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All Things Thriller

A Celebration of Thrillers, Noire and Black Comedy by Pamela Lowe Saldana

A Change of Direction

A little over a year ago a few comments from the blog Twenty Four Frames, showed up in my email. I was intrigued. The writing was solid and the subject matter–film critique– was right up my alley. I posted some comments and the blog’s author, John Greco, graciously responded. At the time, I was shopping a novel I had written–trying to get an agent. There were a few nibbles.

One of the agents that was interested and ultimately turned me down generously offered some advice. She said I had no online presence and that was a red flag for any agency willing to seriously consider new talent. There were other criticisms too, of course. If I had written–let’s say–the next Gone Girl, I’m sure I would have agents swallowing the bait, the hook, line and sinker, presence or no presence.

Anyway, to make a long story shorter, I started blogging. I wrote about my love for cinema, for literature and for true crime stories. As the old adage goes–write about what you know. Write about what you love.

Of course, I had no idea how this blogging thing worked. It was an experiment for me and as I swam in unfamiliar waters, I was the one who got hooked. I found that I loved blogging, that I loved being complimented, that I loved engaging–and that I had made some new friends. Pretty soon, my novel was on the back burner and the new novel that I had been working on had stalled out.

There were other things too. My husband and I are self-employed and little by little my blogging activities eclipsed my professional and personal responsibilities. But the most disconcerting thing for me was/is how I let blogging affect my spirituality. You see I write about very dark things–all of the time…And I’m a Christian. As such, my constant immersion into deviant, criminal and violent behavior is incompatible with my personal beliefs and my relationship with my Lord and Savior.

Undoubtedly, this is my fault. A blog is a medium, if you will, that can be used for good or bad depending on how it’s used and who’s using it. Likewise, Gothic and psychological horror, noir, true crime, capers, black comedy, etc., are all worthy art forms that can be  useful, insightful, cathartic means of expression and entertainment; but, for me, the focus, analysis and constant scrutiny of this subject matter is unhealthy.

And, yes, I could focus on other genres, but that is not where my interest lies. I have tried to dial it back, to take breaks, but those attempts have been unsuccessful. When I returned, I fell right back into my unhealthy blogging habits.

That being so, I am now writing my last post on All Things Thriller. I am, however, going to keep it open. In spite of everything I’ve just expressed, I am proud of my site. I think I’ve written some good posts and I hope that this blog will be a useful tool in my endeavor to become a published novelist with agency representation.

Certainly, I have enjoyed this experiment. I have loved getting to know many of you, reading your fabulous blogs and indulging in your talents as writers, editorialists, photographers, scholars, poets, painters, cartoonist, critics and first class cooks. I will drop in on your blogs from time to time and comment.

At some point–Lord willing–I may return to blogging in a more limited capacity and with a new site focusing on my walk with the Lord. As the old and beautiful saying goes (I’m paraphrasing)…Sometimes I’ve walked. Sometimes I’ve ran. Sometimes I’ve crawled. Most of the time He has carried me.

May God’s blessings reign on you all.

Pam

Slasher: The evolution and prototyping of a sub genre

Aspiring American movie producer Irwin Yablans was very impressed with John Carpenter’s sophomore full length feature thriller. Made on a minuscule budget of $100,000 Assault on Precinct 13 was daringly original with its distinctive color pallet, gritty realism, eerie soundtrack and solid acting.

In fact Yablans was so impressed–and inspired–that on a flight back to Los Angeles from the London Film Festival, he mapped out the idea for a horror movie that suddenly dawned on him. He set up a meeting with Carpenter at the Hamburger Hamlet on the Sunset Strip and pitched it to him.

“I said, I have this idea to do a movie about a bunch of babysitters being terrified on Halloween. But I want it to be theater of the mind. Think Psycho and The Exorcist. We won’t show any blood and gore. I said it was like a radio show. You set the audience up and let them scream. John and I, we connected immediately. He said, ‘I know exactly what you want to do.’ ” 

Collaborating with then girlfriend and fellow screenwriter Debra Hill, Carpenter wrote the script in ten days tentatively naming it The Babysitter Murders. Yablans suggested the title Halloween instead and Carpenter, who had demanded full creative control (writing, directing, and scoring the musical soundtrack) in exchange for accepting a paltry salary of $10,000 and ten percent of the profits, agreed.

Filmed in twenty-one days on a budget of $300,000, Halloween premiered in Kansas City, Missouri on October 25, 1978. The premier garnered respectable numbers for an independent film. The next night, though, was a harbinger of the success to come.

“The numbers were double. The third night, they quadrupled. This means everybody who saw this picture felt compelled to go home and tell somebody else to go see it.” Irwin Yablans 

Halloween went on to gross 70 million dollars, making it the most profitable independent film in cinematic history, until The Blair Witch Project bested it some twenty years later. The movie established John Carpenter as viable directorial star by showcasing his own distinctive film signatures, e.g., minimalism, natural lighting, claustrophobic framing, innovative music score, indestructible killer with tropes borrowed from other horror sub genres, molding a template for the slasher film prototype. In 2006 John Carpenter’s Halloween was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Precursors of the Halloween prototype:

The Scarlett Claw (1944) – director, Roy William Neill, starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce – A Sherlock Holmes movie, that employs the use of a distinctive weapon (a gardening tool) to dispatch victims. The camera focuses on the disguised killer’s arm as he raises “the claw” menacingly in the air and then repeatedly strikes. Fine use of special effects, camera work and music.

