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May 5, 2021

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Portland underworld scandal in 1950s pitted gangsters against Hollywood; B-movie reshoots compare city then and now

The Columbian
Published:

It was the movie Portland’s gangsters didn’t want you to see.

In July 1957, some of the men facing charges in the city’s ongoing vice probe called the soon-to-be-released “Portland Exposé” a “farce” and “utterly fantastic.” They promised to get an injunction to keep it from being shown in Multnomah County.

Wallace Turner and William Lambert, the two reporters from The Oregonian who had exposed those gangsters’ illicit schemes, didn’t want you to see the B-movie, either.

“Portland Exposé,” wrote the reporters, was “80 minutes of hilariously confused celluloid frappe purporting to tell the story of Portland’s vice and corruption investigation.”

At least Portlanders would get to see their town on the big screen. The movie was filmed in the Rose City, a rare thing in the 1950s.

More than six decades later, that opportunity to gawk at a movie version of Portland is still appealing, which is why an outfit called Then and Now recently created a split-screen video that shows filmed-in-town scenes from “Portland Exposé” next to the nearly identical shots from the same places in 2019. You get time-warp glimpses of the Portland Towers Apartments, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Union Station, the Pearl Auto Park and other spots. (The entire movie is available on Amazon Prime Video.)

But there was no YouTube or Amazon in 1957. And so Portlanders back then had trouble seeing their city onscreen, thanks to the legal threats of those under indictment.

“Portland Exposé” was supposed to open at three suburban drive-in theaters in August of ’57, but it was pulled at the eleventh hour. The owner of the drive-ins, Al Foreman, told news outlets he had decided, on the advice of his lawyer, “not to show the film because of its controversial nature and because of the great number of cases in the Portland investigation still unsolved.”

The movie also failed to open as planned at two theaters in Portland itself.

One unnamed “movie man” told The Oregonian that theater owners and the film’s producers relished a showdown over the right to exhibit “Portland Exposé”

“That’s fine,” he said. “They get an injunction, we make ’em post bond, then we sue ’em. That makes us more money than showing the picture.”

This also was a good strategy because the movie was pretty awful. Two months after the aborted Oregon premiere, “Portland Exposé” opened in Washington, D.C., with ads blaring: “The Picture They Tried to Stop.” Critics in the nation’s capital panned it.

The Washington Daily News said the movie appeared “to have been ground out in a record eight hours” on a $40 budget.

For Turner and Lambert, however, the film’s production values weren’t what grated. They had landed the story “despite … the risk of reprisal from lawless elements,” the Pulitzer Prizes board noted when it awarded the men its local-reporting laurels. And so the reporters took offense at director Harold Schuster Hollywooding it up.

“The film bears only the most casual relationship to what happened in Portland,” they wrote.

The true story, as told by Turner and Lambert in a series of articles in 1956, involved local vice lord “Big Jim” Elkins squaring off against a group of Seattle gangsters and Oregon Teamsters, who jointly were trying to muscle in on Elkins’ business. Multnomah County District Attorney William Langley backed the attempt to push Elkins aside – so long as the D.A. got his cut.

“We should get rid of the character,” Langley said at one point in a secretly taped conversation, suggesting that his Seattle partners do more than intimidate Elkins. “He’s cheated me and he’s horsing you guys around. You got too much – you got too damned much patience with him.”

These revelations were explosive enough that the story went national, prompting an investigation by a U.S. Senate select committee on labor racketeering, led by committee counsel Robert F. Kennedy.

It was all too complicated for a quickie B-movie. “Portland Exposé” focused on a tavern owner played by Edward Binns (you might know him from supporting roles in “12 Angry Men” and “Patton”) who found himself reeled into underworld machinations after he put a pinball machine in his establishment.

A pinball machine? That’s right – they were illegal in Portland at the time, viewed as corruption starter kits. This attitude wasn’t an aberration reserved for the supposedly buttoned-up Eisenhower era. Twenty years later, when Portland officials were looking at finally legalizing pinball wizardry, the police still resisted.

“Once you pay off a policeman to overlook some nickel-and-dime pinball gambling, it doesn’t take a lot more to pay him off to overlook prostitution and narcotics,” Portland police Capt. Norman Reiter argued in 1976.

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