When it came to blending the pitch-black hallmarks of film noir tradition and the equally shadowy real-life history of Post-War Los Angeles, Frank Darabont had a vision for “Mob City."
“I wanted to live up to the promise of what a noir show would deliver,” says Darabont, the writer-director behind acclaimed films like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” and man who launched the massive TV hit “The Walking Dead.” “We wanted to go with the real facts lend themselves so much to a good, smart, pulpy treatment.”
Darabont’s latest television effort, the limited series "Mob City," debuts on TNT Dec. 4 and lavishly melds the trappings of classic cinematic crime dramas of the ‘40s and ‘50s – hardened heroes, dangerous dames, smoky nightclubs, lurking danger – to the police corruption and mob battles that fill the City of Angels’ own checkered history. Such history as documented in author John Buntin’s 2010 book "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City," which serves as a jumping-off point for the series.
“I gave myself license to part from that book,” says Darabont. “We are going to be following the framework of reality, but what I found very liberating was to say ‘Let's invent the history that's underneath the history.’ So there's a tremendous amount of invention that we've brought to this and is very freeing…I didn't want to be constrained because I thought I could do a very straightforward adaptation of this book and do something that I felt like a very earnest and well-meaning ‘Masterpiece Theater ‘approach to what is actually a very pulpy, heated, sexy, violent world.”
“Frank’s taken this fictional character and said this is the guy and this is the situation that actually caused this nonfiction historical situation,” says Jon Berthal, who previously worked with Darabont on “The Walking Dead" and here plays the lead role of Joe Teague, a tough-but-sometimes-tender LAPD cop caught in the war between the flamboyant mobsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Mickey Cohen and the incorruptible new police chief William Parker.
With secrets of his own, Teague is chiseled from a classic noir-hero template. “Joe is really a guy who, as an ex-Marine and a vet coming back to L.A., thinks that the flamboyance and the glamour of this city is pretty ridiculous,” says Bernthal. “Like anybody who has lived beyond the veneer and comfort of everyday life, he adopts a by-all-means-necessary attitude when it comes to protecting people.”
In looking for touchstones for his approach, Bernthal “read a lot of Chandler, and obviously Phillip Marlowe is an inspiration. And there is a book called 'White Jazz' [by James Ellroy] that really had a big influence on me. The David Klein character really was this Joe Teague character 10 or 15 years down the road, just a little bit saltier.”
Alexa Davalos plays leading lady Jasmine Fontaine, a tough talking woman with a mysterious past who, whether or not she emerges as a genuine femme fatale, is cut from cloth similar to roles essayed by noir icons Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall.
"Women of that time had an incredible dignity and grace, a manner in which one carries oneself,” says Davalos, who grew up immersed in the noir films her grandfather loved. “It was a completely different comportment, something that now seems almost untouchable. They're all mysterious. They all hold their cards close to their chest and there's an element of strength, but on the inside there's the fear and the love and the loss, the pain and everything that we've all gone through, all of us as women. It's not period-specific. She has this element of then and now.”
“As far as the historical characters go, you've got to stay the course with them because he wants to pay honor to those characters – whether they're good guys or bad guys, stick to the truth of who these guys were,” says Neal McDonough, who plays the real-life police chief Parker, who weeded corruption from LAPD’s ranks. “Parker was nicknamed Bill the Boy Scout for a reason. He was such a good guy: he cared so much about Los Angeles that he wanted the police force to be the best police force in the world, so he had to shut out corruption. By doing that, he had to get rid of half of the police force, and everybody hated him.”
Edward Burns had heard the legends about his character Bugsy Siegel, the gangster whose vision led to the creation of Las Vegas as a gaming mecca, but was surprised at Siegel’s Hollywood connections. “The thing that I didn't know was the fact that he had done a screen test and he had this whole part of him that sort of fancied himself as a kind of wannabe movie star,” says Burns. “But then it informed me: 'Oh, okay. So this guy was very flashy, very charismatic.' Knowing that he had that history, it's like he's got to be larger than life: when he comes into a room he's got to own it. So I tried to play it as if this guy thinks he's a movie star.”
The actors whose roles weren’t taken from the history books also looked for reference points. For Ned Stax, a slick, up-and-coming mob attorney who also shares a wartime history with Teague, Milo Ventiglimia researched real-life attorney Sidney Korshak, a powerful “fixer” for both the mob and Hollywood higher-ups. “He was a man so smart and gifted that he never wrote anything down,” says Ventiglimia. “He never had an office. He had a phone at a restaurant that he would work off of.”
“Mob City’s” music emerges almost as a character in its own right, with composer Mark Isham (“Once Upon a Time”) also seeking to mix authenticity with noir tradition. “The music of the clubs is taken from the historical performances happening at the time, and we tried to give really diverse personalities to various real jazz quintets in the dark, real jazz clubs, up to the very more pop-type band at Clover Club,” says Isham, who recorded sessions that included musicians who played with the likes of Frank Sinatra and other era stalwarts. “There's also a big influence of Leonard Bernstein and the modern, film noir classical side [of the score]. He brought a sense of really classical sophistication and elegance at the time.”
The final elements of atmosphere came with the show’s locations, once again drawing from both noir and real-world iconography. “We shot on Hennessey Street on the Universal back lot, and that was a thrill because they probably shot half of their noir B pictures on that street,” chuckles Darabont. Burns recalls a magical moment on the city’s actual streets. “It was like, 'It's Downtown L.A., craftsman houses, period cars, period street lamps, two of us in the car in our suits and fedoras.' And I remember thinking, 'This is it – this is the Bogey-Cagney moment.' You half-expect Edward G. Robinson to walk out of the house. And that was like, 'All right, you can check off the box: Dream come true – got to do one of these.'”
"Mob City" airs over three weeks on TNT beginning Wednesday Dec. 4 at 9 p.m.