Saturday, May 30, 2009

1931: M (Fritz Lang)

Released: May 11, 1931 (Germany)

Director: Fritz Lang; Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen; Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner; Studio: Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH; Producer: Seymour Nebenzal

Cast: Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker), Theodore Loos (Inspector Groeber)

Released nearly 80 years ago, Fritz Lang’s first foray into talking films is every bit as thrilling as it surely must have been upon its premiere. It is rightfully viewed as the granddaddy of all of the serial killer films that have been made since, but few have even approached the heights reached by this 1931 masterpiece. While Lang skillfully explores the psyche of a seemingly average man who impulsively kills, and the circumstances that have driven him to murder, he manages to navigate his film into territory that its successors never effectively manage. To be sure, M is the story of a serial killer. But the true strength of the film, and what separates it from so many imitators, lies in Lang’s ability to construct an authentic city that is palpably stricken by terror. He allows the audience to witness how different segments of this society – rich and poor, underworld and upper, legal and illegal – respond to this fear and how each attempt to solve the mystery.

Fritz Lang was already a critically-acclaimed director, having made some of the most celebrated silent films of the 1920s. Even now many of his early silents such as Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, and Spies are still considered among the best work in the history of German cinema. Metropolis is even mentioned among the greatest films ever made. After making just two films in his homeland in the 1930s (this and 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), Lang would move onto a highly successful career in Hollywood that lasted twenty years and produced classics such as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. But it is very hard to refute the claim that with M, Lang reached his artistic zenith. It is an exquisite combination of his technical skill and masterly storytelling.

The story is as straightforward as it is chilling. Young girls are going missing in Berlin, creating paranoia through every level of society. The opening scene encapsulates this feeling, as it shows a group of schoolchildren playing a game involving a song about a nasty man who will come and chop them up. The children seem oblivious to the danger, but the fear of the adults is illustrated by a nearby woman scolding them for singing such a song. Very early in the film, we see the killer’s mode of operation, as he approaches a young girl walking home from school. He woos young Elsie Beckmann by complimenting her on the ball that she is playing with and buying her a balloon. When Elsie still has not returned home hours later, her mother becomes frantic. It is in these sequences that Lang demonstrates how he can unnerve an audience without showing a single act of violence. When he shoots Elsie’s ball coming to rest in the dirt and her recently purchased balloon floating into power lines, the message is clear: the killer has claimed another victim.

The murders naturally become the top priority of the police, who have thus far been unable to track the perpetrator. The film incorporates investigative technology that at the time of release would have been seen as quite innovative – procedures such as analyzing notes that the killer has written in hopes of gleaning any useful information or comparing fingerprints. Led by Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), the police begin to stage full-scale raids on all known underworld establishments. In the hopes of shaking things up and possibly getting someone to talk, the police begin rounding up all known criminals and questioning anyone found in these raided establishments. While the raids fail to turn up the killer, they seriously disturb the business of the underworld. Unable to operate as freely as before, many top criminals in Berlin come together to discuss what can be done about the situation. Realizing that the raids will continue so long as the killer is at large, the gangsters decide to deal with the matter themselves. Under the leadership of gang leader Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens), the hoodlums unleash the full machinery of the underworld, including a beggar’s organization to gather intelligence, in hopes of catching the killer and quickly disposing of him.

Thus, the race is on between the police and the underworld to see who can track the killer fastest. The suspense of the film is entirely the result of this chase, as the identity of the serial killer really is not a mystery. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is seen via his shadow and in profile early in the film with the abduction of Elsie. Less than midway through, there is a perfectly clear shot of Beckert staring at himself in a mirror as he awkwardly contorts his face with his hands. For such an iconic performance, Lorre’s on-screen time is actually sparse. But the reason that the character is so well-remembered is that Lorre makes this limited time count. While it would be a stretch to say that he induces sympathy, what Lorre is able to do is to make the audience at least question why Beckert does such terrible things. Through Lorre’s expressions and body language, we see the anguish that Beckert goes through at the mere sight of a young girl. It appears that he is fighting himself not to act on the urge, but that he simply cannot overcome it. The actions are still reprehensible, but Lorre is able to get the viewer to root for him to at least resist the horrible urge.

The underworld is ultimately the pursuer that catches the killer following an exciting chase in which they are able to track Beckert due to a large chalk “M” being placed on the back of his coat by a local vendor. Realizing that he is about to be convicted before a kangaroo court, Beckert makes an impassioned plea for his life, arguing that he has no control over his urges. It not only might be Lorre’s shining moment in this film, but the shining moment of his entire career.

I’m obviously on record as declaring that I think this is the best film that Fritz Lang ever made. Aside from the compelling plot, it is just an absolutely showcase for all of Lang’s talents as a director. The man could create atmosphere better than anyone. As I said at the beginning of the article, the true strength of the film is in how Lang portrays the response from diverse levels of society. The lower class must continue to go about their routine, working and hoping to avoid the killer. As one of the washerwomen in the first scenes remarks, they only want to be able to hear the voices of their children to know that they are safe. The affluent, meanwhile are more proactive, as Lang demonstrates by showing them waiting outside the school with cars to pick up their children. Both are equally terrified. There is a great scene in which a man innocently approaches a girl on the street and is mistaken for the killer. He did nothing more than speak to the child, but the public became so anxious to apprehend someone that they immediately jump to conclusions and attack.