The Spiral Staircase (1946) – director,Robert Siodmark, starring Dorthy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore – Sophisticated thriller that blends elements of Gothic horror, psychological horror and film noir. Early use of mystery killer’s first person camera perspective, victim stalking and menacing black leather gloves visual.

Psycho (1960) – director, Alfred Hitchcock, starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins – Undoubtedly the quintessential psychological horror film and precursor to the slasher. The first American film to thoroughly, unashamedly examine erotic violence. Tremendous use of musical score, foreshadowing, the light to dark motif, setting and subliminal terror. A harrowing, unabashed masterpiece. British director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom proceeded Psycho by a few months and is an equal masterpiece in many respects and is similar in theme.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – director, Tobe Hooper, cinematographer, Daniel Pearl, starring Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain – Shoestring budget exploitation film that emphasizes the dreaded remote location with documentary style camera work and disconcertingly, beautiful cinematography.  Utilizes the “final girl”, “masked, lumbering killer” and “unusual weapon” trope.

Black Christmas (1974) – director, Bob Clark, starring Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea – Canadian, horror, mystery that employs the killer’s first person camera perspective, creepy, obscene phone calls, i.e., Get out! The call is coming from your house!! juxtaposed against a holiday setting. Deploys ensemble college age cast, strong female lead, feminist themes and ambiguous ending.

Deep Red (1975) – director, Dario Argento, starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Giuliana Calandra – Stylistic, Italian horror film with a complex plot, gobs of gratuitously choreographed violence and buckets of blood. Features an unidentified killer wearing black leather gloves, serial killings during the Christmas season, an unusual, deeply unsettling method of killing, a spooky children’s song and creepy doll. Deep Red is considered a horror masterpiece. View with caution.

 

 

 

The Killers, A “Nick Adams” Short Story by Ernest Hemingway; Abridgment and Analysis

In The Killers, if not for a catalytic stint as a messenger boy, presumably, searching the same streets for the same address as two hit men, Ernest Hemingway treats reoccurring character Nick Adams with incidental indifference. He achieves this by writing from a particularly sterile third person multiple character point of view.

This cavalier treatment of the subject of his series of short stories alerts the familiar reader that this story is going to be different. Indeed it is. The famed economical prose is rationed. The tightly rhythmic dialogue is cropped. The edges are sharper. The angles, steeper. Hemingway’s alter ego, Nick Adams, has come of age.  We know this when we read the fifth paragraph:

Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.

The men are dressed expensively, but their physiques strain against the fabric of their almost identical ensemble of overcoat, derby, gloves and muffler, too ill fitting to be considered fashionable.

Behind the counter is George–the proprietor of the place. Nick Adams–probably about eighteen or nineteen–sits at the opposite side of the counter. Nick either works at the diner or he is a regular customer as he and George seem to know each other well.

One of the men orders pork roast and mashed potatoes. George politely informs him that the pork roast isn’t ready yet.

The other man, who the pork roast guy calls Al, decides on chicken croquettes. George tells him the croquettes aren’t ready either. The air, stilled when the strangers walked in, is sucked out of the room.

What is this? Some kind of conspiracy? The men’s irritation is palatable. George’s blood pressure rises with the clenching of their jaws and the hardness of their eyes. Then they begin a not so friendly game of let’s push our weight around this joint.

At first George gets plummeted. Then Nick.

The tension continues to escalate as Al and his companion lob one insult after another at George and Nick, while simultaneously feigning insult over the dominated men’s slightest, most innocuous utterances. Mercifully the escalation breaks when Max–Al finally refers to him as such–orders Nick around the other side of the counter with George. Nick puts up a bit of obligatory  resistance before he obeys. No guns are drawn.

“Whose out in the kitchen?” Al asks. George answers with a racial slur, referring to the cook, Sam.

Al orders Nick to go into the kitchen with Sam. Then he follows, leaving Max and George at the counter.

“What’s this all about?” George asks. Max then proceeds to explain. They are there to kill a big Swede, an ex boxer named Ole Anderson.

George admits that he knows Anderson and then asks,

“What did he ever do to you?” 

“He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.”

“What are you going to kill him for, then?” 

“We’re killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend, bright boy,” Max tells George.

Al ties up Nick and Sam and gags them while George handles a smattering of customers that come and go.

“Sam stepped out, will be back in about a half an hour,” he tells one guy who wants supper. He makes another guy a ham and egg sandwich to go, and tells, yet, another cranky, hungry customer that Sam got sick and left.

Why the hell don’t you get another cook?” the man asked. “Aren’t you running a lunch counter?” He left.

Meanwhile the strangers know “the Swede” takes his supper in the diner at around six o’clock most evenings. Max watches the clock. Al watches Nick and Sam. He has pulled out a sawed off shotgun concealed beneath his overcoat. It rests across his lap. He sets on a stool, bored but resolute.

“What you going to do with us afterward?” George asks Max. “That’ll depend,” Max said. “That’s one of those things you never know at the time.”

At ten after seven, they decide the Swede isn’t going to show.

“Come on, Al,” Max said. 

“What about the two bright boys and the n@**$r?”

“They’re all right.”

“You think so?”

“Sure. We’re through with it.”

