Should Have Left the Light On: A Review of “New Orleans After Dark”


new-orleans-after-dark

*Edit: This post has been edited since its original publication, due to new information. See below.

Canal Street, quiet now after dark. Downtown from Canal, the old world French Quarter, just beginning to wake up. Through the heart of the quarter runs Bourbon Street, home of the strip joints, the honkey tonks, Dixieland, and the blues. Tinsel sin for the tourist trade, but just another night beat for plain clothes car 53.

This is the opening voice over monologue for John Sledge’s New Orleans After Dark (1958), which chronicles detectives Vic Beaujac (Stacy Harris) and John Conroy (Actual New Orleans police Capt. Louis Sirgo) on their French Quarter beat following the murder of a local showgirl. The detectives eventually discover that deported mob boss Nick Livorno (Wilson Bourg) has snuck back into the country, and is dealing heroin through the quarter by hiding it within cigars.

Seeming to be a composite of a few episodes of N.O.P.D. (1955-1957), a Dragnet rip off which also starred Harris and Sirgo in their respective roles, New Orleans After Dark at first glance may look like a film noir, but is far too hokey to be labeled as one. The characters are painfully two dimensional, and the biggest moral quandary that one of the detectives faces is Conroy constantly telling his son that he can’t go fishing with him; which heartwarmingly gets resolved at the end. Even Stacy Harris, the only real actor on set, just seems to be doing an exaggerated deadpan impression of Joe Friday (Harris appeared in Dragnet, but as a Mickey Cohen-esque gangland boss, rather than a detective).

Worse than the film’s two main characters are its villains. Mob boss Livorno, “the Mad Killer and King of Bourbon Street”, is anything but. The dreary performance lacks any kind of charm or menace the archetypical film gangster should possess. Just as bad as Livorno are his boring henchmen: Pete (Bob Samuels), Blackie (Steve Lord), and Solitaire Bates (Frank Fiasconaro). The only henchmen that’s the least bit interesting is Omega Rivetti (Louis Gurvich); a heroin addicted hitman dubbed “The Cowboy Killer” by the press. In the best shot scene of the movie, the majority of the cinematography is unimaginable as the characters, is when Omega kills a potential witness in a crowded French Quarter music club.

Though it has many faults, New Orleans After Dark is not a complete waste. Filmed entirely on location in the French Quarter, it’s interesting to see the bright signs of actual Mafia controlled bars, like Peter Marcello’s Sho-Bar and Marcello bookmaker Sam Saia’s Felix’s Bar, in the background to help set the atmosphere of the movie. It’s also just a treat to see the French Quarter in the 1950s, especially bars that are still open today, like Pat O’ Brien’s.

Obviously, the character of Livorno is loosely based off of the career of Orleans Mafia boss Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla. During the course of the film, it’s mentioned that Livorno served time in prison for violating the Harrison Narcotics Act and was eventually deported by the United States government. In 1936, Carolla would serve a five year sentence for violating the Harrison Narcotics Act, and would eventually be deported in 1947. Livorno snuck back into the country almost immediately after his deportation to establish a trans-Atlantic heroin smuggling operation. Carolla was caught in a “luxurious hideaway” in Slidell, Louisiana, along with Salvatore Guarneiri, in July of 1950; and was quickly deported (Carolla would later sneak back into New Orleans to stay. The press discovered him in New Orleans after he was hospitalized for a heart attack in 1970. He would remain in the crescent city until his death in 1972.)

Another thing that New Orleans After Dark has going for it is that it’s eerily prophetic.The film predicts the deportation troubles that Carolla’s successor, Carlos Marcello, would face once he became boss of the New Orleans Mafia. Marcello was also no stranger to selling drugs. Between 1930 and 1938, he was arrested six times for selling marijuana. On April 4th, 1961, Marcello, as an illegal alien, paid his tri monthly visit to the INS office on St. Charles Street. Marcello was quickly told that he was going to be deported to Guatemala (where his fake birth certificate said he was born), and two INS agents quickly entered the room and handcuffed him. Marcello was not allowed to make any phone calls, was put on a plane, and was transported to Guatemala. Marcello spent two months in exile before he snuck back into the United States.

The strangest connection (or coincidence, depending on how one looks at life), is the name of one of the women murdered in New Orleans After Dark: Mary Sherman. In the film, Mary Sherman (Kathyrn Copponex) is the roommate of a murdered prostitute, who has the potential of becoming a witness. This is what leads to her being killed by Rivetti. The 1964 murder of Dr. Mary Sherman became, and still is, one of the most notorious unsolved murders in New Orleans history. Far from just being a show girl’s roommate, Dr. Mary Sherman was an orthopedic surgeon and a leading cancer researcher at Tulane Medical School.

Dr. Sherman’s charred, dismembered body was found under a burning mattress in her St. Charles Ave apartment. Her liver, intestines, and lungs were exposed; she was also missing her right arm and torso (Crime scene photos are available online, and are obviously difficult to look at).

Conspiracy theories surrounding her murder are many. Some claim it was Carlos Marcello, after Dr. Sherman uncovered a narcotics smuggling operation where Latin Americans wrapped in casts were coming into Oschner Clinic and dropping off drugs. Other theories implicate Dr. Alton Oschner, the CIA, and Sherman herself working on mutating monkey viruses to be weaponized for the CIA to infect Cuban leader Fidel Castro. While working on the secret project, there was an accident, and Sherman was badly burned. Unable to take her to an emergency room, one of her colleagues killed her to keep the plot secret, then staged the murder in her apartment. You can read more about these theories in Edward T. Haslam’s Dr. Mary’s Monkey and Judyth Vary Baker’s Me and Lee.

The biggest problem with New Orleans After Dark is the source material that it’s ripping off. At a time where the N.O.P.D. was anything but (same with Dragnet and the LAPD), these officers are portrayed as straight laced, by the book, and largely uninteresting. The use of locals as actors in the film is a double edge sword; with flat, boring performances on one hand, but authentic jazz musicians on the other. But while saying that, it is impressive that Capt. Sirgo was on set during the day and worked homicide during the night through the run of N.O.P.D. Locals of New Orleans, or South Louisiana, would probably be the most interested in New Orleans After Dark purely for the novelty of seeing a French Quarter that doesn’t exist anymore. But if you’re looking for a gritty, hard hitting film noir that takes place in the Crescent City, skip New Orleans After Dark and watch Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950). Kazan also used locals as actors in his film, to some greater success (Wilson Bourg, who played Nick Livorno, appeared as a sailor in Kazan’s noir). If you’re also looking for an overdue gangster movie that takes place in the French Quarter, unfortunately, you have to keep waiting.

You can watch New Orleans After Dark for free on youtube, courtesy of
the Paramount Vault: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHAhwwWZzmI

New Orleans After Dark isn’t the end of the adventures of Detectives Beaujac and Conroy. They both return in Four for the Morgue (1962). Unfortunately, as of yet, the full film isn’t available online

*This post was written before I found an article of The Times Picayune stating that Carolla was indeed in the United States in 1950, and was deported soon after he was discovered.

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