Hollywood villains in Damascus

Ted de Corsia! He was one of the more memorable character actors with almost star ranking – at least in my personal movie dictionary – who played villains in the movies I watched in the fifties in Damascus. I liked his interpretation of these villains. I saw him the other night on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and a line he delivered caught my attention: “Guys with imagination in their heads see pictures and they get scared.” 

This line reminds me of the end of my career as a librarian at the university. I avoid thinking of images of myself wandering aimlessly on the streets and getting depressed at the prospect of having nothing to do, unable to distract myself with pleasant thoughts. My drink encourages me to turn on the TV, turn off the lights and pretend I’m in a movie theater.

The English I learned at the French lycee didn’t include the language of this movie, but I’ve always liked this kind of talk. It makes language delectable. It makes you want to eat it. I used to underline phrases and sentences spoken by simple or tough guys in the novels I read that sounded like the one Ted de Corsia delivered in Crime Wave – that’s the name of the movie – perhaps hoping that one day I’d create their equivalents in my native Armenian, my contribution to enlivening that language. Yes, I do check to see if screenplays of old movies are available on the internet. When they are available, I download them and read my favorite scenes from time to time. Here is one from On the Waterfront that I like, Marlon Brando talking to his brother in the famous cab ride, “I could’ve been a contender” scene: “So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark – and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville.” 

Is this where I’m heading, to Palookaville, I wondered? Ignoring the torn termination letter on the night table, I take a greedy swig of my drink and suppress images of my office that had been an extended home to me for 19 years.

15-20 minutes left in Crime Wave and nothing in my glass. I wonder if I should get the DVD from Netflix to see the movie in its entirety? I can’t say I haven’t seen it – that would have been thirty-five years ago – because some of the scenes are familiar: passive, the camera staring at the players without any involvement with what’s being said or done. Are they familiar because of the angles from which they were shot or the way they were shot, generic shots that are common to low-budget movies like this? In one of those scenes, Ted de Corsia and the actor who drove the car – whom I wrongly ID’d as Dan Dailey but was Gene Nelson – rode in what looks like, as in many other movies with similar scenes, a car that didn’t have a dashboard. 

Ted de Corsia in Vengeance Valley (Wikimedia Commons)

When we watched these movies in Damascus, we understood that there was something fake about the car but didn’t make a big deal about it, figuring there’s got to be some limitations to the magic Hollywood created on the screen. They did try to make the ride look like it was in a real car by putting the camera very close to the steering wheel to make the missing dashboard go unnoticed. Years later, I saw stills of movies with car-riding scenes being shot in studios, with the front part of the car sawed off. In these stills, the car was mounted on a stand with a camera facing the driver’s seat. I still feel a mild surge of satisfaction to have not been taken in by the fakery in the movies. Yes, there were people – the unsophisticated occasional moviegoers – who thought they were actually seeing a guy driving a real car, on a real street, with oncoming traffic.

It was during this ride that Ted de Corsia gave his “imagination” line to an expressionless Gene Nelson, whose attempt to make his character look agitated fell flat. There was no attempt to hide the flaws in this scene with music or some other distraction; the stationary camera kept staring at Gene Nelson, and it was obvious that the director didn’t give a damn if what he was giving us wasn’t believable. This scene would have nailed the movie as not being first class – in those days I didn’t know the designation “B movie,” or did I? In our world, there were first-class movies and the lesser ones, made in a hurry, cheaply.

I try to figure out if my mistaking Gene Nelson for Dan Daily has something to do with the names or the looks of the actors – it’s a kind of honor to be able to remember things correctly when it comes to those movies I saw in Damascus. It could be the names, or perhaps their looks. Maybe I had seen them both in different musicals and couldn’t distinguish one from the other? I doubt that. I sometimes wonder why I should remember these names from decades ago. In the case of Ted de Corsia, it was an unusual name compared to the mostly Anglo-Saxon names of the actors in those days. I vaguely remember thinking he was Corsican like Napoleon.

But then why shouldn’t I remember? Some of the other kids who also went to the movies regularly and I memorized the names of all the actors and actresses whose films made it to the Damascus screens. I can’t resist the urge to add that nobody in that group saw as many movies as I did. We would have matches to name actors who portrayed secondary characters. There was not much glory in knowing the names of stars like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Taylor, Lana Turner or Ava Gardner. Knowing their names didn’t set you apart from the crowd, the amateurs – everybody knew them. You established yourself as a serious movie lover when you could name the character actor who played the principal villain in such and such film. Who is the actor who plays Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster’s sidekick? Lancaster appeared at least in two costume movies – The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate – at Warner Bros. with Nick Cravat. I got a kick out of saying his name, Cravat. Pronounced with a strong “kuh” and “ah,” it sounds like the word for “tie” in Armenian, borrowed from the French “cravate.” 