“I don’t like it,” said Al. “It’s sloppy. You talk too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Max. “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?” “You talk too much, all the same,” Al said. He came out from the kitchen. The cut-off barrels of the shotgun made a slight bulge under the waist of his too tight-fitting overcoat. He straightened his coat with his gloved hands.

“So long, bright boy,” he said to George. “You got a lot of luck.”

“That’s the truth,” Max said. “You ought to play the races, bright boy.”

And without further ado, they walk out of the diner and into the night.

George rushes into the kitchen and unties Nick and Sam. Nick is obviously relieved, but he tries to play it off.

“Say,” he said. “What the hell?” “They were going to kill Ole Anderson,” George said. “They were going to shoot him when he came in to eat.”

They decide that Nick will go tell Anderson though Sam warns him not to get involved. Nick, too, walks out into the night, making his way along the dimly lit streets to the boarding house where Anderson resides.

The manager of the house answers the door and tells Nick that Anderson is in his room and hasn’t left all day. He follows her up the stairs and she knocks on the Swede’s door.

“Who is it?”

“It’s somebody to see you, Mr. Anderson,” the woman said.

“It’s Nick Adams.”

“Come in.”

Nick opened the door and went into the room. Ole Anderson was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had been a heavyweight prizefighter and he was too long for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick.

“What was it?” he asked.

Nick proceeds to tell Anderson about being held by the two men at gun point and about the reason he was held that way. To his alarm, Anderson seems unfazed.

“I’ll tell you what they were like.”

“I don’t want to know what they were like,” Ole Anderson said. He looked at the wall. “Thanks for coming to tell me about it.”

But the young man persists. He asks to go to the police. “No,” Anderson says.

Maybe it’s just a bluff. “No bluff,” Anderson says.

“Couldn’t you get out of town?”
“No,” Ole Anderson said. “I’m through with all that running around.”  “Couldn’t you fix it up some way?”
“No. I got in wrong.” He talked in the same flat voice. “There ain’t anything to do. After a while I’ll make up my mind to go out.”
“I better go back and see George,” Nick said.
“So long,” said Ole Anderson. He did not look toward Nick. “Thanks for coming around.”

Back at the diner George is wiping down the counter when Nick comes in. He asks if Nick talked to Anderson.

“Sure. I told him but he knows what it’s all about.”
“What’s he going to do?”
“Nothing.”
“They’ll kill him.”
“I guess they will.”

Then the two converse about what the Swede could have done to warrant a visit from two hit men. They mutually decide he must have double crossed somebody in Chicago.

Nick tells George he plans to leave the town himself. George tells him that would probably be the best thing to do.

Analysis:

The Killers is a coming of age story a quarter shy of its destination. Only by the dogma of the law is Nick Adams considered an adult. Still, he is following the trajectory of manhood and witnessing the precise, yet, brutal effect of an especially sharp knife without the armor of youth.

Nevertheless, Nick is spared from what experience informs George. When Al forces him into the kitchen, Hemingway removes Adams from a third of the story, leaving George and Max to hash out the implications of their encounter. In this way, the author demonstrates the demarcation line of maturity, i.e., what you don’t know won’t hurt you and that’s a good thing since other–older--people will control your life.

Sure, Nick knows things are serious–he’s bound and gagged and a hood is guarding him with a sawed off shotgun–but he is blissfully unaware that the odds of him walking out of the diner alive are within the width of a cat’s whisker, or two. Max and Al expect Ole Anderson to show up at around six o’clock for supper and they expect to kill him when he does–and anyone else who has the misfortune of being in the diner at the time. George and the cook Sam know this.

When Anderson doesn’t show, Al wants to dispose of the witnesses. It’s just good business, but Max isn’t so keen on the idea.

Max has carefully observed George; he has recognized the older man’s attempt to play tough by referring to Sam with a racial slur and called him out on it–but he also begrudgingly admires the man’s humility and dignity. He decides to let the men slide. “We’re done with it,” he tells Al. This conveys that the hit men are leaving town without killing Anderson and, more importantly, that the force of fate can spin on the head of a pin.

After the hit men leave, George unties Nick and suggests that he go warn the Swede. Nick agrees. Sam warns him not to get involved, signifying that he is cognizant of George’s exploitation of Nick’s youthful indiscretion .

Nick makes it to the boarding house only to find Ole Anderson, an ex boxer and pillar of masculinity, pitifully apathetic to the encroachment of his demise. Likewise he barely acknowledges Nick’s risk to save him.

With The Killers, Hemingway continues to explore his pet themes of masculinity, naivete, compassion, bravery, betrayal and emasculation through character, Nick Adams. By this time, the familiar reader has observed Nick since he was a boy and has grown quiet fond of him.

The Killers, is decidedly colder and even less sentimental than Hemingway’s other Nick Adams offerings such as Indian Camp and The Battler. Accordingly he prepares the young man for his estimation of true manhood and for war.

 

 

 

A Prophet, a Film Directed by Jacques Audiard, 2009 (French); Crime/Prison/Mob Drama

In the male prison subculture there is a stark difference between the convicts and the inmates. Convicts are criminals, not by happenstance but by design. Crime is their career. Hence they occupy the upper tiers of the prison yard pyramid. They are the mob connected conspirators, bank robbers, drug dealers, counterfeiters and contract killers.