The parallels between the police and hoodlums are even more fascinating. The police are frantic, trying to figure out ways to develop any clues that could lead to the killer. The gangsters, men who specialize in vice, assert that a man who targets children is despicable even to them – as Schränker declares, “We are not on the level of this murderer.” Both groups want nothing more than to have this man off the street. My favorite sequence in the entire film shows Lang to be a master of editing. He shows both the gangsters and the police engaged in conferences to determine how to go about getting rid of the child murderer. Lang seamlessly cuts back and forth between the two conclaves, sometimes even in mid-sentence, as Inspector Groeber (Theodore Loos) finishes a thought begun by the gangster Schränker. He alternates between suggestions by law enforcement on how to catch the criminal and those from the hoodlums who have the same goal. There are no overly technical tricks involved, just astute editing, but it’s an incredibly fresh way to show the action.

The other thing that struck me is how effectively Lang was able to utilize sound. This was his first film with sound and he wisely used it very efficiently. It is not bogged down by too much dialog. And he used key sounds such as Beckert’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” to play an integral part in the direction of the story.

For a film dealing with such weighty issues and despicable crimes, this is one that is surprisingly entertaining to watch. The reason is that it is a joy to see a master like Lang at work. He is in complete control throughout the entire film.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1931: I have to admit that there wasn’t much hesitation in making my choice for 1931. It was very clear that this would be my selection. But the ease was the result of M being such a great film, not due to lack of contenders. The seminal gangster film Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy) is outstanding and features Edward G. Robinson’s breakout performance as Rico Bandello. Some list Little Caesar as being from 1930, but its official release date was 1931 from every source that I've seen. I’ve previously reviewed The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman) and love Jimmy Cagney as Tom Powers. But the strongest challenge – and the film that I suspect most would choose for 1931 – came from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. It’s not my personal favorite Chaplin film (that one will be included later in this countdown), but its greatness is undeniable.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

1930: Der blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg)

Released: April 1, 1930 (Germany)

a.k.a: The Blue Angel

Director: Josef von Sternberg; Screenplay: Heinrich Mann (based on his own novel), Carl Zuckmayer, Karl Vollmöller, Robert Liebmann, Josef von Sternberg; Cinematography: Günther Rittau; Studio: UFA; Producer: Erich Pommer

Cast: Emil Jannings (Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (Kiepert), Rosa Valetti (Guste), Hans Albers (Mazeppa)

Time to get the ball rolling on the countdown... so, we begin in 1930.

- "I don't get it... an educated man like you, all for some dame."

There are certain films that I think very highly of but rarely watch. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be the case, but the most likely explanation is that some films are just so draining that it can be challenging to repeatedly subject myself to it. The Blue Angel is the epitome of such a film. This story of a man who voluntarily abandons a successful way of life after one memorable night with a seductive woman is unnerving. Yet, the power of the two lead performances is so strong that it was impossible for me not to be captivated by this man’s descent into a nightmarish existence. The fact that the film is disturbing and at times unpleasant to watch only reinforces how effective it is.

The story centers upon Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), a middle-aged college professor who lives a highly structured life. Each day follows a similar routine, involving his housekeeper waking him for breakfast, eating alone, and then to the school to instruct his teenage students. When he finds a group of his students gawking at postcards of a scantily clad woman, he discovers that the pictures are of a woman who sings at a local club called The Blue Angel. After he finds out that the students have been sneaking into the club late at night, he sets out for The Blue Angel determined to catch them in the act.

While there, Rath meets the woman of the postcard, singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). After a tense first meeting, Rath returns to the club the following night. He is enchanted with this beautiful woman. After running off a customer making unwelcome advances toward Lola, Rath is seen by her in a new light. Warming up to this stiff academic, Lola suddenly begins to shower him with attention. He spends the rest of the evening with her, drinking and watching her perform, and ends up staying overnight. By the next morning, when he returns to school, Rath has made up his mind that he is going to marry Lola. He tells the director of the school as much and then proceeds to go back to The Blue Angel and propose. Now married to a risqué lounge singer, his career as a teacher is over and he goes on the road with the traveling troupe that Lola is a member of.

It is while on the road that Rath begins to lose control. Quickly spending all of the money he had saved, Rath is forced to begin peddling postcards of his wife in order to supplement Lola’s earnings as a singer. When not even this is enough to live comfortably, Rath further denigrates himself by becoming a clown that assists the troupe’s director and magician with his act. He is completely rundown, and judging by the emotions that Jannings is able to convey simply through facial expressions, he feels ridiculous. Rath openly and vocally despises what he has become, but seems to be clueless to any alternatives. Additionally, whatever love once existed between him and Lola appears to have completely dissolved. When the group makes a return trip to his hometown for a performance at The Blue Angel, Rath reaches a breaking point. The humiliation of performing in front of his former colleagues and students drives him over the edge.

