Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Country note

I admire (although not worship) the Coen Brothers-Cormac McCarthy collaboration No Country for Old Men (which I reviewed here). While watching the movie, something unusual struck me. A weird coincidence. Or perhaps a non-coincidence. In fact, that is what's interesting about it.

You must understand that I share one big thing in common with the great American author Cormac McCarthy. We both have spent considerable portions of our lives living in El Paso, Texas. I grew up there. He spent most of his adult life there. Which explains why No Country for Old Men revolves around a drug deal gone bad in the arid desert of West Texas about 1980. The hit man sent to recover the drug money, played by Javier Bardem, is named Anton Chigurh. To an El Pasoan, that name can’t help but ring a bell.

One of the big drug kingpins in the Southwest in the 1970s was allegedly an El Pasoan, Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra. He was (and presumably still is) a colorful character. Raised in a Lebanese family who moved up from Mexico, he spent much of his riches gambling in Las Vegas. He was once presented with a trophy by a Vegas hotel staff recognizing him as their most generous tipper. Ever. His brother Lee, until his murder in 1978, was a flamboyant El Paso defense attorney, noted for representing drug suspects, often successfully. As an El Pasoan, it’s hard not to notice that the two names – Chagra and Chigurh – share the same consonants.

Now, I can't say for sure that this is the case, and you would not have seen any member of the Chagra family stalking through West Texas on a killing spree. Whatever was done or not done, it was white-collar. However, if I were a novelist writing a book about drug trafficking in and around El Paso circa 1980, I might be tempted to play around with the name Chagra.

Now this is where it starts getting really interesting. The most infamous event involving the Chagra family took place in 1979. While walking in a San Antonio parking lot, Federal Judge John Wood was shot and killed by a hidden gunman. Wood’s nickname was “Maximum John.” When it came to drug sentencing, he threw the book, the galleys, the sequel and the original manuscript. His shooting was the first assassination of a federal judge in nearly a century. And it happened on the eve of the trial of Jimmy Chagra on drug trafficking charges in Wood’s courtroom.

In the coming years, several members of the Chagra family would serve time related to the purported murder conspiracy. Curiously, one who served zero was Jimmy Chagra himself. He would be acquitted of a murder conspiracy charge, but found guilty on a drug trafficking charge and sent to prison until early this decade. (Naturally, someone is writing a film script.)

Now here’s the big twist that brings it back to the film ….. the man convicted of accepting $250,000 to do the shooting? The late Charles Harrelson. The father of Woody Harrelson. Who appears in this movie. Not only does he appear in the movie. He’s the only person in the movie who is said to be able to recognize the killer.

So is that coincidence, or casting? I don’t know. Certainly Harrelson has worked for the Coens before. Maybe no one thought about this. But I have my sneaking suspicion.


Pinko said...

Nice stuff. El Paso must have been an interesting place in the 70s.

Anonymous said...

nice stuff ... i read this after reading and commenting on H-Wood Elsewhere - berg ... didnt the druglord try to bust out of prison surrounded by hostages and blackboards that they rolled in between them and the guards

r. radewicz said...

Keep writing this kind of stuff.
Now I am going to see the movie.

Anonymous said...

I'm from El Paso myself (still live there as a matter of fact)and always thought that Gary Cartwright's book, "Dirty Dealing," would make a good film. Its pretty much the definitive account of the Chagra family saga. Incidentally, I live just up the street from what was Lee's estate in the Upper Valley.

Anonymous said...

I recently finished a screenplay inspired by the Chagra Brothers called 7-Out. If there are any industry professionals interested in a copy you can contact me through a google search of Chagra Screenplay. Very interesting story that I am sure will find its way to the big screen.

K. Bowen said...

For the record ....

1) Interesting comment about the jailbreak. I don't really know about that episode.

2) I kept coming across "Dirty Dealing" on the Internet while reading up on this stuff. Sounds like a very interesting read.

Thank you for the visit, everyone!