At the very top of the pyramid is the highest ranking mob member unlucky enough to be doing time. The bottom is comprised of the despised sexual deviants. In the middle is everybody else. The fish, as they are called. The inmates.

Every ethnic group has a pyramid. The prisoners segregate themselves accordingly.

The convicts run the prison or, in their vernacular, the college. They are the administrators and the professors. They decide who gets in and who languishes on the outside. Unless you are one of the sincerely religious--and they will test you on this–you really, really need to get into college, that is, if you want to survive.

Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a hapless nineteen year old who finds himself in an adult prison for the first time, doing a six year stretch. As a French Algerian he is presumed to be Muslim, though he is not religious. This inconsistency brands Malik an outsider, so he resides in the lower middle regions of the pyramid as an inmate.

Doe-eyed and baby faced, Malik seems painfully out of step among the convicts. When he must strip, he covers his nakedness with his hands. He is like a deer in the proverbial headlights.

But there is a different side of Malik too–he is serving time for assaulting a police officer. Plus there are the unsettling knife scars that run across his back and a faint one under his eye. When he is propositioned in the shower, he indignantly, menacingly bangs his head against the stall. Again…And again.

Cesar (Niels Arestrup) is a stoic, grizzled convict who leads the Corsican mob. He notices that Malik is always alone and sums him up as an easy, vulnerable fish.

Normally Cesar would never stoop so low as to approach a Muslim, especially such a lowly one, but his Corsican bosses have issued a hit on a drug dealer named Reyeb…And Reyeb is Muslim. He also happens to be the prisoner who propositioned Malik in the shower. Cesar has spies everywhere, so he knows this. He sends his thugs to threaten Malik into killing Reyeb.

Malik is horrified by his dilemma. Repulsed by the idea of murder, he tries to beg off. He is beaten. He tries to snitch. He is thwarted by guards on Cesar’s payroll–and is beaten worse. Desperate, he joins in on a gang bludgeoning of a fellow inmate so that he will be thrown into solitary confinement. He is beaten again and a shank is put to his neck.

This is the last time, he is warned. If he does not follow through he will be stuck, bled and gutted like a pig.

In many ways Jacques Audiard’s chillingly complex drama, A Prophet, plays a lot like a tragedy. At first we see Malik survive an almost impossible situation. Yes, he kills Reyeb. He must. There is no other choice but death. In doing so he gains Cesar’s protection and entry into the lowest echelon of the Corsican mob.

Then, from a position of servitude, Malik observes and learns. With humility he hones an innate shrewdness and patiently begins his assent through the ranks of the Corsican mob until, finally, he is poised to vie for power.

But for a film to be considered a tragedy the protagonist must posses a fatal flaw. Malik doesn’t have one. Therefore A Prophet is merely a crime drama in which there are tragic elements, chiefly that Malik’s college has produced such a reluctant and unlikely, yet, so finely trained specimen.

Oppressively grim and excessively long, A Prophet is not an easy movie to digest. The plot takes off in a rabbit’s warren of unnecessary twists and turns revealed in subtitles. Its strength lies in an unadorned and cautionary depiction of criminality as a virulent contagion that thrives in a prison host.

Tahar Rahim plays the almost blank slate Malik convincingly–possibly too convincingly. Only in the most extreme circumstances do we really feel for him, though we understand his lack of emotion has been cultivated by neglect and abuse.

Likewise Niels Arestrup is coldly sterile as Cesar. His vestiges of humanity are only discernible when he gasping for breath.

 

 

 

President George Herbert Walker Bush: An Elegant, Gentlemanly President

The year was 1989, my husband and I were new to Nashville and President George H.W. Bush was scheduled for an appearance here. My mother–a proud resident of Odessa, the sister city of Midland, Texas, the former home of our 41st and 43rd presidents–asked me during a phone call if I was planing to go see him.

“I wouldn’t walk across the street to see that man,” I replied.

My mother was taken aback. She knew I wasn’t a Republican (she was, though she claimed to be an Independent) but she had reared my brother and I to be respectful of the presidency. Once a president was elected, he was, in every way, my mother’s president and she treated him as such. She was disappointed in me.

“He is our president,” she said. “Well he’s not mine,” I shot back. “I didn’t vote for him.”

“That’s too bad that you feel that way,” I remember her saying. And that was that.

Now, almost thirty years later, I wish I hadn’t said that. More importantly, I wish I hadn’t thought that–and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for disrespecting the youngest U.S. Navy pilot of WWII, a hero who was shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine–one of our’s, thank God–though his crew perished. I’m sorry for disrespecting an elegant, gentlemanly president, who rose through the ranks of politics and reached across the isle, yes, because it was expedient and because it was the right thing to do for the betterment of the country he led. And I’m sorry for disrespecting my mother’s example.

My mother’s gone now and, of course, so is President George H.W. Bush. As for me, I’m still not a Republican. But I am a lot older now and, thank the good Lord, I’m wiser. If I had it to do all over again I still don’t think I would go and see President H.W. Bush, but I would be a lot more gracious about not going and about my explanation as to why.

God’s speed President Bush…And much respect.

Great Cinematic (TV) and Literary Characters Series: Carmela Soprano (as portrayed by Edie Falco) The Sopranos

 

No she doesn’t bring home the bacon. And that kind of bothers her. But she does fry it up in the pan. Carmela Soprano takes her responsibilities as a mother seriously. Very seriously. You don’t mess with A.J. and Meadow. Unh uh. There’s just about nothing she wouldn’t do for them.

