over half the money. Everybody saw the funny side in the end. 'Movie was a hit. Cocktails all round.’
Luther's tone shifted again.
‘Listen, come back with the package and I’ll have something for you. Otherwise, you might wanna consider talking a permanent vacation in the sticks, if you know what I mean.’
It was Hersch's turn to go a shade close to scarlet. For whatever reason, he had the name Lou Dietz in mind.
As if to make up for the unseasonal precipitation earlier in the week, the thermostat was registering maximum and Las Vegans had put away overcoats and decamped to the pool. Suddenly it was easy to see why this place was a perennial favorite amongst vacationers. The ride over from the airport had been long, hot and sweaty and Herschel Klein had the feeling of being a stranger in his own country. Added to which Luther's ultimatum had hit home, much like Jerzy Sizmenko's world-series winning hit in the series of 1904 - a shindig notable for little else.
‘I assume the cards are gonna deal themselves ?’
‘Are you looking at me ? Why is he looking at me ? Am I the one holding up the game ?’
‘Did I say I was looking at you ?’
‘No, but you were looking at me.’
Monday evening. Lounge room of the Pelican. Boris Lengel plus three. Remember that card game ? Well, meet Alphonse De Angelo, Meyer Linscombe and Howie Zimm. Antes in. Fourth hand.
‘Of course I'm looking at you. Everyone is looking at you. You're making a fool of yourself.’
‘But you were looking at me before, implying that you thought I was somehow responsible for this cockamamie arrangement.’
‘Cockamamie arrangement ? You seem happy to play each week.’
‘Name something else to do around this place !’
‘So you admit you were at fault ?’
‘I admit nothing. Except that you were looking at me.’
‘I can look where I want.’
‘Fine. But don't make an accusation at the same time you stare directly at someone.’
‘Accusation ? Who's making an accusation ? No-one here is making an accusation. Perhaps guilt is getting the better of you ? It wouldn't be the first time.’
‘Guilt ? You think this is guilt ? Try exasperation !’
‘Guilt or no, it's your deal.’
‘I dealt last hand.’
‘Did you ?’
‘Yes. I see your memory as well as your manners have deserted you.’
‘I forget sometimes.’
‘Why didn't you say ?’
‘I just did.’
‘Before I mean.’
‘Do I gotta tell you everytime something happens ? Maybe I should tell you what hand I got, so you know what to bet . . . That way, you might win a hand.’
‘I do just fine.’
‘Yeah ? You thought it was my deal.’
‘You put me off. I lost my train of thought.’
‘Will you two can it !’
The dealer dealt the hand. Each player got four cards face down, in turn. The pack was replaced in the center of the table.
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down horse. What is this ? Four cards ? What are we playing now ?’
‘Any slower and we'd be playing the previous hand.’
‘I thought we'd switched.’
‘Yeah, but to what ? What game do you get four cards ?’
‘The game we happen to be playing. The game we've been playing for the last two and a half years.’
‘Alright, alright, everybody calm down. He needs another card. Everybody needs another card.’
‘We're still playing poker right ?’
‘We've been playing poker for the last half hour. You don't remember ?’
‘I remember just fine. I was just in two minds.’
‘That explains how you bet.’
‘I can bet how I like.’
‘Sure, you can bet on the Phillies, if you want. It don't make it sensible.’
The first of four antes was thrown in.
‘So just to clarify gentlemen, the game is five card stud. One dollar minimum raise. Twos are wild.’
‘Not jacks ?’
‘Why, you got a jack ?’
‘You got a deuce ?’
‘One dollar ? What if I want to raise another dollar ?’
‘I thought we had this conversation.’
‘We did. He knows it too.’
‘Every time ! You don't specify a minimum raise and everybody wants to raise nickels and dimes. We end up playing for six hours and precisely six dollars changes hands all night. This way, we keep it nice and simple.’
‘So I can't raise a buck fifty ?’
‘Ah-ha ! So he has got the deuce !’
‘Why ? Are you looking at my cards ?’
‘I'll take two.’
‘I'll take five.’
‘So he doesn't have the deuce ?’
‘What is it with my hand ? Don't you have cards of your own ?’
‘Maybe he does have the deuce and he's bluffing.’
‘Why would he bluff ? He's throwing the hand away ?’
‘Look, is anyone going to give me five cards ?’
‘And I'll take one !’
The dealer took a card.
‘Two pair ! I bet it's two pair !’
‘Would you stop trying to guess my hand. It's not the object of the game.’
‘There's an object to any of this ?’
‘Just one for me.’
‘Another two for me and I still say he's got two pair.’
‘I just gave you five.’
‘So I want another five. You got any rule against that ?’
‘Five it is.’
‘And I’ll take one.’
The dealer exchanged one card from the deck for the one in his hand.
‘Two pair. I hit it on the nose. And by the look on his face, I can see he's still got two pair.’
‘Are you gonna shut up ? I'm tryin' to deal here.’
‘You just dealt yourself two pair !’
‘Whoa, are you accusin' me of cheating ?’
‘Calm down, calm down. What is it with you two ?’
‘I say we get someone else to deal. Permanently.’
‘There's four of us - what are you gonna do ? Have someone else join the game just to deal the cards ?’
‘It if meant gettin' a fair hand . . .’
‘He's doin' it again.’
‘Alright, you shut up - and you, you with your two pair, you just deal.’
‘Gees. I got everyone puttin' me on a hand here.’
‘I'm in for another buck.’
‘You fold ?’
‘In that case, I'm in too.’
‘Wait, I don't fold anymore.’
‘You just folded ! You can't take your hand back.’
‘On their backs gentlemen.’
‘Ace high, ten kicker.’
‘I got nothin'. Busted flush.’
‘Two pair !’
‘I told you he had two pair !’
‘Hang on, you got nothin' but a busted flush ? How come you didn't fold ? You throw in another dollar with a busted flush. What kinda strategy is that ?’
‘Maybe it's a strategy above your head !’
‘Maybe it's the strategy of a lunatic !’
‘Better a lunatic than a spectator.’
‘Lunatic or spectator - I don't care. As long as I don't go broke making a move like that.’
‘So who's deal is it now ?’
‘Ouch, let's not have this conversation again.’
‘I think I'll split.’
Boris pushed out his hand to cover the cards in the middle of the table. His companions turned to him as one.
‘What's up ?’
‘I'm a little tired.’
‘We're all tired.’
‘I've got more reason to be.’
‘Why ? 'Cos you're losin' ?’
‘Alright. I'll stay. Just to show you I'm not a bad loser.’
‘Boris honey we know you're a bad loser. It's just the manner of the tantrums that concern us.’
‘In that case, gentlemen I think I'll split.’
This time Boris was amongst the doubters.
‘Well if he can go, so can I.’
‘He's not going anywhere.’
'That's not what he said a minute ago.’
‘Look, no-one's going anywhere. Not 'til I get a chance to win back some of my money.’
‘It ain't even your money.’
‘You owe me fifty bucks from last week.’
‘Fifty bucks which will be duly repaid in the fullness of time.’