Years later, Cravat reappeared in my memory when my brother told me that Cravat befriended a contemporary of ours, an Armenian immigrant from Lebanon, who restarted his goldsmith’s business, disrupted by the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, in downtown Los Angeles. I don’t know the circumstances that led to their friendship, but an aged Cravat, unemployed and bored, spent long stretches of time at the goldsmith’s shop, sometimes silent, sometimes reminiscing about the old days and complaining that Burt had forgotten his old friend. Hollywood has made a lot of movies with this theme. I pictured the visit to the goldsmith’s shop based on scenes from my childhood, when retired men dropped by friends’ or relatives’ shops to “say hello.” The visitor would be offered a chair, a demitasse of coffee and conversation, once in a while interrupted when a customer walked in. Repeating the goldsmith’s words, my brother said with a sad face, “Poor man. It’s so sad to see a guy like that end up this way,” like the Armenian lament, “Whence we came, where we’ve arrived.”

I resist the temptation to go on the internet to see what other movies Cravat appeared in, with or without Burt Lancaster. I decide to wait and hope that I’ll remember on my own without the help of the internet. They say it’s good to use your brain for this kind of exercise instead of using the machine – I was going to say the stupid machine, but that might offend some of my colleagues who think computers are the best thing that has happened to libraries. Wanting to look up this bit of information may also be a way to avoid finishing my reminiscences of Ted de Corsia, who I believe mostly played villains in the movies. 

One of the movies Ted de Corsia starred in is Naked City, in which he died a dramatic death, falling from the highest tower of a steel bridge – was it the Brooklyn Bridge? – after being shot by cops. It was a straightforward fall, nothing like in today’s movies with all kinds of details – “digitally enhanced.” In Naked City, Ted de Corsia screamed on his way down to the East River – that was the only touch that made it different from other falls, which were mostly silent. The camera let us imagine, from a distance, the horror of crashing into a river at high speed. The longer the fall, the bigger the horror. But when you thought about the scene afterwards, the original intensity of the unease was gone, unlike the intensity felt at every remembrance of memorable scenes from some other movies. 

Jack Elam in Kansas City Confidential, circa 1952 (Screenshot, Wikimedia Commons)

There were other actors like Ted de Corsia who always played the villain, and my fellow movie enthusiasts split into factions over who was the scariest, whose appearance on the screen made you shift in your seat a little. The two that immediately pop up in my mind are Jack Elam and Lee van Cleef. They looked scary. Elam’s threatening look came from his crazy eyes; they were big, and he made one of them look even more so by raising an eyebrow. Lee van Cleef scared us with his menacing ugliness. Another one whose image is permanently implanted in my memory is Mike Mazurki. His exaggerated, grotesque features, made more threatening by his hoarse voice and cold stare, reappear instantly at the mention of his name, followed by an inner smile – sometimes outward if I am deeply absorbed in my thoughts – when I remember him in Some Like It Hot, parodying the villains he played in his earlier movies.

These villains never made it big. Had they, we were absolutely sure, they would no longer play villains, because stars only played heroes. I don’t want to say “good guys,” because the term has been rendered meaningless the way it’s been appropriated by two-bit politicians. But the overuse of the term can be viewed as a tribute to the movie business, which has imposed on public thinking the notion that life is a movie. I am not saying anything new, because somebody already wrote a book called Life the Movie. If we want to be scientific, brain researchers are now saying the brain registers events in “frames” like movies, which is short for “moving” or “motion” pictures. As I understand it, when you see somebody walking, the brain processes information one frame at a time and replays it many frames a second, like a movie, giving you the impression that the person you’re looking at is in fact walking, or something like that. 

There were few actors who started out as character actors playing villains and ended up as stars, playing nothing but heroes after their success. The two who made this transition that I remember were Richard Widmark and Ernest Borgnine, who got a fantastic beating as a villain from a one-handed, heroic Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. Richard Widmark, affecting a psychopathic sneer, killed an invalid woman in Kiss of Death by tying her to her wheelchair and pushing her down the stairs. 

I can’t make up my mind whether to watch Crime Wave from the beginning to see if there are any scenes with both Sterling Hayden, the star of the movie, and Ted de Corsia or some little treasures like the “imagination” line. Hayden, who plays the lead detective in the movie, in the last scene that I saw on TCM the other night, delivers a line that catches my attention, but it’s not a line in the same category as Ted de Corsia’s “imagination” line.