And she’s a good wife too. Sometimes–after a few drinks, and a slow dance or two, with nostalgia coursing through her veins–she can still make her husband feel like a real man…And a normal human being. That says a lot, considering who her husband is.

Carmela hates what Tony does for a living. She tries not to think about it, but it’s hard. Exercise helps. Her stomach is as flat as a school girl’s. Flatter than her daughter’s.

It also helps to shop. Carmela has a lot of buying power even though sometimes Tony gets a stick up his…well, you know…and pulls her purse strings too tight. She hates it when he does that. She’ll only put up with so much before she puts her foot down. Two can play at that game.

Another thing she really hates: Tony’s serial cheating. It takes a toll on her. She gets depressed about it, even drinks too much sometimes because of it–and that’s not like her at all. If Tony doesn’t watch out he might just drive her into the arms of another man. Men find her very attractive in a classy kind of way. Sometimes the way her priest looks at her, she could swear…

Speaking of her priest, Carmela would have left Tony a long time ago if not for the church. She takes her vows very seriously. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t do for her parish. She’s only too happy to entertain in her home–church or otherwise. And why not? They certainly have room for it.

She even makes all the side dishes when Tony has his big barbecues. Talk about work. You try cooking for that bunch.

Everybody gets treated the same way too, from the gardener to Tony’s crew, to the alderman, to her next door neighbors, the Cusamano’s. She doesn’t play the snob game. Her best friend, Rosalie, never attended day one of college and it shows. Still, she can take Ro just about anywhere without feeling the slightest bit ashamed.

Friendship is important. And Carm’s a good friend. Nobody knows how hard it is to be married to someone like Tony unless you’re married to someone like Tony. That’s why she and the other guy’s wives are so close. She’s even close to Ginny Sacrimoni and Ginny is…Ahem…morbidly obese. Even so, when Ginny was having a run of bad luck, Carm didn’t hesitate to come right over with her brand new Porsche Cayenne–to cheer her up, of course.

But back to Tony and the church…She honestly fears for her husband’s soul. That’s another reason she sticks with him. She’s his conscience, the only real spiritual influence he has. If not for her, he would drown in debauchery.

And here’s the main thing: She just doesn’t have the heart to take A.J. and Meadow away from their dad. Meadow and Tony have always been so close. And A.J. is a boy. Boys need their fathers.

Tony is a good dad. He really loves his kids.

…And he doesn’t put up with A.J. back talking her for one minute.

 

Double Dutch Bust: A One Hit Wonder, a Ton of Coke and a Dentist’s Dirty Laundry, Conclusion

Recap of Part II -1982, Dentist and cocaine entrepreneur Larry Lavin settles into a quiet  Philadelphia suburb in the Main Line, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the United States, while recording artist Frankie Smith enjoys the meteoric rise of his hit record Double Dutch Bus. But Smith receives no royalties from record sales. Though Lavin and Smith have never met, they are connected through record label, WMOT, which has been hijacked as a money laundering operation for Lavin’s cocaine empire. WMOT executive, and Lavin co-conspirator, Mark Stewart offers a payment of twenty thousand dollars when Smith complains about missing royalties.

I suppose we had a good run though. We moved a lot of good product and I made a good deal of money, much more than I would’ve seen just filling cavities and capping teeth. A solid dental practice is nothing to scoff at…until you know how much money you can make numbing people in other ways.–Larry Lavin*(Journal entry)

Sometimes he would laugh about it, but not in front of Marcia. She got pissed at stuff like that. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t help it. “What’s so funny?” she would ask. “Oh nothing,” he would say and then he’d make something up about their son or one of their friends.

But she knew…Yeah…She knew him all too well.

It wasn’t that he hated cops. Not at all. They were just doing their jobs. Besides, he actually liked Pat. Still…

No. It was the irony of it. The balls out audaciousness of it. Sometimes he felt like he was going to bust a gut because he couldn’t tell anyone. Sometimes he had an insane impulse to yell, “I’m Larry Lavin. The Yuppie Conspiracy guy. The mastermind. The cocaine kingpin.”

He could imagine the looks on his neighbors faces. The Millers. The Paynes. And the guys at the marina. Roy and Pat. Especially Pat. That would be rich.

How many times had he been on Pat’s boat? And Pat on his? How many beers had they shared? Fish had they caught?

Yes sir…Pat O’Donnell†…The semi retired FBI agent extraordinaire.

I’m here Pat…Right under your nose…

Still, whenever I reflect on everything… I always begin with the same question: Who would’ve thought that a multi-million dollar business would fold because of a song called Double Dutch Bus?.. It is just unfortunate Frankie (Smith)‡  didn’t come directly to me for the money. I would’ve given him double, triple, even quadruple what he claimed we owed him.–Larry Lavin (Journal entry)

Frankie Smith was insulted. He could do math. In fact he was pretty good at it. This was a simple, fundamental equation. Double Dutch Bus had sold over a million copies. His contract with WMOT Records§ had his royalty cut at twenty percent. That was a lot more than the twenty thousand dollar check from WMOT that he deposited in Leumi Le Israel, where record executive Mark Stewart had told him to bank when he signed on with the label.