‘Fullness I don't have a problem with. Time is another matter. None of us are getting any younger. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you're not getting any younger faster than the rest of us.’
‘And you think I'd hasten my own death just to cheat you out of fifty bucks ?’
‘I see how you play poker, I wouldn't put it past you.’
‘I see. It's good to know the quality of one's friends.’
‘I suppose it takes one to know one.’
‘In which case, maybe I am better off with my maker.’
‘Huh, what ?’
‘You think he'll take you ?’
‘You think he'll take you ?’
'I ain't planning on meetin' him any time soon.’
‘That arrangement can be amended.’
A chair scrapped backwards and one senior citizen followed by another got to their feet as dramatically as old bones would permit.
‘Calm down, calm down.’
‘What are you two gonna do ? Knock each other's false teeth out ? Stamp on them a little ? You know what dentistry costs these days ?’
‘Okay. Let's everybody calm down. Now who's gonna deal ?’
‘I thought we settled this.’
‘No we settled a few things but this wasn't one of them.’
‘Hang on I've just seen somebody.’
Without warning, as seemed to be the modus operandi of the game, Boris got to his feet and started across the room.
‘Where's he going ?’
‘I thought he wasn't quitting ?’
‘In which case gentlemen, I think that makes the game null and void.’
The cards-and cash, approximately six dollars of it-were scooped into a single pile.
‘So I take it you're not gonna give me a chance to win my money back ?’
‘This again ? How can I ? There's only three of us left.’
‘So, we play something else.’
‘What do you suggest ? Snap ?’
‘Snap ? Now why would I agree to play snap with a guy who doesn't wear his own glasses ? Taking candy from a kid ain't my idea of entertainment.’
‘A kid ? You think of me as a kid ?’
‘Without your glasses I don't think of you as much of anything at all.’
‘Then put your money where your mouth is.’
‘You want me to call the cards out as I deal. Y'know, in case you can't see them ?’
‘I didn't expect you back.’
Across the other side of the room, Boris Lengel addressed his younger visitor.
‘That makes two of us.’
‘What did he say ?’
‘If I didn't sign the deal I might like to consider a permanent relocation.’
Boris mulled the thought over.
‘By the way, on the subject of a permanent relocation I can recommend the Pelican. They have excellent rates and encourage residents looking for the long let if you know what I mean.’
Boris bent low to address him.
‘Not many of them stay the full term.’
‘Hey Boris, who's the kid ?’
‘Yeah - long lost relative ?’
‘None of your business.’
Boris shot back.
‘He play cards ?’
Boris advised Hersch.
‘It looks like I'm interrupting.’
‘No interruption kid. Take a seat. We could use an extra hand.’
Against his better judgment, Hersch sat.
‘Not that anyone gives a fuck . . .’
Boris began imperiously.
‘But this happens to be the senior vice president of production at Parallax Pictures.’
‘The kid's a fast learner, which is more than I can say for some.’
‘Ain't that the place you used to work at ?’
Boris dismissed the jibe with a wave of his hand.
‘He's here to discuss a proposition, which, though I can't say much about it, will mean me spending less time arguing around a table with a bunch of deadbeats.’
‘Speaking of spending time with deadbeats, you in or not ?’
‘Two more hands.’
‘You play poker, kid ?’
He knew the rules.
‘In which case, he's in.’
‘If that's alright with pops over there.’
‘The kid, who happens to have a name, can speak for himself.’
‘Straight poker. No wilds. Nickel ante.’
The cards were dealt. Hersch let the first few hands drift by. He had a pocketful of loose change and didn't mind offloading it. As the evening dragged on, the final hand came around. For the record, it went as follows : Alphonse De Angelo took a nine, ten. Clubs. Hersch took a four six off suit and mucked. Better to keep his powder dry for the battle proper. Meyer and Howie kept cards close to respective chests, indicating strength. Boris was blank, offering no information. The flop came deuce, five, six. As you were. 'Turn comes Jack helping no one. Three checks. River ten. Alphonse checks, two raises - back to Alphonse. He folds, leaving Boris and the Zimmster to duke it out for the spoils. Boris misses his fifth diamond but collects a pair of tens as reward for his charitable mood ; Zimm does likewise on his straight leaving him sevens but wishing he was looking at a pair of ladies. Incidentally, the last time Howie was looking at a pair of ladies, Ethel and Myrtle were in the lunch queue, a period of time sufficiently far back for Howie not to remember in any event. Betting reaches a buck fifty. Two bucks. After no time the pot hits six bucks. Howie's nerve deserts him first and the two men lay it down. Tens versus sevens. Boris takes a moment to soak up the glory. As for Hersch, 'not an ace or eight in sight. It was an omen.
‘'Kid turned out to be a mascot.’
‘No luck. Pure skill.’
‘In which case you won't mind me bringing my own lucky charm next time we play.’
‘Whatever soothes your ego. Now in case any one of you bums has forgotten I have other business to attend to.’
‘Oh yeah, the big film deal.’
‘Not so big I hear.’
‘What do you hear ?’
‘Very little if his doctor has any say in it.’
‘You don't even know my doctor.’
‘I knew the last one. Until he died.’
Boris threw an arm in the air.
Hersch followed, nodding an acknowledgment to the remaining card players. They passed into the foyer of the Pelican lounge, billboards and stands advertising forthcoming attractions ; stars of stage and screen, past and present.
‘Look at this crap.’
Lengel fanned his hand to indicate that a critical mass had been reached.
‘They got Lewis Clarkson comin' in to do a run. Lewis Clarkson ! That asshole was never any good. And now look ! They book these washed-up no-goodniks as if the place was a kindergarten. He was penny-ante even back then. Why they gotta dig him up and wheel him on out here beats me. I remember the day he came by the lot. 'Even asked for my autograph. 'Said he loved all the old stuff. Huh. 'Kid couldn't act to save his life. And what he did to a Trixie Montell number, ugh !’
Lengel drew his index finger across his throat, his tongue hanging out to complete the visual image.
‘We were doing 'Harlots in Scarlet' at the time. 'Remember it like it was yesterday. Now that was a picture.’
It was one of Hersch's favorites. He let Boris draw back the curtain and shed a little light on the magic.
‘A long-dead coven of 'harlots' is reawakened Halloween night. Returning to the village that spawned them they vow to dispatch the menfolk. Only the purest maidens can drive the banshees back to the nether world. Gradually the townsfolk succumb.’
Boris wove his hands majestically as he knitted the story.
‘Anyway, the inhabitants steadily succumb as emasculated peasant girls take up pitchforks to wreak justice against the horde. Castles, moats, villages, haystacks - the whole caboodle. Firewood at the end of it but good enough on the day. Anyway, where was I ? Oh yeah, the catfight. We had blood, guts, hair, teeth, shiffon. And what's more . . .’
Boris had a glint in his eye and a finger in the air.
‘Veronica DeMille !’
Two words, but what a pair. Possessing the enviable ability to drop a jaw at thirty paces, Veronica drove lust and adulation into the hearts of her leading men in equal measure. Five feet one in neck-to-toe green velvet, she was harlot enough for any man. Boris might justifiably be accused of being a ladies man, but she was right up there on a very short list.
