Film Noir Friday: The Big Combo [1955]

big combo posterThe lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Visit our snack bar for a fizzy beverage and a big bag of popcorn. Tonight’s feature is THE BIG COMBO, starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Richard Donlevy, and Jean Wallace.

TCM says:

The Big Combo is a rather unique entry for its genre due to its frank sexuality, extreme sadism and John Alton’s stunning black and white cinematography that places the story in a world of shadows, spotlights and claustrophobic lighting schemes.

At the center of the story is Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a cynical cop who has become obsessed with arresting Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the head of a powerful crime syndicate who has cleverly eluded the authorities for years. Diamond’s motivation, however, is clearly driven by his attraction to Brown’s blonde mistress, Susan (Jean Wallace, the wife of Cornel Wilde), a former socialite and once promising pianist whose relationship with Brown is a mixture of sexual dependency and masochism. Aiding Brown in his operation is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), a defeated rival who now serves as his second-in-command, and a pair of hit men, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), who are inseparable, bound together by their blood lust.

 

Death of a Latin Lover, Part 2

Over 40 years had passed since Ramon’s star burned brightly in Hollywood’s firmament but during the 1950s and 1960s he was still working, mostly in character roles on TV.  His was a high-profile case and LAPD wanted it solved.  The department assigned two additional two-man teams of homicide investigators to work on the case.

While LAPD tugged on threads, they made results of Ramon’s autopsy public.  Someone bound Ramon with an electrical cord so there was no way for him to extricate himself and seek help. Ramon died as the result of “suffocation because of massive bleeding because of the fracture of the nose and laceration of the lips and mouth.”  He choked on his own blood.

In their coverage, newspapers omitted the vile message written in bold capital letters in brown eyebrow pencil on the bedroom mirror: US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS (sic faggots) .  Another clue,  made public, was the name LARRY written in ink on the bed sheet next to Ramon’s body. The ligatures around his wrists and ankles made it impossible for Ramon to write the name himself.  Was it a red herring planted by the killer?

Although it may have been an open secret in certain circles, Ramon kept his homosexuality under wraps for his entire career. There were dozens of good reasons for keeping his private life private – chief among them, state sodomy laws made gay relationships illegal.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that the laws were overturned.

It may have been the fear of exposure that led Ramon to numb himself with alcohol for decades. During the 1940s he was arrested for driving under the influence. Police found dozens of empty liquor bottles in the trash outside his home, which meant he forever grappled with his demons.

Ramon leaves jail after paying a fine for drunk driving. [Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1941]

Why the word “fagits” on his mirror?  Was the killer lashing out and that was the only insult he could think of to hurl at the dead man, or was he privy to Ramon’s secret life? At least that aspect of his life wasn’t splashed all over the front pages of the local newspapers. The reporters used the common subtext of the time, describing Ramon as a “lifelong bachelor.”  It wasn’t the same as blatantly outing him, but rather a nod and a wink to those who could read between the lines.

On November 3rd, mourners from all walks of life visited the Cunningham and O’Connor Mortuary, 850 W. Washington Blvd.  to pay their respects to the man who epitomized the glamor of a bygone age.

Just a few days following Ramon’s interment at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, police arrested two brothers for the brutal murder. Paul Robert Ferguson. 22, a housepainter and Thomas Scott Ferguson, 17, a recent run away from  the Midwest.

Paul Ferguson

The police possessed evidence implicating Paul and Thomas within a short time of the murder, but they kept quiet about it until they could make an arrest.  Lieutenant Jerry Lauritzen played it cagey when asked about the evidence, but it was thought fingerprints helped identify the suspects. Cops staked out an apartment in Gardena where the brothers were seen, but they never turned up.  Police caught up with them at a location in Bell Gardens and arrested them there.

Thomas Ferguson

Apart from clothing Paul and Thomas stole to replace the bloody garments they wore at the time of the murder; nothing was missing from Ramon’s house.  If nothing was taken, then what reason did they have to batter Ramon to death?

NEXT TIME:  The Ferguson brothers talk.

Death of a Latin Lover, Part 1

The calendar may turn a page, but crime is a continuum.

At 8:30 a.m. on October 31, 1968, forty-two-year-old Edward Weber let himself into the home of his employer at 3110 Laurel Canyon Boulevard.  As he always did, Edward entered the home through the kitchen door with his key . Once inside, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

Edward Weber [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Furniture was overturned in the living room and den, and there were what appeared to be bloodstains in at least three rooms in the house.  When Edward entered the master bedroom he found the nude, bludgeoned body of his employer, actor and former silent film superstar, Ramon Novarro.

