Los Angeles,1949. Ruthless Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the show, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes and — if he has his way — every wire bet placed west of Chicago.
Angeles,1949. Ruthless Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) runs the
show, reaping the ill-gotten gains from the drugs, the guns, the prostitutes
and — if he has his way — every wire bet placed west of Chicago. And he does it all with the protection
of not only his own paid goons but also the police and the politicians. It’s enough to intimidate even the
bravest, street-hardened cop … except perhaps for the small, secret crew of
LAPD outsiders led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan
Gosling), who come together to try to tear Cohen’s world apart.
Under the direction of Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), Gangster
Squad is a colorful retelling of the events surrounding the LAPD’s efforts to
take back their nascent city from one of the most dangerous mafia bosses of all
time. FilmJuice chatted to Paul
Lieberman whose book, Gangster
Squad, provided the inspiration for the screenplay.
Anyone who sees the trailer for Warner Bros.’ movie version of Gangster Squad
might think this is a classic cops-v-robbers tale with lots of shootouts. But
the book is much more, isn’t it?
A. Yes, absolutely. On the
surface, sure, it is the tale of two Los Angeles police veterans who become
obsessed with the showboating mobster Mickey Cohen as he causes havoc in the
city in the years after World War II. Then another rising gangster tries to move
in on the rackets, Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen, a powerful Irishman who prided
himself on being so tough he didn’t need a gun…
And dreamed of making it in Hollywood, as an actor, right?
A. Correct! The feared Enforcer
yearned to be a cowboy in Westerns. He might have realized his dream had he not
stormed into the restaurant that served as Mickey’s hangout in the closing days
of the ‘50s. That’s when a bullet between the eyes upended the lives of all the
main characters and, I argue, ended an era in Los Angeles. That’s the basic
story. But the bigger picture involves the worldview that dominated L.A. as it
grew into a giant, modern city that supposedly embodied the American Dream.
That broad theme centers on the city’s own self-image, doesn’t it?
A. For decades, city fathers had a
paranoid obsession with gangsters invading from elsewhere to despoil their
sun-washed paradise. L.A. was the city of eternal sunshine and self-invention,
the City of Angels. Gangsters belonged in the cesspool cities back east. You heard this notion in L.A. going
back to the 1800s and it was the impetus for forming the Gangster Squad in
1946. One crime report actually
had a section titled The Invasion Of Undesirables. In sum: evil came from
without, not within.
And that same delusion applies to your main characters, the cops, as
A. Yes. This was the period when a
popular TV show Dragnet was
glorifying the LAPD – the hero, Sgt. Joe Friday, lived with his mother! But the
real cops were complicated men. Not so pure. The main one, Sgt. Jack O’Mara,
was his church’s head usher on Sundays but other days was not so Godly. O’Mara
took such characters up into the hills, putting guns in their ears…and squad
members were always breaking into their homes to plant listening devices, all
without warrants. They even helped Jack
Webb, the producer and star of Dragnet, bug his estranged wife! One bug was
planted right inside Mickey’s TV. It was amazing how O’Mara pulled that off… It
was the same with how others bugged the bed of Cohen’s mistress. They couldn’t
get the Mafia boss for ordering murders so they got him for deviant sex acts.
Actually stuff regularly depicted in movies today!
Is it true that Los Angeles was never able to get a conviction in a mob hit for
more than half a century?
A. People raised in the
post-Godfather era have no idea how little America knew about the mob then. The
country’s top lawman, J. Edgar Hoover,
head of the FBI, for ages refused to acknowledge there was a national crime
network. He set his agents after bank-robbing desperados like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger, but not the Mafia. That
spurred great tension between Hoover and Los Angeles police. The LAPD formed
its Gangster Squad a full decade before he was forced to acknowledge the threat
of organized crime after hoods from around the country were discovered meeting
on a ranch in upstate New York.
What’s more, the Mafia still was ruled by an unwavering code of silence,
omerta. The first insider to spill its secrets, Joe Valachi, did not surface until the 1960s. The code of silence
was a prime reason the city was unable to get a conviction in a mob rubout. The
first real one does not come until the killing that culminates Gangster Squad
of Jack Whalen. And then nothing is as it seems. Noir takes over.
How do you put it in the book? “Truth is not found in the sunlight … and
justice is not obtained in a marble courthouse”. Does justice finally catch up with Mickey Cohen?