What’s more, when he asked to speak to a banking manager he was directed into an office where a teller handed him five hundred dollars. “This is your weekly allowance Mr. Stewart has set aside for you,” she informed him. When he asked for a balance and a deposit slip, she told him that was not necessary. The money had nothing to do with his account.

Smith was stunned and confused. Something was obviously wrong. Sketchy. He decided to get a bite to eat at a nearby deli and think things over. While he was waiting in line he recognized another teller from the bank. He joked with her about his big financial windfall, producing the five one hundred dollar bills from his pocket. “The WMOT account?” she asked. He nodded. She laughed. “That’s nothing. People withdraw hundreds of thousands of dollars from that account everyday,” she told him.

Then, to add insult to injury, he got a notice from the IRS. His million selling record and the income he declared did not compute; he was being audited. Smith was flummoxed. He had always earned an honest living and paid his taxes. He didn’t drink or drug, kept a low profile, took care of his mother and, when he wan’t on tour, was pretty much of a homebody. At the same time he honored many of the laws of the hard Philadelphia streets he grew up on. He was no slouch and no snitch.

For several nights Smith tossed and turned, lying between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to be a stand up guy–he really did–but WMOT was giving him a royal screwing. Now he had the Federal Government breathing down his neck–the IRS, no less.

Ultimately he took the bus down to 11501 Roosevelt Avenue. Now the address is part of a huge industrial park. Then it was the Philadelphia IRS processing center.

Some might say it was cowardly, running like that. But I was never afraid of being caught. I knew what I was doing. I knew the consequences. That’s what made it all so much fun, so addicting.–Larry Lavin (Journal entry)

For several weeks in the early spring of 1984, Dental Assistant and Office Manager, Elizabeth Graziani, was having trouble with the phones. There was this clicking…A weird static on the line…Not enough to interrupt phone calls, but irritating nonetheless. She really didn’t think anything of it; she had heard similar static on her own line from time to time.

Months later Elizabeth heard a commotion of screeching tires and yelling outside the dental office. Thinking that there must have been a terrible accident she ran to the window. There she saw a shocking, horrifying sight: Her boss, (Yes, she considered him her friend and why not? He was so kind and generous, especially with children.) Dr. Lavin, was sprawled across the hood of his BMW with a host of armed FBI agents in tactical vests surrounding him. One of the agents had a huge, ugly gun–a pump shotgun, actually–pointed only inches from Dr. Lavin’s face!…

It’s funny how yesterday’s problem can become today’s asset. And vice versa. Just like with his cash.

At one time piles of cash lying around the house caused him to loose sleep. Now his freedom depended on the bundles that he was frantically shoving into cavernous duffel bags.

One point six million dollars. A drop in the bucket, really, of what he had made over the years. But, still, he was grateful that he had stashed it away–just in case. He had also lucked out on the bail. The judge had set it at a very reasonable 150,000.00 despite the prosecutor’s objections.

And then there was the matter of his friends. Marcia was always on his case about them. She called them scum. But they weren’t. Most of them were just like him. Dentists. Lawyers. Friends from the University of Pennsylvania.

Sure, there were a few colorful characters that he had used mostly as couriers, guys that were willing to take huge risks for big rewards. (The big difference between them and him? He was a huge risk/ huge reward kind of guy.) You had to have people like that in an operation like his. Without them he wouldn’t have access to dozens of false identities, credit cards and social security numbers that ensured his family’s new start in Virginia Beach, only three hundred miles away.

Hide in plain sight. That was his motto.

Of course he understood why Marcia was so upset. They were parents, after all. Plus she was pregnant again.

Yeah he could take off and leave most of the money, but the feds would just strip her of everything and they would probably end up indicting her anyway. There was a very real possibility that she would go to prison. He just couldn’t abide that. Especially since he had promised her–all those years ago–that he would quit the business once he could walk away with fifty grand clear.

Did he ever believe that? That he would actually walk away? He wasn’t sure. It was hard to leave with so much money on the table. Nobody could know how hard unless they’d been there themselves.

It didn’t matter now. What was done was done. He would make it up to her. This time he really would go straight…

After the first year, I relaxed and let go. But lately the fear’s been creeping up again. There’s a glance on the docks or at a restaurant that looks accusatory, a knowing smile from a waiter or a neighbor that seems to say they’re waiting for the sirens, the copters, and the cigarette boats to swarm. Somehow, I can’t help but think it’s only a matter of time…I saw Pat just as I was getting on and waved to him. He gave me a strange look at first, and then smiled as if something suddenly dawned on him. Maybe he knows something. I wouldn’t be surprised. This friendship with Pat will probably be the end somewhere down the line.–Larry Lavin (Journal entry)

FBI ARRESTS ALLEGED HEAD OF ’YUPPIE’ COCAINE RING (May 16, 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer)

Lawrence W. Lavin, the former Northeast Philadelphia dentist who allegedly masterminded a major cocaine-distribution ring, was arrested without incident yesterday as he disembarked from a fishing boat in Virginia Beach, Va., the FBI said. Lavin, 31, had been a fugitive since November 1984, a few months after he was charged with heading a $5-million-a-month cocaine ring involving many other young professionals.

