Wednesday, October 5, 2011
"Welcome to 'Cafe Society'," intones Frank Whaley, star of my first feature film, "Cafe Society". "Where the elite meet to eat...(and then, sotto voce)
"Cafe Society" was made in 1995 and has been largely out of circulation since its appearance. Or so it seems to me. Since nobody has a clue who owns it and no one has seen fit to put it on DVD, I've posted it below. Well actually I've posted the first four parts. If you're interested in watching the rest, youtube will perform its magic.
The film was based on a true crime story--the sensational 1952 scandal involving one Mickey Jelke, heir to an oleomargerine fortune, who was accused and convicted of heading Manhattan's biggest prostitution ring. Jelke was tabloid fodder for several years, especially when it was revealed that his "main girl"--Patricia Ward--had formerly been his fiancee. Jelke convinced Ward to go to work hooking when his family (who became aware of Mickey's penchant for unsavory characters) cut him off from his trust fund. Pat Ward and Mickey Jelke are names that New Yorkers of a certain age--oh about seventy or eighty at this point--all smile in recognition upon hearing.
The scandal fascinated me for a number of years (I was a strange young man) and when I was in my late twenties and starting out in the movie business I pitched the idea of a movie based upon it to HBO. To my astonishment, they promptly bought it. I spent a year or more churning out drafts, eager to get a greenlight to make my first movie. Alas it was the first (though by no means the last) of many disappointments that I've faced in the movie business. HBO put the project in turnaround and it seemed to be dead.
Until a friend of mine--uber-agent Steve Alexander--read the script and convinced me that it would be makeable as an "indie"--this is 1994 now and the Quentin Tarantino of it all was coursing through the veins of all us young bucks. We somehow scraped together a million and a half dollars, went to New York, and in a fit of "can-do" thinking got the sucker made. Frank Whaley played Jelke--its one of my favorite performances in all of film and not because I directed it. Indeed I didn't really have to--Frank understood the arrogance, hurt, pride and pain in this strange young man and brought all those qualities out. The great Peter Gallagher played the vice cop who helped set Jelke up. (More on that in a minute). And the wonderful but now completely seems-to-have-fallen-off-the-face-of-the-earth Lara Flynn Boyle played the noir-ish Pat Ward to the absolute hilt.
But back to that vice cop. In doing my research on the case, I came across several cops who--all off the record--hinted that Jelke wasn't guilty of much, that it was an election year stunt that the Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan cooked up to make it look like he was tough on vice. He was right--all were re-elected and the Jelke scandal sold mucho tabloid newsprint. Jelke went away to prison. Years later an article about him depicted him as living in Florida off his inheritance, getting drunk at the beach club everyday, and complaining bitterly about how he was "set-up". He died at the age of sixty of cirhossis of the liver.
The appearence of the vice squad and the doubts cast on the veracity of the D.A.'s case, far from taking away from the scandal, showed me where the movie of this story might actually live; in the intersection of moral ambivalence from each side of the fence. Jelke was clearly up to some strange stuff. The D.A. was too. Both collided. Neither was right. The truth was lost along the way and the "villainous" Jelke was made to pay for the acts of a more evil force--the government face of "moral correctness" as portrayed by politicians who willfully wreck people's lives for their own benefit. Nothing changes.
I tried to write and shoot "Cafe Society" as if it were a noir movie made at the time the actual events occurred. Characters don't speak in naturalistic dialogue but rather in movie vernacular--an Odetsian kind of verbal dazzle that sometimes makes sense and sometimes is just an intentional noir mash-up. This confused some people at the time who weren't sure how to take the film. In retrospect I wish I'd shot (or at least printed the release version) in black and white; that would have put a fine point on what we were trying to do.
Check out a few minutes of my unjustly forgotten "firstborn". Next time I'll discuss the making of the film and how it (sort of) got released. One thing is for certain: it was an education in everything you have to go through if you love making films. I recall seeing the late, great (and now strangely marginalized) writer-director Richard Brooks speaking at my alma mater, the AFI, shortly before his death. In loud rasping tones, Brooks exclaimed "If you want to make movies, you'd better be prepared to eat shit unsalted."
He was right.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 3:56 PM