My experience with the films of Joseph von Sternberg is limited and this 1930 German release was my introduction to his work. As a director that would ultimately come to be viewed as a key influence upon the later era of film noir, I came in fully expecting a film that was bleak in outlook. As can probably be interpreted from the introduction to this piece, the film more than fulfilled that expectation. What I did not anticipate is how adept von Sternberg would be in altering the tone in mid-film. This is not a movie that is melancholy the entire way through. For half of the film, von Sternberg is able to create a very enjoyable light comedy. The cat-and-mouse game played between Rath and his students is funny, with the workers at The Blue Angel realizing what is happening and contributing to the professor’s challenge. The workers understand how uncomfortable Rath initially is when he comes to the club, and they play on this nervousness. Lola embarrasses him by doing things like undressing just out of sight and dropping her underwear down onto his shoulder. While they are somewhat mocking of the professor, these antics come across as funny and very innocent.

But when von Sternberg does change the tone of the film, it is a complete reversal. From the point that Rath begins working as an entertainer for the troupe until the end, there is nothing good-natured in the entire film. The atmosphere becomes very gloomy and it is here that Emil Jannings truly begins to shine. He is excellent as the bumbling professor, running around trying to catch his students at the club. But as a man struggling to maintain his dignity, he is even better. Jannings was already a very accomplished actor prior to this film. In fact, he had won the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928 on the strength of two roles he played that year (in von Sternberg’s The Last Command and Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh). His reputation was built on his work in silent films, but with the arrival of the talkies, he left Hollywood and returned to his native Europe. In The Blue Angel, this silent film background is fitting. With very little dialog, Jannings is able to convey the shame that Rath feels toward what he has become. Watching his facial expressions as he begins to apply the makeup for his clown costume, the sense of embarrassment is quite clear. While not completely silent, the final freakout by Rath when the troupe returns to The Blue Angel is as disturbing as anything from a horror movie. His guttural screams as he attacks Lola demonstrate that he has completely lost his grip on his sanity.

While Jannings’ performance is the most powerful, the most significant impact of this film was the introduction of Marlene Dietrich. This was her breakthrough and brought her international fame. The strength of Dietrich in this film is the ability to project a very sexy and alluring image. Lola is a manipulative woman, someone that relies on sex appeal to achieve her own designs. Dietrich, with her stunning beauty and assertive attitude in the role, plays the character as it needs to be done. At the time of release, the consensus opinion was that Dietrich had stolen the show from Jannings.

In the midst of this praise, I have to acknowledge that this is far from a perfect film. There are scenes that seem entirely superfluous and that would not have been missed had they been completely cut – for example, a scene with the entire troupe around a dinner table celebrating the wedding of Lola and Rath. Some would argue that the entire relationship between the two is outlandish in the way that Rath becomes completely enamored after just one night. The pace of the story is wandering, just flowing from one point to the next without many real ups or downs until the whirlwind finish. While it worked for me, there were times where even I grew concerned that it was about to seriously drag.

There are even deeper interpretations of the film that many critics have put forth, but I’m far from qualified to comment on whether this truly was a parable for the decline of Germany in the period between the two world wars. Von Sternberg is on record declaring that he didn’t intentionally include such a message. What I do know is that he crafted a film that is intriguing in the way it is able to very quickly change from a lighthearted comedy to a bleakly tragic tale. In the process, there are images and scenes that are not easily forgotten.

Rating: 8/10

NOTE: The film was actually shot simultaneously in German and English. The Kino DVD release includes both versions. I have personally only seen the German version and from all accounts, some of the expressiveness of the dialog is lost when the actors are speaking English. Not having seen it, I can't comment on how accurate that is.

Other Contenders for 1930:
All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone) was close, but the “preachy” feeling of some of the dialog holds it back somewhat for me.

-Let the debates begin. I feel absolutely certain that this one is different from what others would pick for the #1 of 1930.

Year's Best Countdown

The premise for this entire countdown is pretty self explanatory, but I figured that it was worthwhile to put up an introduction to at least lay out how it will be run and how I’m picking the films involved. Since there seemed to be some positive reaction to the idea when I floated it a few days ago, I’ve decided to move forward with it and have already begun compiling my list and writing the first few reviews. Starting with the year 1930, I will select my #1 film for each year and do my usual review and write-up about it. Once the series has begun, a new year will be covered every few days. The choices that I make will take into consideration concepts such as “greatness” (however definitively that can be defined) and historical significance to a certain degree, but this is not going to be the guiding principle. I can envision nothing more boring than a list made up of all the old warhorses and canonized “great films.” To be sure, many of these warhorses are going to pop anyway, as some of them are among my favorite films, but I can almost guarantee that there will be some surprises and that is precisely the point – hopefully everybody involved will have a different take and we can generate some interesting discussions and debates on the best of each year.

The list will be unique. As I said, expect a lot of the usual suspects to pop up. I don’t ever apologize for loving a lot of wildly popular and commonly praised films. But there will also be plenty of surprises, as there are certainly films that I have a personal attachment to or that I think more highly of than most others. I consider myself a very well-rounded film lover, but I haven't seen everything, so it's possible that some films may be overlooked due simply to having not seen it. Anticipate long stretches of Hollywood-centric selections, but not the complete exclusion of world cinema. And don’t be surprised by some interesting ratings for each film. Since I’m picking the best of each year, there are going to be a lot of Perfect 10s, so that subsection of the site will begin to grow. But don’t be surprised to see a lot of 9s and even 8s chosen as my top choice for a given year. It may seem low for something considered the best of an entire year, but it’s not. These are still good ratings and movies I admire.