The 69-year-old’s face and torso showed unmistakable signs of a brutal beating. Edward phoned the police.

Los Angeles Police Department Lieutenant  Lauritzen spoke to reporters, “We have no evidence yet of anything missing.  Of course, this is a large house, and contains many valuable items.” The lieutenant would not speculate on the weapon used in the murder. However, it was revealed that the blood at the scene was dry, indicating the crime was committed several hours before Edward made his sad discovery.

The police were puzzled. Ramon had no known enemies and the house was not broken into. Ramon had likely known his killer.

Ramon was smart with his money and invested in real estate. His residence on Laurel Canyon is impressive, but even more extraordinary is the home he owned in Los Feliz.  In 1928, Ramon’s then business manager Louis Samuel used money he embezzled from the actor to build his dream home.  When Ramon discovered the theft, he took ownership of the place and hired Lloyd Wright (Frank’s son) to design an expansion. It is an astonishing home and was owned and restored in the 1990s by Diane Keaton.

Ramon Novarro home in Los Feliz. Photo found at Archinect.com

At the time of his murder Ramon was worth between $500k and $1M, giving police ample reason to wonder if money was the motive for the slaying.

First, they would follow the trail of clues left behind at the scene. The most intriguing of them was bloody clothing, a man’s denim shirt, pants and underwear, found discarded on a neighbor’s fence 40 yards from the home.

Ramon’s cause of death was pending an autopsy. Police could only hope that between the results of the autopsy and the clues left at the scene they could find a killer.

 

NEXT TIME:  Extra detectives assigned to Ramon’s brutal murder find important physical evidence belong to a killer, or killers. The case continues into 1969.

 

Peace. Love. Murder.

The argument has been made that 1968 was the most tumultuous years in modern U.S. history. It is tough to disagree. The year marked seismic shift in American life and nothing would never be the same

The changes didn’t occur overnight, although it seemed that way. It was no accident that the changes coincided with the first wave of Baby Boomers hitting their teen years. The music of the late 1960s was as eclectic and schizophrenic as the time. A pseudo-group called the Archies had a smash hit with Sugar, Sugar, but the music that would come to define the era was flying under the radar of the Billboard Top 100. Woodstock changed that. A couple of notes into Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner and you knew the Earth had shifted on its axis.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 lit the fuse of the bomb that would blow society apart in what remained of the decade. The smoke and ash rained down throughout the 1970s and ripples from the initial explosion are felt today.

January 1969 gave subtle hints of things to come. Richard M. Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the United States on January 20, 1969. His election meant more young men would die in the jungles of Southeast Asia.  Elvis Presley recorded “Long Black Limousine” in Memphis, Tennessee which kicked off his comeback. Jimi Hendrix appeared on a BBC1 show, “Happening for Lulu” and Led Zeppelin released their debut album.  The BEATLES performed for the last time in public on the roof of the Apple building at 3 Saville Row in London.

Reflecting on 1969 is mind bending. Consider a year in which the U.S. put a man on the moon, and the era later dubbed the “Golden Age of Porn” (1969-1984)  began.  Sexuality explicit films shown in public on the big screen instead of on a bedsheet in someone’s dingy basement became reality with Andy Warhol’s 1969 film “Blue Movie.”  The only X-rated film to win an Oscar®, “Midnight Cowboy” was released. At the time the X-rating didn’t mean the film was hardcore porn, all it meant was that the subject matter was unsuitable for underage people.

No retrospective of the 1960s is complete without addressing the Hippie aka Flower Power movement which reached a zenith during the summer of 1967 in San Francisco. The Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967  paved the way for the Summer of Love. The local underground newspaper, the San Francisco Oracle, offered the following description of the Be-In:  “A new concept of celebrations beneath the human underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared, so a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.”  A beautiful sentiment. It was an illusion.

The people who wandered the streets of San Francisco during the summer of 1967 smoking dope, dropping acid, tucking flowers into their hair and anointing themselves with Patchouli oil didn’t know that the Hippie movement was already on life support and about to flatline.

The cancer of drug dealers, pimps and others preying on the naivete of lost children looking for love and acceptance in Haight/Ashbury grew into an inoperable tumor. One cell of the malignancy had a name which, in two years’ time would become infamous, Charles Manson.

Charles Manson in court. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The summer of 1969 had a few of the trappings of the Summer of Love, and it turned into a nightmare of violence and terror when word of  murders of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca hit newsstands in mid-August.

For the next few months, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the brutal Tate/LaBianca murders, Deranged L.A. Crimes will intermittently look at some of the crimes that made news during 1969.

So, put on your love beads, memorize the lyrics to “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” and don’t bogart that joint.   See you in the ’60s.