‘Anyway, the final scene. The lead - I forget his name. Some kid. 'Prepares to meet his doom at the hands of the coven in the crypt of none other than Baron Von Blood. What an exit from the land of the living ! Veronica was beautiful. Nominated in two categories. Overlooked in both. Criminal. You think there's any justice in that ?’
Lengel eyed Hersch up and down.
‘Why am I asking you ? Is it true about old Schneide-face? Is he back in town ?’
Hersch answered in the affirmative, passing on the bad news.
‘'Place gets worse every year.’
The truth of the matter was he never went away. As to the accusation of general decadence, they had a word for it. Several in fact. La-La land. Tinseltown. Freaksville. Grab a soubriquet at random and the chances were it didn't do justice to the place. The town was falser than any of the bon mots it had accumulated over it's relatively short history. When Jacqueline Du Vries had hosted her mammoth end-of-decade party in the twenties, a shindig that incidentally stretched down from her hillside home into the annals of Hollywood lore, no one knew for certain whether the gathering was an ironic nod to postmodern excess or a celebration of a zeitgeist that looked set to engulf popular culture. For Jacqueline's guests the event was pure debauchery. For the workaday scribes on the trades it was a moment for exaltation ; a second-coming which would herald the plagues and earthquakes hinted at in the great book. Reading the bylines you might have thought the world was coming to an end. It was Rome under Nero all over again.
‘As to the Larry Schneider situation maybe what it needs is someone with an artistic vision. 'Correct the balance.’
Lengel humphed. You got that for a slow fastball left over the plate.The late evening air was warm but with a breeze simmering. For all it's wilderness qualities the desert sure could lower collective expectations. Dietz et al. were the exceptions. For most people Las Vegas was a place to come to retire and then, well . . . face the inevitable.
‘If I were to return my terms would be the same.’
‘Salary - adjusted for inflation. Plus . . .’
‘I'll work on it.’
‘See that you do.’
Hersch felt a weight lift from his shoulders. Maybe places could rise in the estimation. If so, then maybe he should take a partial leaf out of the Dietz playbook and invest a little time in Las Vegas.
The next few days on the Parallax lot were like the dog days of Summer in the middle of a drought that wasn't gonna shift anytime soon. Soda pop vendors were the new bootleggers and ice was grade 'A' moonshine. Kids were huddled over hydrants too bent out of shape to fight back and it was hard to tell where the melting street signs ended and the bubbling tar began. Parallax hadn't been spared. Nothing had been made official but everybody was in the loop. Something big was about to happen and it's name was Boris Lengel. It was unimportant who leaked the information. Like brandy spilling out of a drunk's glass at closing time, 'news' invariably took the path of least resistance. A retired former filmmaker was about to dip his toes back in the water. Boris was coming to the plate with plenty to prove. What seemed like only yesterday he'd been a retired ex-filmmaker, quietly living out his retirement away from the grind of industry sniping and grossly-inflated salaries. Premieres and primadonnas were once again within his orbit. The man dubbed the industry's most ingenious auteur and twice overlooked for the best director statuette was back. The media opened up it's collective filing cabinet of corny quips. Ageless vampiric monstrosities and ghouls were resurrected in quick order. One couple taking the opportunity to have a little fun at Lengel's expense were the American Broadcasting Network's Barry and Berry, eponymous leads of the 'Barry and Berry Merry-Go-Round'. The show played up news stories from the week, mocking wherever possible-and it was always possible-winners and losers in the weekly battle of press clippings and column inches. The two leads bumbled onto the stage ploughing through the same schtick from the week before (names altered wherever appropriate) - an act incidentally which paid lip service to the greats but never reached the high water mark of performers such as Arbuthnott, Allenby or Inman. Lengel predictably was one such deserving target.
‘ . . . I noticed your wife in the waiting room outside.’
‘You were looking at my wife ?’
‘I saw her, yes.’
‘Oh, so now you're seeing my wife ?’
‘No, but I will if you recommend it.’
‘Leave it with me, I'll make the call.’
‘By the way, if she's in the waiting room when I leave I'll see her again, fair enough ?’
‘How 'bout I throw in an extra fifty and you take her to the opera Friday night ?’
‘Sorry, no dice. I've got a date.’
‘Don't tell me, the blonde girl from the bakery ?’
‘The bakery hired a blonde ?’
‘As of last Tuesday. She was a brunette the week before that.’
‘That's odd. I switched to white bread about the same time.’
‘So if not the blonde, the brunette, how 'bout the redhead ?’
‘They've got a redhead at the bakery ?’
‘No, she's at the haberdashers next door. I met her the time I went in to have a pair of trousers taken in.’
‘You certainly were !’
‘Speaking of which, don't tell my wife about this will you ?’
‘I thought you were getting a divorce.’
‘I am but my wife decided to be a sleeping partner in the arrangement. She perfected the art during our marriage.’
‘I'm sorry to hear that.’
‘I'm not. The sooner she's out the door, the better.’
‘You're not letting her take the house ?’
‘No, it's staying where it is. We thought it would be too difficult to move the foundations.’
‘What about the lawyer ? Is he any good ?’
‘We dated a couple of times. He wasn't my type.’
‘Surely a good lawyer can make the difference between winning and losing in the courtroom.’
‘That's true but don't call me Shirley. Talking of winners and losers did you hear the line-up for the 'Talkies this year ?’
‘No. Who made it to the playoffs ?’
‘I think the Red Sox. But what's that got to do with the movies.’
‘I thought you said the playoffs. So who's in line for the statue this year ?’
‘Joe Stalin I think, but it's a closed vote.’
‘Okay. Who else ?’
‘Only Luther Van Crane.’
‘The composer ?’
‘I think you're thinking of Ludwig Von Beethoven. He's dead.’
‘If you think that's bad, you should hear what they say about Luther Van Crane. So who's in line for best director ?’
‘They say Boris Lebowski is looking good ?’
‘I've seen him look better.’
‘You know some of his films are in the comedy section ?’
‘That's some joke’
‘You think that's funny ? Take a look at the audience.’
‘Speaking of the audience, whattaya think of this bunch.’
‘I've seen better.’
‘I agree. Last night, much classier. You could tell by the seats. They left them behind when they left.’
A quick scenery change and we were in the doctor's surgery.
‘Doctor, I'm living with a terrible pain.’
‘I see you've met my wife. I suffer from the same condition. So what can I do for you ?’
‘Well the pain seems to radiate from my midriff. I think it may be intestinal.’
‘I'm sorry to hear that. You must pass on my condolences to the family.’
‘That's very kind of you but I think it could be my appendix.’
‘If that's the case you should see a librarian. Personally I'd advise some tests.’
‘Fine. Should I roll my sleeve up ?’
‘Does that help you relax ?’
‘I thought you might want to take my blood pressure.’
‘Maybe later. First we should concentrate on the tests. I thought we'd start with general knowledge.’
‘Can you give me pie to three places ?’
‘Why ? Is this is a restaurant ?’
‘Perhaps we should move on to history. What's the date of independence ?’