Finally, I must give credit to those that inspired me to attempt this countdown. Roger Ebert’s Great Movies was certainly an influence and made me realize how much I wanted to try and pen some thoughts on my own favorite films. Ed Howard’s Films I Love series at the excellent Only The Cinema blog had a very similar impact. And, as I stated in a previous post, the outstanding Wonders in the Dark blog, run by Sam Juliano and Allan Fish, and their lists and polls of the greatest films of each decade gave me the final nudge to go forward with this idea.

I know, I know, this is nothing revolutionary, but I thought it worthwhile to at least introduce the countdown and encourage everybody who stops by the blog to be involved. If you agree with any selections, or if you think I’m a completely delusional windbag who chooses terrible films, let me know about it! Leave comments… agree, criticize, declare your own pick for each year. This should be interesting and highly entertaining for me as I go back through my all-time favorites.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

Released: September 2, 1949 (U.S.)

Director: Raoul Walsh; Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on story by Virginia Kellogg; Cinematography: Sidney Hickox; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Louis F. Edelman; Music: Max Steiner

Cast: James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett), Edmond O’Brien (Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon), Steve Cochran (Big Ed Somers), John Archer (Philip Evans)

- "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"

After chronicling three superlative performances by James Cagney through many of his gangster roles of the 1930s and 40s, I can’t believe I am about to say this, but this role might be his best. It is an entirely different beast from the other characters that he had previously played. Rocky Sullivan and Eddie Bartlett were at least moderately sympathetic, continually displaying goodhearted qualities in between their illicit activities. Even Tom Powers, vicious as he could be, found redemption before his kidnapping at the end of The Public Enemy. There are no such redeemable qualities in Cody Jarrett. He is an unequivocal sociopath, as ferocious as any character ever committed to celluloid up to that point in time. Cody never even pretends to seek redemption.

In White Heat, Cagney is reunited with director Raoul Walsh, a duo with a proven track record. But this is a different film from their previous effort, The Roaring Twenties, and not just because of the sadistic character played by Cagney. Most critics and observers refer to White Heat as the final chapter of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films. I contend (as I did in my earlier review of The Roaring Twenties), that this is not entirely accurate and that White Heat has actually moved into a different area of the crime drama. The Roaring Twenties contains all of the archetypal elements of the “classic” gangster film – big-city racketeers, syndicates, gang wars. White Heat, in contrast, has none of these. Cody Jarrett and his partners operate as a band of outlaws, actually more similar to the gangs of Jesse James and other western renegades than to Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

This is not at all a criticism. I just think it’s necessary to recognize that this film, released in 1949, bears a closer resemblance to film noir than to previous gangster efforts. Obviously, these two genres are not mutually exclusive, and ultimately it’s an argument of semantics. But it's an interesting issue to ponder, especially because White Heat’s place in the gangster cycle is unquestioned and oftentimes overshadows the great effort that was The Roaring Twenties. Looking at White Heat from a slightly different vantage point allows both films to shine for their own unique reasons.

The fact that Raoul Walsh is directing means that the action sequences of the film are top quality. The first scenes of the film are spectacular. It opens with sweeping shots of rural California, with plumes of smoke shooting into the air from a locomotive as it weaves its way through the mountains. Simultaneously, Cody and his men are moving into position to hijack the train. As the inside men on board overtake workers, Cody and henchman position themselves on the tracks. Once the engineer unwittingly begins to bring the train to a stop precisely where the gang wants them, the stunning scene of Cody Jarrett leaping from an overpass onto the moving train commences the robbery. This is not the most celebrated scene in the film (I’ll let you guess which one that would be), but it is arguably the most visually appealing. The team makes off with $300,000 of federal money, but it is not a perfect job. Gang member Zuckie (Ford Rainey) is severely burned by steam from the engine, and his health steadily declines as the gang holes up in the California mountains to avoid law enforcement.

While hiding in the mountains, the principal characters are introduced and the personalities that will contribute to the conflict throughout the film are on full display. We meet Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), a beautiful woman who loathes the lack of luxuries involved with life on the run. The various gang members are introduced, most notably Big Ed (Steve Cochran), a powerfully built underling who seems to have aspirations for control of the gang. Cody clearly has suspicions of this ambition, as well as the notion that Big Ed is trying to cozy up to Verna. Whenever the two come into close contact with each other – even for something innocuous as Verna pouring Big Ed a cup of coffee – Cody erupts in anger. Finally, and most importantly, is Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), the singular influence on the attitudes and actions of Cody. The elderly Ma distrusts everyone in the cabin other than her son, Verna included, and never hesitates to counsel caution and violence to keep Cody safe. Just witness her recommendation to Cody that they should not leave the injured Zuckie in the cabin to be found by police after the rest of the gang moves on. Her solution? Get rid of him. After all, he might talk.

