News Column

Gangster squad: Noirish 'Mob City' set in '40s L.A.

December 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 03--LOS ANGELES -- A thin haze of smoke fills every inch of Bunny's Jungle Club. If this was the 1940s, it would have been a cloud produced by the endless string of cigarettes and cigars smoked by the mix of gangsters and wannabes filling the Southern California hot spot. Today, Hollywood special effects create the lazy, hazy mist that helps create the film noir look on the set for the new TNT six-episode series "Mob City."

The man behind the mist is Frank Darabont, who is looking to find the same kind of success as when he was the executive producer of cable's biggest hit, "The Walking Dead."

Darabont has traded zombies for gangsters as his new series looks at the battle waged between the police and the mob in Los Angeles during the '40s. Darabont wrote and directed the pilot and serves as executive producer of the series based on John Buntin's book "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City."

Darabont calls the book a touchstone for the project but he gave himself some leeway while making the cable series.

"It's a reference point. It's also a jumping-off point because I really wanted to live up to the promise of what a noir show would deliver," Darabont says during an interview on the set at Red Studios.

"The real facts lend themselves so much to a good, smart, pulpy treatment. What we're talking about is the pulp smarts of the genre. We wanted to deliver on that point."

That departure doesn't mean ignoring the facts of the battle between good and evil that took place in the City of Angels. Where Darabont has taken liberties is in the history underneath the real story. That's accomplished through the cast of characters who will populate this dark and seedy world.

At the center of the struggle is detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), an ex-Marine assigned to a new mob task force headed by detective Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn). The task force is part of a crusade by Los Angeles Police Capt. William Parker (Neal McDonough) to free the city of criminals like Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (Ed Burns) and Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke), the king of the Los Angeles underworld. Parker also won't hesitate to go after anyone from his own police force who sells out honor and duty for the sake of a big payout.

The key for Darabont in telling this story is presenting it in the film noir style -- known for its somber look used to tell stories of disappointment and despair -- that he's loved since he read his first Raymond Chandler novel. It's through those pages that Darabont was inspired to make this series that shows the ugly and attractive side of Los Angeles.

"Up close, it's all gutter. The underbelly of Los Angeles in that era is very attractive, very sexy in a way. I mean, post-war when L.A. was a boomtown and it was expanding, the mob wanted to get in here and control it. Corruption in the police department was so rampant that more cops were on the mob payrolls back then than not. What's not to love about that?" Darabont says. "It's Hollywood. We've got all of Hollywood unfolding."

And, as with all good film noir, there is at least one person -- despite being flawed -- who holds on to the sanctity of honesty. In this case, that's the role of police chief as played by McDonough. The square-jawed actor has often been called on to play the hero in everything from "Band of Brothers" to "Tin Man."

McDonough loves Parker, who rose through the LAPD ranks to serve as chief from 1950-66 and reportedly was the model for "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry when he was writing the role of Spock.

"The first few episodes of the season we play him so kind of straightforward, and then in five and six we see him start to crack a little bit. Then, definitely, when the mayor comes into my office and I'm well into a bottle of scotch, you can see that things are starting to take effect on Parker," McDonough says.

"For me as an actor playing the emotional side of a character is what I love to do. So to play him really straightforward in the beginning and then start to slowly get more and more emotional is great for me, and I love playing this guy."

Whether McDonough and the rest of the cast will get to continue to play their characters will depend on whether TV viewers embrace the film noir tale that Darabont is bringing to cable.

Show info

"Mob City," 9 p.m. Wednesday on TNT

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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