A. You’ll have to read the book.
The book involves a fascinating figure we’ve never heard of before: Jack
Whalen’s father, a pool shark and conman known as Freddie The Thief, who was as
colorful a character as any in the movie The Sting. His trek from the Midwest
to Los Angeles in 1922 kicks off your story. Obviously there are all sorts of
records to document the life of Mickey Cohen, but how did you learn so much
about his cons?
A. I had three researchers helping
over the years and we found details of Freddie Whalen’s schemes stashed in
various court archives. More importantly, his daughter was still alive up in
Oregon, nearing 90, and she was proud of having helped in his most clever con,
in which he would go to hospitals posing as a doctor who liked to bet on horse
races, the start of a scam that victimized bookies around the country.
You also seem to have been obsessed with finding witnesses to the shooting
that’s the climax to the book, after Jack The Enforcer marches into Rondelli’s
to confront Mickey and his men.
A. That killing was a grossly
underreported moment in Los Angeles history. It barely got a mention in
accounts of Mickey Cohen’s life. So I tracked down everyone I could, from the
two cops sitting in a police car outside, to the striptease dancer who had a
date to meet Mickey’s crew, to two of the associates at his table that night,
one of whom now insists that Mickey himself … well, you’ll have to read it. But
most significantly, the night is the payoff for the trap that my main cop,
O’Mara, set a decade before when he secretly marked all of Mickey’s guns in
case they someday showed up at a murder.
Why do you call that killing the end of as era?
A. For starters, Los Angeles
finally gets a conviction in a mob rubout, even if it’s not all it seems. And court decisions begin to spell an
end to anything-goes policing, which is why O’Mara quits the force. “It just
got to be no fun anymore,” is how he put it. The inner city is about to erupt
in riots – the days of White Men Rule are coming to a close. All the cultural
changes of the ‘60s are around the corner too. Even the onset of color television is worth pondering – no
more seeing the world in black-and-white.
The book’s cover says the true tale “inspired” Warner Bros.’ upcoming movie of
Gangster Squad. Is that an
acknowledgement that a lot of license was taken in the film in the name of
A. Short answer, yes. The
characters are there: O’Mara is
played by Josh Bolin, Wooters by Ryan Gosling and Mickey by Sean Penn. But it’s a Warner Bros. gangster film. That
studio was behind the old classics of the genre staring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and the like. So the film also is a
riff on the genre, meaning there’s a lot more violence than in real life. O’Mara did sleep with a Tommy gun under
his bed but the squad didn’t have the wild shootouts you’ll see in the film.
One of O’Mara’s daughters is unsettled by the violence but his other daughter
attended a lot of the shoot and was fine with it. “It’s a movie,” she noted.
The movie is set in 1949, the year Warner Bros. released one of its greatest
gangster films, White Heat, in which
Cagney plays a deranged hood a bit too close to his mother. The famous last scene
has him high atop an oil refinery, where he shouts as it blows up, “Made it Ma!
Top of the world!” That too was
cinematic invention, not real life. I think audiences understand the
But real-life violence did force the studio to postpone release of the film?
A. A major scene had the bad guys
lurking behind a movie screen showing a John
Wayne film, then blasting away at the Gangster Squad with their own Tommy
guns. Then came the real tragedy in Colorado this past summer in which a
deranged graduate student killed 12 people at a showing of the new Batman film. Warner Bros. wisely
decided to scrap the film’s theater scene and reshoot a whole new ambush, now
set in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. That meant a four-month delay in the release,
Any good gossip from the set?
A. The book’s Afterword deals with
the filming, mostly the interaction between the real cops’ families and the
Hollywood spectacle. But Ryan Gosling does tell a good story of when Sean was
getting into character playing Mickey Cohen. The ingénue Emma Stone figures in the story too. Check it out.
You suggest that Mickey Cohen was a modern figure ahead of his time, a
A. Indeed. He invited Life Magazine to his home to take
pictures of his fancy suits, his wife’s mirrored boudoir and the little bed
used by their dog, Tuffy. He also went on television to insult Los Angeles’
police chief and the head of the Gangster Squad, calling them crooked
degenerates. Taunting the cops was very stupid, to say the least. But today
he’d have his own reality TV show, guaranteed.
Squad opens worldwide beginning January 11th 2013.