‘If you mean my divorce, a couple of years ago. I haven't looked back since.’
Banter over, the two leads left the stage. A few of the trades speculated as to the real reason for Lengel's return from oblivion. Was Parallax in the soup ? Had Lengel been made an offer he couldn't refuse ? If he had, was there an old school New York connection behind it ? Nobody wanted to go back to the back old days of Albert and his cronies. 'Movie News Weekly' cheekily sent Boris an advance invitation to the premiere screening of Vistavision's 'The Crooner' - a story about a washed-up lounge signer given one last chance at stardom. Somebody was trying to send him a message. In other news, network quiz show host Larry St. Croix had had his divorced finalized earlier in the week while notorious crime boss Vincenzo Manganeze was due in court nine am, Monday morning to face charges of racketeering. Speaking of keeping appointments, man of the moment Boris E. Lengel, filmmaker, pioneer, and other sundry roles was due within the hour. To wit, Luther Van Crane was doing his nut, pacing up and down a stretch of carpet in the Parallax executive lounge ; the carpetincrementally molding to the pattern of the soles of his shoes. It was Friday. Boris was a full day late. If it had been a movie and the script had called for a dramatic intervention, the phone would have rung. It did.
Luther barked carelessly in the direction of the receiver.
‘ . . . Airport . . . Hold-up . . . Fly . . . Thursday.’
The line went dead. Luther cursed. He picked up on the second ring.
‘Where are you ?’
‘Grand Central Station.’
Herschel Klein's voice was clearer this time.’
‘Grand Central. Downtown.’
‘I don't know that airport.’
‘He doesn't like to fly on a Thursday. We had to take the overnight.’
‘The overnight what ?’
Hersch relayed the relevant information.
‘A train ? You took the train ?’
‘It was the only alternative.’
‘Gees, what are you trying to do ? Get this guy here in installments ?’
‘It was the train or nothing. I figured under the circumstances . . .’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Is he there ?’
LVC was impatient.
Luther's blood-pressure slumped like a drunk at the bar at closing time.
‘Put him on.’
Hersch turned to his companion.
‘He wants to speak to you ?’
Hersch passed across the receiver.
‘Don't get smart. You may have got me to sign off on this cockamamie trip, but nothing's set in stone yet. Added to which, I don't have the loose change for a long conversation. Besides, it's too loud in here. I'll speak to him later.’
Boris turned to walk but Hersch's hand found the old man's sleeve. The king of the poker table looked uneasy. Frail even.
Lengel's voice was croaky.
‘That you ?’
Boris regained his composure, straightening his back, his grip on the telephone receiver tight.
‘I trust you're well.’
‘As well as I'd expect to be. You ?’
‘Fine. I understand there's something you'd like to say to me.’
Lengel offered up his full Lavinia de Costa accepting the best actress statuette, still miffed at the industry for overlooking her career output to date.
‘No. 'Can't think of anything. Oh wait, the dodgers played at the weekend. I didn't catch the final score.’
‘I warn you, my patience is not limitless.’
‘Well if you're referring to matters discussed by you and the kid, I'm sure you can work it out between yourselves.’
‘I'm warning you.’
‘Speaking of which . . .’
‘I hope he's been of assistance.’
‘The kid ?’
‘That's right. The kid.’
‘Oh, you mean the kid. I think he might have management potential. Given the right opportunity of course. Say if some old bastard were to step aside.’
‘I'll make a note. So what's Nevada like ?’
‘Thinking of retiring ?’
‘Year round sunshine. What's not to like about the place.’
‘'Sounds delightful. I must look it up on the map sometime. Las . . . ?’
‘Vegas. Speaking of which, I think I'd prefer my apology now.’
‘Apology ? For what ? Did I forget an anniversary ?’
‘Zat's it ! Zat's enough ! I knew zis vas a bad idea.’
Lengel rammed the telephone at Hersch.
‘No more cockamamie bullshit with that son-of-a-bitch !’
‘Okay, okay. Just keep your voice down.’
Lengel harrumphed and wandered off in the direction of the gentlemen's conveniences. Hersch was left to try to patch things up with Luther through the medium of a palm-sized piece of plastic.
‘ . . . What did you say to him ?’
‘Nothing. I just wound the old guy up a little.’
Luther sensed Hersch's discomfort.’
‘Don't worry. I know the old bastard well enough. He doesn't make a thousand mile trip without knowing there's something in it for him. He'll come around. Where is he now ?’
‘In the toilet. I think he had to get something out of his system.’
‘Take him over to the Continental. Let him stew in five star luxury for a couple of days.’
The phone clicked. Hersch was back to playing catch-up. A propos the Continental, accommodation there was the last word in luxury. 'The epitome of respectability with luxury'. It was the company tag-line and well deserved at that. Nestling amidst a coiffure of manicured ivy that muffled the sound of passing jewelry as it snaked up the stuccoed exterior of the building, even the hotel sign took a snooty disdain to sub-par clientele. Studio heads were well advised to keep a suite on retainer. After all, which of them wanted to repeat the great Cinescape mistake. When the inimitable Fanny De Montfort had shown up in town, which she did rarely but not without fanfare, studio boss at the time diminutive Jost LaRoche had sucked a thoughtful tooth, before revealing to Miss de Montfort the particulars of the situation.
‘Miss De Montfort, we've checked the Royale, the Palisades and the Almeida but I'm sorry to report that we were unable to secure a reservation for you.’
‘Darrhhling, you're telling me I can't have my usual suite. In which case, I shall take my custom elsewhere.’
And boy did she. Don't expect a call from Miss De Montfort anytime soon. Even her hair stylist was on notice to snub anyone from the offending studio. And out of Miss De Montfort and poor old Jost LaRoche guess which of the two was still working in the industry a year later and which had slipped so far down the social ladder that to have included their name in the showbusiness bible, 'Who's Who in Town' would have been stretching the reference remit of the tome. Exactly ! Jopst was toast, as they say.
Hersch had parked himself on a hardwood bench that looked like it had been around since antebellum times. It certainly felt like it. A fragment of one of General Lee’s canonballs dug into his rear end. Penace no doubt for his North Eastern origins. If you wanted a tour of the city’s oldest fixtures and fittings you could do worse than take a stroll around Grand Central station. And there was no better time to do it than at the peak of daily human migration. There was something soporific about idly surveying passing traffic. Friends and family arrived and departed, messages and gestures were exchanged. Tears. Laughter. They were ceremonies replete with emotional baggage. Speaking of baggage, Boris was taking his time. 'Probably got himself into an argument with the Maitre D or else he was still brooding. Hersch knew that he wouldn't turn down the Continental, if only to cause Luther to take the hit in the wallet. He resolved to check the conveniences to put the argument in person. Herschel Klein mumbled his apologies as he entered and gently pushed open the stall doors one by one. The last one was locked. Patrons taking their ease stared quizzically.
‘. . . Waiting. For a friend.’
Hersch said clumsily. The last of the hand-washers left and Hersch knocked on the door of the end stall.
‘Are you in there ?’
