It’s the 1920s. Prohibition is the law of the land and gangsters control the streets of New York City. Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) and his tubercular brother, Eddie (Warren Oates), arrives in town. Jack and Eddie are small-time jewel thieves but Jack has ambitions to be something more. He works with his girlfriend, Alice (Karen Steele), as a dance instructor but he dreams of being the most powerful mobster in the world. His first step is to get a job working as a bodyguard for New York crime lord (and fixer of the 1919 World Series), Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery). Though Rothstein never trusts him, Jack works his way into his inner circle and even gets a nickname. Because he is a dancer, he is renamed “Legs” Diamond.
From the minute that he starts working with Rothstein, Legs Diamond’s cocky personality and ruthless ambition make him enemies. When he is shot three times, Legs shocks everyone by surviving and announces that he is invulnerable and cannot be killed. After Rothstein is mysteriously gunned down, Diamond goes to war against Leo “Butcher” Bremer (Jesse White, better known as the original Maytag repairman) for control of the New York underworld.
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was directed by the legendary Budd Boetticher, a bullfighter-turned-director who is best known for directing a series of low-budget westerns in the 1950s. The violent and hard-boiled The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was Boetticher’s only gangster film and it’s a good one. The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is tightly-written, fast-paced, and Lucien Ballard’s black-and-white cinematography ranks with the best of film noir.
The role of Legs Diamond was originally offered to future producer Robert Evans (of The Kid Stays In The Picture fame) but when Evans turned it down, the role was given to Ray Danton. Though he is occasionally a little stiff, Danton still gives a good and tough performance as Diamond but it is still hard not to wonder what Evans would have been like in the role. The rest of the cast is full of recognizable B-movie actors, all of whom do a good job. Actress Dyan Cannon made her film debut in Legs Diamond, playing one of Diamond’s girlfriends. Meanwhile, in only his third film role, Warren Oates is memorable and sympathetic as the sickly Eddie. Though Oates does not get to do much in the film, his performance still shows why he went on to become one of the most popular and well-respected character actors of all time.
Though hardly historically accurate (in real life, Arnold Rothstein never knew Jack Diamond and Diamond received his nickname not because he was a dancer but because of the speed with which he ran away from the police), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is an exciting and entertaining Depression-era gangster film.