It is in the cabin that another layer is added to the Cody Jarrett character, as he experiences a crippling headache that has him falling to the floor and grimacing in pain. Ma ushers him into a side bedroom so that the rest of the gang does not see him in such a helpless state. Cody is calmed by his mother and collects himself by sitting on his mother’s lap. This scene highlights the intriguing bond between mother and son, introducing something of an Oedipus dynamic to the relationship. Later in the film, when federal agents are discussing Cody, one remarks that as a child Cody would fake headaches in order to get his mother’s attention away from the rest of the family. But as he grew older, the imagined headaches became very real and reached the debilitating level that is witnessed in the cabin. Treasury Agent Philip Evans (John Archer) declares that “Any minute he’s apt to crack open at the seams.”

The opening train robbery essentially sets the stage for everything else that happens. After the gang leaves the mountains, they split up and continue to evade law enforcement. When the authorities finally catch up to Cody, he admits to pulling off a payroll robbery in a completely different state. By doing this, he hopes to receive less prison time than he would for the train robbery and the murder of one of the railroad men in the process. The Treasury agents on the train robbery case see through the ruse, but allow Cody to believe that he has outwitted them. Instead, the federal agents ensure that Cody’s story is accepted and that he is sent to prison in Illinois. Their plan is to install an undercover agent, Hank Fallon masquerading as inmate Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), as Cody’s cellmate in Springfield and attempt to uncover where the $300,000 from the train robbery is stashed.

Jarrett befriends Pardo and the two hatch an escape plan, which Fallon reports to the authorities. However, events in the outside world complicate things. Jarrett had earlier learned from Ma that Verna and Big Ed had run off together. Over Cody’s objections, Ma declares that she will find the couple and personally take care of Big Ed. On the planned day of his breakout, Cody learns that his Ma is dead, and he goes ballistic. Despite being held in a straightjacket after the eruption, Cody still manages to proceed with an escape. But it does not follow the plan that Fallon had outlined to federal agents, and thus the group of inmates are successful. Once out of jail, Cody immediately sets out to find Verna and Big Ed. When he finally does, he learns that Big Ed is the murderer of his beloved Ma. Verna manages to convince him that she had nothing to do with the murder, but Big Ed is not so fortunate. After dispatching Big Ed and seizing back control of his gang – which now includes an undercover agent – Cody proceeds to plan a daring payroll robbery. The plan he constructs is his version of the legend of the Trojan Horse. The thieves will hide in an oil tanker and will be let into the oil refinery without any problems.

The robbery, predictably, does not go as planned. When Cody and his men enter the refinery, they are quickly surrounded by law enforcement. True to his reputation, Cody refuses to surrender and continues fighting as he sees his partners shot down. Retreating to the top of a large tank of gas, Cody decides to make a stand. This final scene is without question the most celebrated in the entire film. It is as good (and explosive) as advertised, further reinforcing Walsh’s skill in creating tense action sequences. The entire oil refinery robbery is well-structured. Walsh does a great job of creating tension, by keeping the audience guessing as to how Vic Pardo is going to manage to alert authorities and keep himself from being discovered as a mole. It is a hard-charging final fifteen minutes to close the film, and the conclusion ranks among the most legendary in Hollywood history. As great as the conclusions to the other three films in this Cagney series are (with Angles With Dirty Faces being my personal favorite), this is the finish that is most likely to pop up in “greatest movie endings” lists.

While Rocky Sullivan is my personal favorite Cagney role, Cody Jarrett may very well be his most memorable. It is a character that sticks with you long after the film has ended. There were certainly evil characters before, but none seem to revel in the sadism as Cody does. It serves to create a very interesting perspective for the viewer. Who is the protagonist in the film? Who is the audience to root for in the contest between the criminals and the federal agents? Other Cagney films present an obvious answer, as even though the lead characters were admitted criminals and gangsters, they were shown to have at least some admirable qualities. This is not the case in White Heat. Outside of love for his mother, Cody possesses none of these. It is quite a feat that Walsh and Cagney are able to make the film work without a true hero for the audience to identify with. Cagney’s performance is so thrilling, that even if you aren’t rooting for Cody to succeed, you’re at the very least fascinated to see how far that he will make it.

Margaret Wycherly turns in an equally chilling performance. She makes Ma Jarrett nearly as vicious as Cody. The relationship between mother and son truly is bizarre. Sometimes it feels a bit over the top, such as the explaining of how the headaches were developed in childhood, but it’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever seen in crime films of the era.

I’ve made the bold statement that this may be Cagney’s best performance, but you’ll notice that I’ve been careful not to claim this to be his best film. While this is probably the most critically acclaimed of the four films I’ve reviewed in this series, I don't feel that it’s his best. As entertaining as it is, and as great as individual performances are, the story itself is not as compelling for me as in the other films. The reason may be that in the other classic films, there were equal foils to Cagney characters, creating a tension that added greatly to the story. Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties were able to rise to Cagney’s level. In White Heat, it is Cagney almost single-handedly carrying the show. He is more than up to the task, and while I wouldn’t rank it above the two previously mentioned films, it is still one that is influential and a major part of Hollywood history. I watch it regularly and Cagney’s performance never loses any of its edge.

Rating: 8/10

- NOTE: Aside from comments just on White Heat, feel free to discuss how you would rank the four Cagney films I've reviewed... I'd be interested to hear how everybody feels they stack up against each other.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Idea for future reviews...