Still nothing. Hersch looked furtively over his shoulder. Satisfied no one was about to come in he gave the door a gentle thud, around shoulder height. The possibility that someone might be taking their ease and report the ‘break-in’ didn’t seem plausible for some reason. The latch loosened a little and after another furtive peek, the kid who'd been unable to make it onto the high school football team gave it the full shoulder charge, the door, unlike Lurleen Haverstock on prom night in the back of his father’s Studebaker, giving way without protest. The picture postcard scene that greeted him was classic Butterbean. So much so in fact that a sense of morbidity overcame him. It was an appropriate reaction. There on the seat, bent double, Boris Lengel Nee Lebowski, former director of motion pictures for Parallax Pictures sat motionless. Slumped like a sack of potatoes that had keeled over under it's own weight. Hersch immediately went through a mental check-list of post-facto diagnostics. Elevate wound. Calm patient. Unobstruct airway. None of it applied. The old man was dead. As dead as old Albert Aristopolou. There was simply no way of escaping the fact. Death and dignity did not mix. Like Charlie himself, he was past the point of no return. Like a nervous librarian approaching the town drunk at closing time, Hersch gently put a hand against Boris' lapel. It dispelled any remaining doubts he had about the status of his traveling companion. Under the circumstances he did what any decent normal human being would do. He panicked. Dashing first to the door only to scamper back he found himself in his own Butterbean-esque moment of indecision. In the end he resolved to chance it. 'Leave the old man and relay the news to the one cool impartial head that could take an unpanicked decision. He took the precaution of locking the stall from the inside clambering over the partition wall before a thirty yard sprint to the nearest telephone which Herschel Klein completed in Olympic time. Luther picked up the phone on the half-tone.
‘What is it now ? What does he want ? Don't tell me he's holding out for more up front. That old man's gonna be the death of me.’
‘It's not that. The truth is he's not holding out for much right now.’
‘You're not making sense kid.’
‘I think you should get down here.’
‘He wants to do this face to face ? And then what ? Perform a little song and dance for the old fuck ? Tell him he can go screw himself.’
‘Let's just say I think you should see this for yourself.’
‘He's making a spectacle of himself ?’
‘He's intoxicated ? Out cold ?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘You're losing me. And it's becoming a habit.’
Hersch figured the direct route was probably the best.
‘On the toilet. Just a minute ago.’
‘Dead dead ?’
‘Dead as I've ever seen anybody.’
‘How many dead people have you seen ?’
It was a good question. Beyond those he'd witnessed on TV shows, the answer was none.
‘I know it's not October 31st but if this is a joke, let me tell you it's in bad taste. I don't need to tell you that the continued survival of this company rests on that man's shoulders.’
There wasn't much resting on Lengel's shoulders right about now. Macabre maybe, but anatomically correct.
‘It's not which is why I'm telling you this. Quietly.’
Hersch clamped the receiver to his cheek, checking background once more.
‘He's in the third stall along. I've propped him up, but I've gotta get back.’
‘Okay, just stay put. I'll have someone come down.’
On an average day, the trip from Parallax to Grand Central was twelve minutes. Luther was there inside eight. In person. His frame filled the restroom doorway as he blustered in.
‘Okay, where is he ?’
‘In here !’
Hersch whispered in his best Fifi Maniche after a night of tequilas and tobacco. If you were looking for an analogy, 'Heroes in Hock' came closest. Not one of Charlie’s finest. Nevertheless Luther took the role with gusto ; Hersch slipping easily into the role of Charlie’s erstwhile sidekick, Luigi. Lengel sat things out. ‘Third wheel’ if you like. The plot had Charlie commandeering Luigi for the purposes of rescuing the maiden of the piece from her dastardly kidnapper. Only instead of extracting our heroine from mortal peril, the heroes actions merely merely served to inveigle them further into the malaise. This particular set-up followed the tried-and-tested route ; Luigi as per usual ending up in possession of the offending article. In this case a dead body no less.
‘Okay I know exactly what to do.’
Thought Hersch. Luther would call the police and it would be out of their hands.
‘But more importantly what not to do. We don't call the police.’
Hersch did the equivalent of an auditory double-take.
‘Surely . . .’
‘Forget the police. This thing comes out in the open and the studio's finished.’
Luther spread his hands out in front of him.
‘Hopes for Studio washed away as acclaimed director in-convenienced for last time. Savior of Parallax down the pan.’
The hands were lowered.
‘Look, you got him this far. Why blow the whole thing now ? The story's practically in the can. Everybody's talking about Lengel being back at Parallax. You wanna be the one to blow that ?’
‘But . . .’
Hersch began falteringly.
‘No one's gonna know. You told me yourself he has no family. No one's going to miss him. It would be different if it was you or I.’
Hersch wondered exactly how different it would be in his case.
‘I wouldn't ask you to do this if I didn't think you were up to it. Now where's his suitcase ?’
Hersch pulled out a tatty single-person case from behind the cistern. Brown, leather, worn. It was enough to evoke feelings of pity and Hersch could feel a lump in his throat. Luther exuded no such pity.
‘Let's see what we've got.’
Luther opened the case and began rummaging.
‘Ah-ha, ah-ha. Hat. Long coat. 'Should be enough.’
‘Er, aren't we overlooking one thing.’
‘Such as ?’
‘How are we getting him out of here ?’
‘That's what these are for.'
Luther held up Boris' hat and coat. We put these on and each take an arm. He'll look drunk. We'll help him out of the building and get him into the truck.
Moments later and as comically as two men carrying a drunk, Luther Van Crane and Herschel Klein maneuvered the body of Boris E. Lengel out of the door to the gentlemen's conveniences at Grand Central station and as calmly as each was able under the circs escorted him towards the exit. Just consider those circumstances. 'Middle of the day. Sweltering heat, the drunkard in question wearing overcoat and trilby. Needless to say it drew heads. Conversations died to a hush. As performances went, Lengel would have been proud.
‘Wait. His feet are dragging.’
‘Let them. He's meant to be drunk.’
‘Exactly. Drunk, not dead.’
‘You got a better idea ?’
Hersch pondered as he bore the weight of the dead director.
‘Good. Well let's stop talking about it.’
The pair continued their ungainly removal of the cargo to a point of seclusion.
As commercial vehicles went the 1956 F100 was about as standard as Ford made 'em. The studio runaround stood in the car parking section at the front of Grand Central like an oasis, it's soothing sleek curves as ripples to thirst-crazed travelers.
‘’Should do it.’
The two partners-in-crime bundled the dead Boris Lengel into the cab and climbed in. There was something eerie about sitting next to a dead body. Sitting next to a dead body whose manner of passing you'd concealed from the authorities was equally galling on top of that.
‘If we get pulled over, leave the talking to me.’
With pleasure thought Hersch.
‘I know a guy who works for the city. At the morgue in fact. He owes me a favor. I'll drop you first and then deal with him.’
The order of business suited Hersch down to the ground.
