Jim Stinson

Low Angles, A Stoney Winston mystery


Our own little Jackie Coogan shifted from foot to foot in the shadows just beyond the lit kitchen set, basking in the attentions of the makeup girl, the property master, and the teacher dispatched by the Los Angeles Unified School District to ensure that his thirst for knowledge was slaked even while performing in this soap commercial.

“Lift your face, honey.” The boy obeyed the makeup girl reluctantly, since he was three years older than he looked and his eye level was perfect for inspecting her chest.

He favored her with a melting gaze – one of his better models. “Not too much powder.” His incipient baritone would put him out of business in about six months.

“And keep his front curls high; we don’t want a shadow on his eyes.” His mother hovered too, skinny and tight as a banjo.

As production manager, I hadn’t much to do now that the shoot was almost over, so I wandered toward the sound stage door, winding around Century stands, director’s chairs, lights, and foam cups full of cigarette butts pickled in coffee. As I ambled into the corridor, the massive door thunked behind me like the hatch of a walk-in
meat locker.

Ken Simmons, the commercial’s producer, visible through the doorway of the lounge he was using as an office, clamped a phone receiver between chin and shoulder and waved me in. He mimed “be just a minute” and resumed his conversation.

“What’s so bad about them?” Pause. “Alan, dailies are hard to judge without experience. They looked okay to....” Pause. “Well....” Longer pause. “Well, Alan, I hear what you’re saying, but....” Very long pause.

I collected two half-donuts and my tenth foam cup of coffee from a side table and sat down to watch Ken through a foreground of Italian loafers propped on the table. Even Ken’s soles looked glossy, as if he shined them nightly. He dresses for the Polo Lounge in the perpetual hope that one day he will be big enough to do business there.

But not quite yet: “Alan, where am I going to get the budget for that?”

Ken is fifty, with a body that looks forty and eyes that no longer admit their age – or very much else. While he listened, he smoothed his curly black beard with a rubber oval set with stubby teeth, like the pad that holds bathroom soap.

“If you want to pay for it, you got it; it’s your money. I’ll find someone.” He looked at me as he said this.

“Talk to you later, Alan.”

He hung up, sighing, and pulled his feet off the table. “Got a sec, Stoney?”

“More like an hour, unless Fauntleroy decides to learn his lines.”

“Can’t the kid read cards?”

“Not in a tight two-shot; his eye-look’s wrong.”

Ken sighed again, then glanced at the phone as if his recent caller were somehow inside it. “Know Alan Greystoke?”

“If his nickname’s Tarzan.”

“Yeah, he did change it from something else. Alan’s got a lot of money from, well, someplace – and he likes to play with business ventures.”

I dunked a donut, which disintegrated in the coffee.

“Import-export, mail order houses, things like that. Now he’s backing a movie. I packaged it for him.”

“And he doesn’t like the dailies he’s seeing.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s seeing, but yeah, he doesn’t like them.”

“What’s he want you to do, fire the director?”

Ken stood up, shaking his head impatiently. “He says he wants to help her.”

“Help. Her.”

“Name’s Diane LaMotta – out of New York, I think.”

“I don’t know her.”

“You wouldn’t; it’s her first feature. Anyway, Alan wants someone to go up there and bail her out.”

“Where’s up there?

“In the San Gabriel mountains – about an hour away.” He parked his eighty dollar pants on the front edge of the table. “Want to take a shot at it?”

Did I want to walk into the middle of a production, tackle an unknown director, work twenty-four hours a day on a nickel budget to finish a fire-sale picture? Masochism is not among my many vices. “Let’s just say my enthusiasm knows bounds.”

“It’s seven-fifty a week for three weeks.”

Visions of rent money danced in my head. “All right; for twenty two-fifty I’ll fake it.”

“Thanks, Stoney. I don’t like it either, but Alan calls the shots.” I nodded.

“And keep out of trouble, right?” When I repeated the nod, Ken opened his anorexic briefcase, the type that proclaims its owner too important to carry anything thicker than a bank book. “You better run down and see him. Here’s his office address – and oh, here’s your check for today’s shoot.”

“ ‘Preciate it. I hope you’ll call me again, Ken.”

“Don’t get greedy.” He flashed his hey-just-kidding smile. Ken never makes a joke without scoring underneath. We’ve been friends for years, but he’s the one who gives the work and I’m the one who takes it. Occasionally he likes to remind me.

On my way out, I strolled up the hallway, guessing the identities of the “stars” hanging there in 8x10 frames; each actor posed with the eager, chubby owner of the little studio; each print inked with show-biz greetings. To my pal Jack. Best regards to fabulous Jack. Snappy clothes three decades old and faces as forgotten as a dead bookie’s. Jack too had gone to his Reward one day during the fourth race at Santa Anita, and now they all hung together in the perpetual fluorescent glare of the hallway, a necropolis of Hollywood also-rans.

But who was I to criticize? Stoney Winston: failed actor and unsold writer, marginal freelance editor, production manager, and even director if the film was safely short, cheap, and trivial. I’d never worked in a big studio like Warners or Universal and never seen a budget over two hundred thousand. It’s hard to be more also-ran than that.

Selected Works

Tassy Morgan's Bluff
A wry. funny introduction to the quirky inhabitants of a small town on the breathtakingly scenic northern tip of California.
College textbook
Video: Digital Communication and Production
A complete introductory course in professional media production
Double Exposure, a Stoney Winston mystery
A missing girl, a porno ring, and a randy evangelist lure Stoney into arson, murder, and other inconveniences.
Low Angles, A Stoney Winston mystery
Mayhem and murder on location, as Stoney helps produce a Hell's Angels biker epic.

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