He was free on $150,000 bail when he and his then-pregnant wife fled their Devon home. An FBI spokesman in Philadelphia said agents arrested Lavin about 5:20 p.m. as he and another dentist—who did not know Lavin’s true identity—were docking the other man’s 25-foot sport fishing boat at a marina. He was wearing blue jeans and a rugby shirt. He had been using an alias but had made no effort to disguise his appearance, the FBI said.

At the same time agents were arresting Lavin, other agents were arresting his wife, Marcia, at the couple’s home in an exclusive Virginia Beach development known as Middle Plantation, the FBI said. She was charged with harboring a fugitive. Both were being held in Virginia last night pending an arraignment before a federal magistrate. The couple’s two children, including a baby, had been living with them, according to the FBI.

Lavin faces drug charges in U.S. District Court here that could bring him a life sentence if he is convicted. In addition to a 40-count indictment on drug offenses, he is also charged with evading $545,000 in federal income taxes. Federal authorities said the cocaine ring—which they dubbed the “Yuppie Conspiracy”—was one of the largest ever uncovered here, handling up to 175 pounds of cocaine a month. The drug in turn was distributed to others in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New England and the Southwest, according to federal prosecutors.

More than 50 people, including three graduates of the University of Pennsylvania dental school, two lawyers and two stockbrokers, along with many other professionals, have been charged with being part of the drug conspiracy that Lavin allegedly headed.


Best Double Dutch Bus sample:

  • Gossip Folks by Missy Elliot (2002), ft. Ludacris; Goldmind – Elecktra

Best WMOT Records original recordings; singles:

  • Double Dutch Bus by Frankie Smith (1981) Funk/R&B/ Rap/Hip Hop
  • I Really Love You by Heaven and Earth (1981) R&B/Soul
  • Watch Out by Brandi Wells (1981) R&B/Dance/Electronica
  • Act Like You Know by Fat Larry’s Band (1982) Funk/Hip Hop/ R&B

Larry Lavin served eighteen years in prison. He and Marcia are divorced. She reared their three children in Wisconsin where she still lives. Lavin can no longer practice dentistry.  He currently resides in Tampa, Florida where he is Director of Services for the marketing company One Touch Direct.

†The FBI intercepted a portion of a phone conversation in which Lavin bragged to an associate about being “friends” with a semi-retired FBI agent and about being invited onto his boat. Agents were able to track the phone call to the Virginia/Maryland Coastal area and then distributed wanted posters to all retired agents within that swath living close to marinas. Semi-retired FBI agent Pat O’Donnell of Virginia Beach occupied a boat slip next to fugitive Larry Lavin who was going by the alias of Brian O’Neil.

‡Frankie Smith never recovered his portion of the 1,440,000.00 dollars that was diverted from WMOT Records by Mark Stewart in a money laundering scheme in conjunction with Larry Lavin and The Yuppie Cocaine Conspiracy. Smith still lives in Philadelphia, in the same house that he shared with his now deceased mother.

§ WMOT Records was forced into bankruptcy, was restructured, and bought by CBS/Sony.

 

Great Cinematic (TV) and Literary Characters Series: Tony Soprano (as portrayed by James Gandolfini) The Sopranos

Tony Soprano is a man ruled by his consuming appetite. As such, he does not hunger so much as he craves.

The result? He gorges and is obese. Still, he is attractive…Sort of.

Likewise, he does not merely desire, he lusts. So he screws around on his wife. Prodigiously.

Consequently they fight. A lot…But he loves her.

Tony is a mafia boss, so what he covets he steals–within reason. Easily enraged he fights his impulse to arbitrarily kill. It is bad for business. And he is not stupid.

Nor is he a monster. You’d be perfectly safe with him exempting an extreme circumstance.

And your children? Forget about it. They’d be safe with Tony Soprano. He likes kids. Not just his own (he has two, Meadow and A.J.) but all kids and what they represent: A clean slate. A fresh start. Unencumbered potential.

You see, if not for his father–a DiMeo caporegime, the New Jersey faction of the New York family–he might have been a high school football coach. Or a history teacher. Maybe both. Ergo he does not train his son in the tenets of his trade…He likes animals.

Tony lives in a very nice house. A near mansion (though it is excessively beige.)

But don’t be fooled. He doesn’t have it easy. Good help is hard to find, especially in his business.

It’s all comes down to loyalty and honor. The young guys want to rise to the top without putting in any work. They’re lazy and entitled.

The old guys? They’re just as bad–maybe worse. That’s because they’re smarter, more seasoned and resentful because of all the work they’ve put in without rising to the top.

And where does that leave Tony? Pretty close to the top (he has to kowtow to New York) neither young nor old, with no one he can trust. Not even his uncle Junior–his father’s older brother–who taught him how to throw a baseball. Not even his own mother–the most treacherous harpy ever–who taught him how to walk.

What’s more, there’s regret. He wrestles with it and the wisp of conscience he has left. Perhaps that is why he has panic attacks and is forced by desperation and–much to his chagrin–fear to see a psychiatrist.

Perhaps. Rattling skeletons are unsettling.

Well, you know what they say…Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. But that’s better than the head with two bullets above the ear…

 

Double Dutch Bust: A One Hit Wonder, a Ton of Coke and a Dentist’s Dirty Laundry, Part II

Recap of Part I: Life long Philadelphia resident and former Gamble and Huff songwriter Frankie Smith pens the funky novelty song Double Dutch Bus. Laid off from Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, Smith pitches his song to WMOT Records with no inkling that WMOT is a money laundering front for The Yuppie Conspiracy that supplies most of the eastern coast of United States with cocaine. The Yuppie Conspiracy is headed by twenty-seven year old dentist Larry Lavin, his financial adviser Mark Stewart and a cabal of dentists and other University of Penn alum.   