It was exactly twelve hours since Boris Lengel had returned to his Alma mater. Twelve hours in which Luther Van Crane had played host, tormentor briefly, undertaker and at the present moment studio executive. As for the great director, what artistic heights lay ahead of him ? What milestones were yet to be conquered ? Few. Right now he was propping up a drywall on the Parallax lot, itself once a backdrop to 'Death before Dawn', a Lengel classic. Fitting, if eerie. Some fifty yards away, in the engine room of the Parallax machine, LVC was the solitary figure pacing up and down the Parallax boardroom, matters of grave concern clearly occupying his mind. If the maxim that a problem shared was a problem halved held any water, then the carpet was about to get a break. A quiet knock on the door got the customary LVC treatment.
‘Get in here !’
A bleary-eyed weary-looking Herschel Klein entered sheepishly.
‘What time is it ?’
‘Late. You slept ?’
‘Yesterday. I mean today. No.’
‘Never mind. We've got work to do.’
LVC outlined the plan. Composing himself, Hersch put the logical question.
‘What happened to 'Don't worry. I know a guy at the morgue. I'll take care of this'?’
‘It fell flat. As a pancake. Don't worry, we don't have time for the details.’
Instead Luther fleshed out the details of the new plan. It elevated the seriousness of the situation. Moreover it shone a disturbing light on the workings of the mind of the boss of the company. Plan eventually outlined, Hersch sat ; or rather slumped. He'd been asleep when he'd got the call, one in the morning being around the usual time people indulged in the practice. His mind was incrementally adjusting to the madness of the situation.
‘So just run this by me again. We move the body over to the new sound stage.’
‘Dig a trench.’
‘Dump Lengel's body. Fill the trench with concrete and never tell anyone about it ?’
Hersch made the internationally recognized sign for a wheelbarrow full of wet cement being poured into an open trench.
‘Well if there's nothing else I'll head home.’
Hersch moved towards the door. LVC moved to intercept.
‘I'm deadly serious kid.’
‘This is going to get done with or without you. You're in this hip deep remember.’
Hersch's face was momentarily child-like. Had he just been threatened ? The bottom lip began to tremble ever so slightly.
‘Don't turn pinko on me. You just got a promotion, remember. Look, that came out wrong. I didn't mean it like that. Come on, he'd love it.’
‘Uh-huh ! Besides, no-one's gonna know he's gone. No family remember.’
Hersch was beginning to have visions of a long-lost relative creeping out of the woodwork. There was a coffin analogy in there somewhere but the kid was too tired to make much of it.
‘Are we in ?’
The kid's resistance was low.
‘I need you on this kid. You don't know what a mess this place is in. I mean, a mess. We're finished. Debts. Everything.’
Luther threw his hands up. If it was meant to inspire, it had a touch of the Hail Marys about it.
‘Ha. I knew you'd say yes.’
‘But what if he does have a family somewhere. A long lost someone or other ?’
‘Lengel ? Too much of a loner. Besides, he was an old man. 'Probably wandered off somewhere. Got himself lost – or else committed.’
Did that mean he did have a long lost relative somewhere and that his disappearance wouldn't bother them or that he didn't and therefore it couldn't, if that made sense. It was late.
‘It's no good, this is gonna take all night.’
Hersch stood upright, shovel in hand, positioned in a six by three feet trench, two inches deep.
‘Which is why we're not doing it in the daytime.’
‘It's just brick and dirt. Are you sure no-one's around ?’
‘The place is secure. Everything's locked up.’
Hersch surveyed the area. Satisfied the three of them were alone the shovel went down. As it did it hit flint sending a shard of something angular in the direction of his head, missing the vital areas but ricocheting violently off his chin.
‘That's it. This is pointless.’
Hersch threw the shovel to the ground.
‘You were doing fine.’
The evidence told a different tale.
‘Okay. We bury him under the main stage.’
‘You mean the busiest place on the lot ?’
‘The very same. Who's gonna look for him there ?’
‘You've gotta be kidding.’
‘Don't you see ? Who looks for a dead body in the middle of a crowd ?’
Evidently Hersch didn't. Instead he followed Luther's lead and took an arm, the pair dragging the corpse back in the direction from which it had earlier been sequestered.
‘Over here, over here.’
‘Hang on, I've gotta put him down.’
Hersch let Lengel's body slide down his own, allowing the head come to rest at his feet. They were gonna dump him in the ground whereupon he would decompose until he was little more than teeth and fingernails and Hersch was being careful not to crease clothing.
‘You want a cushion for that ?’
Talking of cushions Hersch had a particularly plump one waiting for him at home.
‘Okay, one, two . . .’
Hersch took the strain, arms locked around Lengel's, Luther on leg duty. They moved steadily but clumsily, much like a toy robot swinging from one leg to another to achieve forward momentum. Think Frankenstein's monster with a small dog clamped around one ankle. Through the main stage door, the rest was plain sailing.
‘Okay, let's put him over here.’
Suddenly . . .
Hersch visibly jumped, Lengel's body falling with a thud to the ground.
Luther laid Boris' legs down to align with the torso.
‘You didn't hear that ?’
‘You mean the 'Aaaargh' ?’
‘Yeah. The 'Aaaargh.’
‘I thought it was you.’
‘Me ? I don't pronounce my 'Aaargh's like that.’
In unison the pair stared at Boris.
‘No. There's no way.’
Luther shook his head.
‘Kid, you're making me paranoid.’
‘I'm making you paranoid.’
‘Well if it isn't you it's one of us. And I'm including him in that.’
Luther pointed at Lengel.
This time both men jumped back. Neither moved. Each man was rigid. Two staring down, one straight up.
The wind gently nudged the open door.
Luther exhaled, his regular heart rhythm reasserting itself.
‘This is no good. Let's just get it done.’
Luther began prying the boards. Six ten feet by twelve inch wooden floorboards came up like a diva at a charity gala accepting a humanitarian award in full ball gown and jewels. Dirt underneath - the stage not the diva.
‘You start at this end. I'll do that end.’
In unison, Hersch and LVC began the task of excavating a bath-sized rectangle of topsoil. An hour passed. And then another.
Hersch barked, covered in brown dust, his head about a foot above ground level. If a bystander had happened on the scene he would have been well within his rights to enquire which body was about to be laid to rest.
‘That's deep enough.’
It certainly was. Hersch Klein was well and truly in it up to his head. Luther held an ominous shovel in his hand.
‘Here, give me your hand.’
Luther offered his outstretched arm. Hersch took it and hoisted himself up and out of the oversized ditch.
Hersch nodded that he was and the pair resumed their positions at either end of the otherwise unconcerned Boris Lengel. He'd been a silent onlooker for the past several hours and if his expression was anything to go by, the entire escapade had passed him by without the merest hint of interest. LVC gave the customary countdown.
‘Three . . Two . . One.’
As he spoke the co-conspirators swung Lengel from side-to-side, letting go as his body swung for the third time towards the de facto grave. Thud. Five or so feet below them the greatest creative force in the company's history lay in a heap, as though a chalk line were about to be drawn around him and superimposed on the screen for the dramatic opening of a production. Both men peered down. If Lengel himself had been directing, the body would have risen bolt upright at that moment, arms outstretched, lightning illuminating the sky outside. Instead, Boris Lengel lay perfectly still, mouth open slightly, eyes void of sight, thoughtless.