After completing the quick cycle of Cagney films, I’ve been thinking about where I want to go now with my reviews. I know that the blog is only a little over one week old, but I think about such long-term plans, even if I’m not always able to stick to them. What I have been thinking about doing is begging to go through a series where I review my #1 film for each year. My reasoning for wanting to do this is two-fold. First, it would allow me to write about all-time favorite films, and in the process would begin to beef up the Perfect 10 Reviews section. Second, I think it could generate some great discussion for each year. My picks as my favorite film of any particular year obviously isn’t going to always be in line with what you guys think and it could generate some entertaining discussions. I think it would be fun to see how my choices compare to anybody that reads and care to comment. A key influence on my deciding to do this is the incredible polls run by Sam Juliano and Allan Fish at Wonders in the Dark (possibly my favorite movie blog on the ‘net), where they tabulate lists of the greatest films of each decade. But, this would be different as I wouldn’t be making any lists, just simply choosing a favorite for each year and offering my opinion on why I hold it in such high regard. Then, hopefully, there would be opinions offered from everybody who reads and agrees or disagrees.

I’m just throwing up this post to try and get any feedback from people who follow the blog to see if this would interest them. I would probably start around 1930 and go from there. If this is something that would be fun for folks who read my stuff, then I’ll definitely start work on it. If not, well, then I’ll be glad to find that out before I start the process! So, please feel free to let me know your thoughts on the idea.

And look for the White Heat review later tonight/tomorrow morning.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)

Released: October 23, 1939

Director: Raoul Walsh; Screenplay: Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, Robert Rossen based on story "The World Moves On" by Mark Hellinger; Cinematography: Ernest Haller; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Hal B. Wallis

James Cagney (Eddie Bartlett), Humphrey Bogart (George Halley), Gladys George (Panama Smith), Prsicilla Lane (Jean Sherman), Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd Hart), Frank McHugh (Danny Green), Paul Kelly (Nick Brown)

1939 truly was a momentous year in Hollywood. The number of films released that year that are still revered to this day is staggering. Gone With the Wind, Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights just to name the first that to come to mind. This is the likes of Fleming, Hawks, Lubitsch, Capra, and Ford at, or near, the top of their games. And yet, in my opinion, there is another deserving film released that year that is rarely mentioned in the same breath as these legendary pictures. Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties serves as a final statement of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films and I would contend that it is the best to come out of Hollywood in 1939.

James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart had worked together in two other films – in the same year’s The Oklahoma Kid and in 1938’s gangster classic Angels With Dirty Faces. In Angels With Dirty Faces, though, Bogart was playing something of a lesser role. In The Roaring Twenties, while Cagney was still receiving top billing, it is the tense interaction between him and Bogey that gives the film its unique perspective on the gangster genre.

While some have dismissed the tale as simply another take on the usual rise and fall gangster story, it is actually unique in the way that it’s told. Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett is certainly the primary character, but the story actually follows three men that are drawn into the rackets during the decade. Each of the three becomes involved for different reasons, and each possesses varying degrees of ruthlessness, but all three are shown to contribute to the legend of the decade known as the Roaring Twenties in some way.

The three men meet in a foxhole in France in the midst of World War I. Eddie, a good-natured mechanic, wishes nothing more than to return to New York and open his own garage. George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), possessing a more coldhearted disposition, is looking forward to running the saloon his father owns. The third man, Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) is the mild-mannered man of the trio. He is a recent law school graduate and plans to begin his practice once he makes it out of Europe. After the Armistice is signed, they return to the city and attempt to resume the lives they left before going to war but they find that times have changed. Eddie is under the impression that his old job as a mechanic will be waiting for him upon his return. Instead, he finds he has been replaced and that there is resentment felt toward the returning workers. In order to generate some income, Eddie begins driving the cab of his friend and roommate Danny (Frank McHugh). On one fare, a customer asks Eddie to deliver a bag of goods to someone named Panama Smith. When he does so, he unwittingly gets busted for delivering bootleg liquor and the two are arrested. Even though he had no part of the operation, Eddie refuses to testify against Panama (Gladys George). Panama appreciates the favor and in turn pays the fine levied against Eddie. Impressed by Eddie’s conduct, she offers to use her connections to set the two up in the bootlegging business. With no other prospects for work on the horizon, Eddie enters the rackets and prospers. He becomes incredibly wealthy, battling his way toward the top of the bootlegging business, while buying pieces of clubs and a fleet of taxicabs.

Lloyd, although not a direct participant in the rackets, is drawn into the periphery of the underworld while acting as Eddie’s lawyer. While brokering deals for Eddie to continue buying cabs, Lloyd begins to openly question his involvement in the shady activities. The relationship between Lloyd and his former army comrades is further complicated when he begins to fall in love with a singer/entertainer that Eddie has set up with a job in his club. The girl, Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), wrote to Eddie while she was in high school and he was fighting in Europe. When Eddie reconnects with her working as a chorus girl, he takes her under his wing and begins to develop an affection for her as well. The uneasy love triangle complicates all interaction between the three.