U.S. Route 30, also known as Lancaster Avenue, links the old money western suburbs of Philadelphia. The locals call it the “Main Line”. The Main Line communities of Villinova, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Devon and Malvern are some of the most affluent in the United States. Retired Brigadier General John Eisenhower, son of President Dwight Eisenhower, and his wife Barbara lived on Timber Lane in Devon.

Most of the Timber Lane residents were the usual fare–doctors, lawyers and members of the corporate elite, middle aged, retired or soon to be retired. The Eisenhower’s neighbor across the street was a retired admiral and a practicing dentist. Their tall, lanky, puppy-dog-like next door neighbor, Larry, was also a dentist, though you wouldn’t think it. He and his wife, Marcia, were all of twenty-seven years old. The Lavin’s.

Of course, when Larry and his wife, that’s the way most of the neighbors described her, (she was very reserved and rarely spoke unless spoken to) first moved in they caused a bit of a stir. They were so young.

There were nods and waves. A few hellos. They seemed nice enough.

Weeks turned into months–plenty of time for them to have everything unpacked and put away–and, yet, there was Larry, always manicuring the yard are puttering around the garage. Soon they were making renovations to their home, putting in a pool and a solar light system. Neither he nor Marcia left for work in the mornings.

Inevitably, Larry wandered over to the Eisenhower’s yard and they got acquainted. He was very friendly and helpful, always offering to assist with a yard chore or a small home maintenance job. He and Marcia were generous with the neighborhood children too. The Eisenhower’s grandchildren excitedly showed off full sized Snicker bars the Lavin’s handed out at Halloween.

Larry told his neighbors that he had gotten into managing rock bands in college as a fluke. He had unexpected success which led him into the recording business and a financial windfall.

Always gregarious, he invited neighbors into his home to see the renovations and decor. During the tours he proudly showed off the encased gold record that hung in his den: The Double Dutch Bus, Frankie Smith, WMOT Records.

Barbara Eisenhower was especially impressed with Larry. It showed good character for him to finish dental school even though he was making so much money in the music business. Larry explained that he was waiting for the right opportunity to practice dentistry. He wanted to buy an established practice that catered primarily to the underprivileged and undeserved. It was his way of giving back.

The year 1982 was shaping up to be a good one for Frankie Smith and his mother. They made some modest purchases for their home, things that would go with Frankie’s gold record that hung in the small living room above the piano that his mother had bought for him by squirreling away ten to twenty dollars at a time. There was plenty of money to pay the bills now, and then some, since Frankie was the opening act for the Kool and the Gang and Rick James tours. He made appearances on Soul Train, American Bandstand and The Merv Griffith Show and, on a particularly memorable evening he preformed on The American Music Awards. His mother was very proud that night. She cried.

Frankie Smith had arrived thanks to a Double Dutch Bus that he rode all the way to #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and to #30 on the Billboard Top 40 chart. The single sold well over a million copies.

There was just one problem. He hadn’t received a dime from royalties. Smith found that especially galling.

For years he had dreamed of writing a hit song. He had worked diligently, patiently and more than once was on the cusp of his dream. Now he had achieved it. Every time he heard Double Dutch Bus on the radio he felt like a proud papa, but in his songwriter’s mind he had yet to see his baby. In his songwriter’s mind, he was covering his own song.

After months of waiting for a check he called the WMOT booking keeping office. “I’m calling about my royalties,” he told the bookkeeper. She put him on the the line with Mark Stewart.

Mark Stewart was an enigma to the artists at WMOT. Roaming the halls with his face frozen in a scowl, he had few words for anyone. And when he did speak it was obvious that he knew virtually nothing about the record business. He wasn’t into Funk, he was in a funk–a perpetual one at that.

There was a good reason for Stewart’s surliness. Bad investments and over reaching had driven him to the brink of financial ruin. It was desperation that pushed him over the line of shady real estate deals and boxing promotion and into a full fledged life of crime with coke dealer Larry Lavin.

Lavin’s money was like a god send, propping up some of his ill advised investments. He poured over 500 thousand of Lavin’s cash into money laundering ventures like WMOT Records, The Philadelphia Arena, which he renamed The Martin Luther King Arena and a minor league basketball team, The Lancaster Red Roses.

But the cash infusion couldn’t save the arena or the Red Roses. Stewart eventually hired Pagan motorcycle gang member James “Horrible” Holt to burn down the arena in an insurance scam. Only WMOT Records proved profitable and that, in large part, was due to Frankie Smith’s hit record, Double Dutch Bus.

Stewart didn’t know much about Smith, he couldn’t care less about the artists at WMOT, but he did acquaint himself with a few details he viewed as essential, namely zip code and education. Smith’s address of 51st and Dearborn told him everything he needed to know.

So when he was informed that Smith was on the line inquiring about his overdue royalties, Stewart was nonplussed. There were much bigger things on his plate to be worried about. He picked up the phone.

“Mr. Smith, I’ve been meaning to call you,” he said. “I’ve got a check here with your name on it for twenty thousand dollars.”

To be continued…

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