‘Come on, let's finish this.’
Luther began shoveling dirt into the pit, Hersch wanting to peer a little longer as though respect required it of him.
Luther paused and stared at the kid.
‘I just think we should . . . ‘
‘Hurry up ?’
‘Cover him with something.’
‘Good idea. I think we've got a tarp somewhere. I assume you're happy to keep an eye on things ?’
Hersch peered over the abyss, offering a salutary 'es tut mir leid'. Luther Van Crane was gone less than thirty seconds. Nevertheless in that time Hersch momentarily reflected on the life on the man they had just buried – in many ways, the man they had just killed. Someone who for almost as many years as Hersch had been alive had been living a contented life until fate had reunited him with his past.
‘Are you gonna do that all night ?’
‘I was just thinking . . .’
‘There's no value in it. Don't get sappy. Here give me a hand.’
Both men unrolled the tarp. Hersch took his customary position and prepared to let it rest across the corpse.
‘One of us should get down there and wrap it correctly.’
Luther was motionless.
Hersch decamped into the pit, stepping gingerly on earth lest he tread on something softer.
‘You fold it around. I'll keep feeding it to you.’
LVC fed the black plastic to his younger compatriot, in the same way one might feed reams of incriminating documents into the industrial shredder moments before the Feds knocked on the door.
‘Wrap it around tight.’
It went around twice, plenty to spare. Hersch offered up his hands quizzically.
‘Perfect. Now let's fill this in.’
Involuntarily Hersch's eyebrows did a double take.
‘C'mon, who do you think I am.’
The boss gave a half smile, proffering his hand and helping Hersch back up. In silence and both with shovel in hand, they began the task of heaping soil back onto the human-shaped tarpaulin. The seconds passed and with them the last visual reminder of the great Boris Lengel. The task finished, a mound-shaped pile of earth remained.
‘What about that ?’
‘Good question. Obviously we gotta scatter it.’
‘What was that film ?’
‘Which one ?’
‘The one where they shift the earth. Y'know, to create a diversion.’
All Hersch could think of was an early rendering of the siege of Troy, complete with Trojan Horse.
‘The Trojan Horse ?’
LVC looked at him like he was gazing at an imbecile, asked a question as to a finer point of filmmaking only to receive an answer that might be given by a first year history student who hadn't understood the question.
‘Sometimes I wonder about you. The one with the dirt. In the prison. With the trolley system.’
Hersch remained blank.
‘Never mind. It's not important. We don't put it all in one place. We get bags, feed it in and then deposit it around the lot.’
Given that the top foot and a half of trench-grave if you preferred-had to remain clear for the quick-drying cement they were looking at a mound of earth roughly the size and mass of two Boris Lengels.
‘Stay here, I'll get the bags.’
Luther was back inside a minute, clutching handfuls of industrial sheeting. Divided up, each took a wheelbarrow full of earth packed snugly in the de facto bags. Now the lot was of a size that allowed each to head off in different directions and not encounter one another until close to a thousand handfuls of earth had been sprinkled, layered and sequestered around the lot. An out-of-breath Herschel Klein returned to the agreed point of departure, wheelbarrow in tow and bearing little trace of it's recent use in the siege of Troy.
‘Alright, now go home. Leave the rest to me.’
Hersch let go of the handles of his wheelbarrow.’
‘I'm serious. Leave the cement to me. It's better one person does it. 'Clutters the whole place up with two.’
But hadn't he come this far at Luther's request ? Wasn't he in this hip deep already ? Only now to be asked to walk away ?
‘Don't say anything. You've done enough. I'm grateful. Now get out of here.’
Luther stood in the doorway to the stage. Half an hour and it would be light. It was a fait accompli. Hersch had been cut from the team.
‘Are you going to . . .’
‘I'll be fine. Not a word about this okay.’
Luther pointed a finger at him. As instantaneously as he'd been co-opted into the deal, he was out again. 'Let go on the eve of the final curtain call. Reluctantly, Hersch turned his back on Luther and walked towards the front gate.
‘I'll expect you at work first thing. And remember, not a word !’
Hersch turned but Luther had disappeared inside, the door slamming shut in his wake. Hersch kept on walking, due East, directly into the rising sun.
Herschel Klein navigated his pristine DeLorean-a gift from Johnny boy himself no less-into the reserved-but more importantly-named parking bay outside executive headquarters - in this case 'Goldstar Pictures'. Okay, Johnny boy's fortunes might not be riding so high at the moment but the decade had been kind to him. New president. New company. He might have officially crossed the Rubicon into middle-age but age was nothing if not a number and the big 5-O had brought with it the ace in the hole he'd been angling for. C.E.O of the number one movie company in town. Goldstar - formerly 'Silverado Productions', before that 'Parallax Pictures' Sure, the company had gone through changes - weathered the uncertainty of recent times, basked in the liberalism of the Sixties, coped with pre-war and post-war upheaval - good times and bad. It was time to take things to the next level as the marketing speak had it. The eighties were gonna be Goldstar's decade. His unveiling as C.E.O was a formality - a pleasant one with all the attendant opportunities to joke with assembled members of the press ; the honorable and not so honorable. The DeLorean's gull-wing doors shut snugly leaving Herschel Klein unprotected from the glorious summer sunshine, proving there was no better place than the West Coast when the sun hung over the city on a cloudless day. A contingent of bottom feeders from the local rag caught him in their radar and zeroed in.
'Mr. Klein, 'care to comment on the change of management ?'
You had to hand it to the Inquisitor. Invite or not, they always managed to inveigle their way into the heart of whatever business happened to be fodder for their readers that particular week. In it's glory days it had broken momentous news, elevated and spurned careers. Once upon a time it might have been known for it's serious journalism but these days, it languished in the gutter.
‘No comment, no comment.’
Klein thrust a hand between himself and the camera.
‘'Care to tell us your plans for the new company ?’
‘All in good time. All in good time. And I don't see what's new about a fifty year old company.’
‘In that case what do you make of the Commissions's findings into violence in the movies ?’
Hersch ignored the question leaving a couple of Goldstar front of house staff to ensure the uninvited stayed uninvited.
Now considering this was the prodigal son's return, if you wanted to get a handle on the scale of the reaction to his much-anticipated press conference, put yourself in the mind of a cub reporter at the opening night of Mr. DeMille's 'Ten Commandments' and you were in the ball park. Your chances of getting a one-on-one with the great man were slim. The flashbulbs popped like fireworks on January First welcoming in the new year as H.E. Klein pushed his way through carefully stage-managed lines of Goldstar employees corralled into the company's new corporate center. He took his place on the dais alongside a couple of hand-picked members of the Goldstar board, splaying his hands and pushing against an imaginary set of springs, much as Moses himself might have done on encoutering the cruel sea. The hub-bub dissipated. The customary, 'Welcome to Goldstar and we hope the announcement of this much-valued addition to the Goldstar family will bring new hope and possibilities yada yada yada.' went by the numbers. Klein himself gave a brief speech, much in keeping with the sentiments already expressed. And then like first pitch on opening night, the first banana skin was lobbed at the man in the batters box.