George, meanwhile, enters the rackets naturally. Due to being involved in the saloon business and possessing a ruthless streak dating back to the Army, it’s no surprise that he is in such a line of work. He begins captaining rum-running boats for the biggest racketeer in town, Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). While overseeing one such shipment he is reunited with Eddie, as Eddie and his gang come aboard and hijack the liquor. Rather than protect his employer’s product, George decides to instead partner with Eddie and expand their bootlegging operations. Once these various interconnected partnerships are established, the film begins to follow the forces that ultimately bring about Eddie Bartlett’s demise.

To understand the course of events of the film, it’s necessary to understand Eddie. He is a man who is attempting to cross over into areas which are unnatural to him. And this straddling both sides – both in his relationship with two potential love interests and in the underworld – eventually brings about the dramatic downfall. In his personal life, he very early finds a woman with whom he has much in common and is at ease with. Panama clearly has feelings for him, and even though he is not as open about it, Eddie obviously feels strongly about her. Even when he is wooing the younger Jean, Walsh highlights the almost subconscious affection Eddie shows toward Panama, such as when they are watching Jean audition and Eddie naturally reaches out and takes Panama’s hand. He is drawn toward Jean, the chorus girl who has more in common with the college-educated Lloyd. Yet, he never can completely distance himself from the relationship that he has established with Panama. When Jean eventually ends up marrying Lloyd, there is no surprise that Eddie sticks ever closer to Panama. As a gangster, he is an outsider. He is not a lifelong criminal, someone who has been groomed from a young age for a life of crime. Only after being unable to find work is he drawn into the business. Even though he becomes enamored of the money and power that comes with his status, there is always uneasiness about Eddie in the rackets.

This awkwardness is given emphasis through the relationship between Eddie and George. While Eddie enters the rackets somewhat reluctantly, George is a natural. He is unabashedly coldblooded, willing to deceive any partner or kill any enemy in order to achieve his ends. The interaction between Cagney and Bogart is at its absolute pinnacle in this film. They worked marvelously together in Angels With Dirty Faces, but their on-screen time was limited compared to this movie. The tension that underlies every meeting of the two men is palpable. These are old war buddies, men who literally were sitting together in foxholes and shooting at enemy Germans behind stone walls. They are business associates attempting to succeed in an increasingly dangerous business. They should be able to trust each other. And yet, no matter how friendly their interaction, there is a perpetual friction between them. Soon into their partnership, it becomes obvious that it is going to fall apart at some point. It is not a matter of if, but when. Most of this tension is played out in a war of words. This is where the two legendary actors shine. Bogart is tremendous as the conniving underboss. The viciousness he displays at times truly is astounding for a film of this era. It is through Bogart’s convincing performance as Hally that Eddie Bartlett is able be structured as such a tragic figure.

Eddie’s downward spiral is tragic because of where he lands in relation to George. Even though he was engaged in the same business as George, Eddie comes to be viewed sympathetically. Here is a man who was drawn to bootlegging due to lack of work. He was a gangster who tried to avoid violence, in contrast to George who was forever bloodthirsty. While it may not be entirely true, Eddie is portrayed as a good man at heart. Yet, when the Roaring Twenties come to a screeching halt with the stock market crash, which of the two men emerges unscathed? George. Eddie is penniless, back to driving a single cab, and increasingly dependent on the product that he used to peddle.

The original story, written by film producer Mark Hellinger is based on real-life events that Hellinger experienced. Hellinger points this out in an on-screen forward to the film, but does not tell precisely who or what specific events were used as his source material. However, it’s easy to pinpoint who the Eddie Bartlett is based on – gangster and Hell’s Kitchen native Larry Fay. Like the Bartlett character, Fay was a former cabbie who entered the bootlegging and nightclub businesses. After amassing a small fortune through liquor, he too began buying a fleet of taxicabs. At the end of the film, when Eddie tells George that people from Chicago offered him millions for his cabs, but he instead refused and is forced to sell to George for just $250,000, this is straight from an apocryphal Larry Fay story. While well-established among his contemporaries, Fay’s reputation in the underworld was known as a nonviolent gangster. Like Eddie, Fay lost a fortune when the stock market crashed, but was continually trying to find another angle back to the top. Fay was killed in 1933 by a disgruntled employee at a club he owned.

This film was the one that established Raoul Walsh’s reputation as a topflight action director. In particular, the shootout sequence between Eddie and rival Nick Brown and his henchmen is outstanding. As Eddie and his men enter the restaurant, the cameras are positioned at vantage points that give the audience the same vision as Brown and his men. Thus, you see Eddie and his men enter the club as if you personally are crouched and waiting to open fire on them. The patrons in the restaurant are used to build up the tension, as they panic just before the gunfire erupts. Then, the editing becomes very quick, cutting to the various gunmen as they unload their weapons. It is a great sequence and is eclipsed only by the famous death sequence that closes the film.

The structure of the film is a mixture of documentary style and traditional narrative. In hindsight, many such films that utilize the documentary style can come across as old-fashioned and very much an artifact of the era. In this case, it works quite well. This is due to the fact that the narration is used exclusively to fill in details concerning the decade of the 1920s. Since it’s not telling us about feelings or actions of the characters, it doesn’t feel obtrusive as narration often can. Instead, we learn about social developments of the 20s, creating the context for which the lives of Eddie, George, Panama and company progress. This is one of the few times that I didn’t find the documentary style to be incredibly corny.