In my present understanding of America – I should say as seen from Berkeley, where I landed in the year of Free Speech and Mario Savio and never left – the line sounds pure second-rate, cheap patronizing propaganda, which with little change is still being propagated by the two-bit politicians I alluded to earlier. Gene Nelson – this time the camera registers some of the anxiety he’s supposed to be feeling – and the actress playing his wife face Sterling Hayden, who’s supposed to book Nelson for his involvement in the robbery that Ted de Corsia died in. They stand on a busy street a few feet away from the police station. There are buses, streetcars and pedestrians in the background, and the accompanying noise enriches the scene. Hayden, looking down at the couple – he is a lot taller than they – matchstick dangling from one corner of his mouth, in his coarse, macho voice says, “I want you to go home, back to your three rooms, your job, your grocery bills, taxes, babies and all the hazards on the outside. Go on, there is your bus. Beat it out of here before I run you in!” 

The actress gave a bit of credibility to Hayden’s lines, when the camera turned to her briefly and captured her expression of incredulity that her husband would go free.

When and if I saw Crime Wave in Damascus, Hayden’s line would have sounded perfectly natural and true, that is, assuming it was more or less correctly interpreted in the subtitles. I can imagine my reaction to it at the time – a slight change in my feelings as I noticed my heart beat a little faster and perhaps even the slight watering of the eyes – to Hayden’s magnanimity, underscored by his friendly “beat it” to cut short the sentimentality of the moment. I’d tell myself, “That’s America!” I am sure the scene would have drawn the same reaction from my movie-going friends, but we never discussed such reactions. If there were any hints of us having had these sentiments, they were quickly ignored with the same attitude with which Sterling Hayden told the couple to “beat it.”

I am pretty sure I saw the movie in Damascus, because it must have played there, and if it played there, I must have seen it, because I saw every Hollywood movie. I say it must have played there because it left traces of itself. Some people affected mannerisms that they picked up from the movies. The way they smoked their cigarette would reflect the style of an actor. After a Humphrey Bogart film had played in the city, you’d see smokers take out a cigarette from its packet and light it the way Bogie did. For a little while a lot of people went around with matchsticks stuck in the corner of their mouths claiming they were trying to quit smoking. This “method to quit smoking” was copied from Sterling Hayden, who in all the scenes I saw on TCM, had a matchstick in the corner of his mouth. After he’d solved his case, he would stand leaning against a wall, his expression saying, “what the hell,” he could overlook a temporary violation of his own rule to quit smoking. He would take out a bent cigarette from his shirt pocket, remove the match in his mouth, strike it with a scratch of the thumbnail and light the cigarette. He would inhale deeply, exhale, look at the cigarette and toss it onto the street. 

Mike Mazurki in Dick Tracy (Wikimedia Commons)

Now it’s time for me to toss notes, clippings and various papers accumulated over 25 years, because I got a notice from the head librarian that they planned to throw a retirement party for me, and there would be a surprise. The invitation came with another notice saying that my position was being eliminated for a variety of reasons, including budget cuts, but I would be entitled to all the benefits the university offers to employees who retire voluntarily.

The truth of the matter is that my expertise as an acquisition librarian of Middle Eastern and medieval history is no longer necessary, because a few clever algorithms can spew out all the bibliographic information the library needs to order the books. The sweet part of it is that the machine can do the ordering as well, with a little help from someone with no expertise or interest in these areas.

Well, I did go to the party, and it was all déjà vu. It was a dull and boring affair, the likes of which I’ve been to many times – the same hors d’oeuvres, the same table wines, the same old jokes and the same old faces. The camera is capturing all this from some fixed angle, because the cameraman is too lazy to play with the lens or move the camera around. It’s all in bland, or should I say “unthreatening,” colors, no vital black and white and all the shades in between. I hold no grudge against anybody, and I’d like to think that they are all more or less decent folk heading like me to the end of the line.

At the end of the party, the boss presented me with a goodbye present that, had I thought about it, I would have guessed what it would be. It was a boxed set of DVDs of film noirs – and yes, including Crime Wave. (Somebody must have figured out my love for movies from the memos I sent to colleagues about adding rare and critical titles to the library’s collection that the specialist acquisition librarian had missed.) As I read the title on the box, I had a mild sensation of anxiety. Would watching the entire movie alter my recollection of the past that I’ve put together here? But then, as Ava Gardner said, “It’s my f***g life. I’ll remember it the way I want to remember it!”

After the party, I went back to my now almost empty, dark office to check on the computer to see if Nick Cravat had made other movies in addition to the ones I remembered. The barren room, partially illuminated by the desk lamp, reminded me of scenes from movies made in the era of Crime Wave. I could hear in my head the sax player Stan Getz doing his rendition of “Round Midnight,” tired, melancholy music that told the story of the sad and lonely private eye returning to his dark, barren office.

Dikran Karagueuzian

Dikran Karagueuzian

Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, an academic press specializing mostly in linguistics, philosophy, logic and computer science at Stanford University.
Dikran Karagueuzian

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1 Comment

  1. Damascus, where Israel just bombed an embassy.

    For once I’d like to see a movie depict Israeli villains.

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