‘How do you hope to maintain company values at a time when Congress has explicitly stated it wants a shift away from violence in the movies ?’
Klein went into auto-pilot.
‘I believe profoundly that there's a place for all genres of movie-making in this industry. No one is more concerned with the role we play as filmmakers than I am. In fact I intend to make it a personal mission of mine to ensure that Goldstar films are wholesome films, entertaining pictures and commercially-successful ones.’
The hub-bub spluttered back into life.
‘Like the old Parallax approach, eh ?’
Someone joked to a murmur of sniggering
‘What are your views on the De Angelis case ?’
Forget morality and Congress, what everyone wanted to talk about was the De Angelis case. The kid was just a kid, that was a given, but it didn't diminish what he'd done. Murder was a crime in any of the fifty states, but on the other hand, here was a sixteen year old who'd got himself into a situation any sixteen year old might have got himself into only to lash out in self-defense. How many sixteen year old kids hadn't got into a fight on a Friday or Saturday night, and in the course of things done something they'd later regretted ? The law might be an ass but it had to be seen to be impartial.
‘I think it's unfortunate. Here's a young man - a talented actor - robbed effectively of the rest of his life. That isn't to diminish his crime. But why kill the spirit of a young man ? I understand the pitfalls of adolescence. But what's to be gained from hauling the kid over the coals ? I think the right message has been sent. The kid should serve his time, get out and then be able to put the incident behind him and get on with his life.’
‘What about the parents ?’
‘Well I can't speak for them but as I understand it they've said they bear no malice towards him and that given the extenuating factors, they're willing to forgive him.’
‘Would you offer the kid a part in one of your movies ?’
Some sections of the assembled crowd suppressed a chuckle.
‘As I said at Goldstar we have a reputation for wholesome films not to say commercially successful ones. I see no reason, given the right mentoring that this kid not be given the chance to pursue his talents.’
The truth was, it wasn't just Goldstar that would have jumped at the chance to 'mentor' the De Angelis kid. Everyone knew the motive for the question. The kid was just about the hottest thing in town. And there'd been plenty of those over the years. He might be in a six by four feet cell right now but as soon as that sentence was served, anyone picking him up was looking at a serious payday.
‘Do you intend to remake any of the corny old slasher films from the early days ?’
The question drew a roomful of laughter. It was an easy bloop to end on.
‘The truth is, this company has a great pedigree - whatever it's name. I remember working here when we were plain old Parallax. They were great days and I wouldn't trade them for anything.’
‘Any skeletons you'd like to share from those days Mr. Klein ?’
A muscle twitch in his left cheek caused Klein's eye to jerk upwards. The boss of the company ignored the question and instead whispered his thanks to a colleague seated next to him. The signal for the press conference to end was given and journalists and staff got to their feet.
‘Mr. Klein, what about those skeletons ?’
General conversation drowned out the question. Noise filtered back and forth across the room as the assembly broke up ; reporters heading off to file copy, Goldstar people on hand to answer questions and fill in the blanks. Klein began signing autographs proffered by a group of mostly young kids drafted in for the benefit of the cameras. Four or five autographs in, a colorized poster from a film that looked like it had seen better days was thrust into his palm.
‘You didn't answer my question.’
‘About the skeletons.’
‘Excuse me ?’
‘Around this place. Y'know, ghosts of people who've passed through. I don't know - maybe some that are still here.’
Herschel Klein's eyebrow ridges furrowed and for a brief moment something gripped his throat.
‘Do I know you ?’
‘No. I don't think so.’
‘In that case should I know you ?’
'Not really. I'm from the 'Inquisitor'.’
‘I didn't know you had an invitation.’
‘So about those ghosts ?’
‘From the past I mean. Actors. They always say an actor leaves his mark on a place long after the curtain comes down. Directors too. Perhaps more so.’
‘Do they ?’
Klein's voice was croaky.
‘I think it's a load of nonsense myself. 'Better to live in the moment. 'No point getting dragged down by the past.’
‘Is that right ?’
Klein studied the young man. He had an ambitious nervousness about him that was slightly unnerving. Too much nervous energy for his own good.
‘Look, I'm pretty much booked up around this place, but thanks for coming by. Glad to see you're a fan of the classics if I can call them that.’
‘'More a fan of the process really. Y’know – direction.’
The kid moved to block his path.
‘What is it you want exactly ?’
‘To talk about a project.’
‘In that case you should see my secretary. Or better yet send us a script.’
‘This one's got real potential.’
‘You should really send us an outline.’
Again the kid moved to block Klein's path.
‘It's about a director. Quite a famous director. Infamous you might say. He vanishes one day.’
‘Look, why don't we go outside. 'Discuss it in more detail.’
Klein shepherded his charge away from potential eavesdroppers, out into a more secluded part of the lot.
‘It's alright, I'm not looking to kick up a stink.’
Klein studied the kid, annoyance giving way to a more tactical analysis.
‘You could have fooled me.’
‘I do have a project though.’
‘About a director ?’
The kid smiled, the facade beginning to melt.
‘That was just my ‘in’.’
‘Uh-huh. I don't suppose you'd care to tell me exactly what you do know would you ?’
‘Like I said I prefer to live in the moment. 'Leave the past where it belongs.’
‘In the past ?’
‘You wanna take a walk ?’
The kid smiled.
‘You know I remember someone inviting me to take a walk around this place once.’
‘I nearly pissed myself.’
Klein looked askance at the kid.
‘How old are you kid ?’
‘Really ? You look younger.’
‘My parents say I look younger.’
‘Well I figure we get Reuben Ramirez for the lead.’
Klein took out a cigar from his top pocket.
‘Conservative, edgy though. Anyone else ? You smoke ?’
The kid shook his head.'
‘'Habit I picked up. So come on, who else ?’
‘Dana Lane ! Too sappy. Good for your average wet-behind-the-ears love story. No good for this. What's it called by the way.’
‘Double Crossed for Death.’
‘Never overdo the alliteration, kid. We can change it anyhow. Flesh it out.’
‘Well, there are these two detectives. It’s the fifties.’
‘The fifties, I like it. I was a kid then. 'Bout your age.’
‘One's lookin’ at retirement, the other younger - cooler-headed, less impulsive but he's got a conscience. They hit a case that goes sideways. Mayor’s involved.’
‘Yeah. Anyway the whole thing comes on top. Chief witness takes a bullet . . .’
‘Let me guess. The older cop pulls the trigger. Sloppy in his old age ?’
The kid looked at him quizzically.
‘Okay, go on.’
‘Well the older cop lams it. Takes a hostage. They got him holed up. But the cop’s threatening to blow the joint up.’
The kid said, glint in his eye.
‘Too by-the-numbers. How ‘bout they try to pin it on the partner. Let him take the fall before he gets his papers. He finds out. Lams it. Department issues the APB, then the stuff with the hostage.’
Hersch concluded, turning to his young companion. This time it was the kid’s turn to jump in.
The pair walked and talked. Klein chewed as he listened.