Walsh would go on direct other celebrated crime dramas, most notably 1941’s High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and 1949’s White Heat with Cagney. However, The Roaring Twenties serves as a conclusion to a particular type of gangster film. While movies like High Sierra and White Heat are thematically similar to the classic era, they deal more with lone wolf outlaws. In this film, Walsh chronicles the famed hoodlums who built syndicates and roamed major cities like celebrities. Its story of the meteoric rise and disastrous fall of these men is the perfect capstone to the cycle.

Rating: 9/10

Cagney and O'Brien Interview

Here is a funny video pertaining to the latest review, Angels With Dirty Faces. This is an interview with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien from the 1970s for the BBC. The entire clip is only about two and a half minutes, but the best part is from about the 1:50 mark on. Cagney tells a story about a kid he meets who wants the real info on Rocky. This is funny stuff!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938)

Released: November 24, 1938

Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Rowland Brown, John Wexley, Warren Duff, Ben Hecht (uncredited), Charles MacArthur (uncredited); Cinematography: Sol Polito; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Samuel Bischoff

Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (James Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Ferguson), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), Dead End Kids

- "Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could."

As two boys busting into a freight car are spotted and surrounded by police officers, they decide to a make a run for it. Jumping out, they take off running, diving under nearby other railcars and avoiding oncoming trains. Nearing a fence, they are but a leap away from escape… but only one of them makes it over. Jerry, the quicker of the two, manages to avoid capture and is never tied to the attempted robbery. He goes on to become a priest and leader in his Lower East Side community. Meanwhile, his best friend Rocky is tight-lipped and takes the rap for both of them. He is shipped off to a boys’ reformatory, where instead of being rehabilitated he becomes schooled in the finer points of the underworld. Rocky goes on to pursue a career in crime, working his way up to being a leading racketeer in the city and building up bootlegging and gambling rackets in between several stints in prison.

And so begins this dramatic tale demonstrating the very fine line between sinner and saint. It’s a gangster film that examines why such characters exist. Are these criminals born or are they created? If the results had been reversed, would Rocky Sullivan have become a priest while Father Connolly shuffled in and out of jail? Not only is that question posed to the audience, but it also seems to weigh heavily on the consciences of the characters.

The story begins in earnest after Rocky emerges from a three-year bid for a crime committed with his lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). Rocky agrees to keep his mouth shut and do his time, but extracts an assurance from Frazier that the $100,000 he earned shortly before his arrest will be waiting for him when he gets out. Once out of jail, Rocky returns to his old neighborhood and begins reestablishing connections with former pals. He stops at the church to see Jerry (Pat O’Brien) and reminisce about their days as young punks on the street. After taking a room at a local boardinghouse, Rocky runs into a neighborhood girl that he has used to pick on when they were kids. Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan) is leery at first, but slowly begins to warm up to him.

Along the way Rocky becomes the key influence over a gang of young hoodlums played by the Dead End Kids. This group of incorrigible teenagers is much like Rocky and Jerry were in their youth, terrorizing the neighborhood and committing petty crimes. Father Connolly tries desperately to reach out to them, creating a recreation center to keep them off the streets. But he is no match for the charm of his old friend. Rocky Sullivan is a legend in their neighborhood and the kids idolize him. Rocky is accommodating to Jerry, encouraging the kids to participate in things like the Father’s afternoon basketball games.

In spite of this loyalty he displays toward Father Jerry, Rocky clearly revels in the adoration of the boys. He regales the gang with stories of his own childhood and uses them as couriers in situations when he has too much heat on himself. The influence of Rocky, including the instances in which he pays the gang handsomely for their help, is more than Jerry can combat. No matter how much gunplay and underworld action takes place, the true battle of the film is waged between the two friends over influencing the boys. Realizing this, Jerry makes it his mission to lead a public relations campaign to expose the corruption and crime throughout the city, even if that means taking Rocky down in the process. Rocky patronizingly gives him the green light to attempt the cleanup, telling Jerry that “You got about as much chance of getting an indictment as I’ve got of getting into bible society.”

No matter how involved Rocky becomes in his neighborhood, he never loses sight of his business interests. While he was away, Frazier rose to a powerful position in the underworld, teaming with Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) to seize control of the rackets. Rocky believes that he will now be collecting his $100,000 Frazier was holding and assume a powerful position in the organization. Frazier and Keefer have no intention of relinquishing such power to Sullivan. Frazier instead stalls Rocky, while secretly plotting to rub him out. When an attempted hit goes awry and Rocky kills his would-be assassins, the organization is thrown into turmoil. Rocky snatches Frazier, forces him to pay the debt, and muscles his way into the organization. Frazier and Keefer are no match for the hardened Sullivan, and they realize it as he outmaneuvers them at every turn. But they quickly recognize the one weak spot in Rocky’s gruff exterior – Father Connolly. When they move to eliminate Jerry, Rocky quickly comes to the defense of his friend.

Angels With Dirty Faces came seven years after James Cagney’s role as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and a strong case can be made that he eclipsed even that iconic performance. The criticism most often used against Cagney is the claim that he simply played the same character over and over again. It’s similar to the bunk used to try and diminish the acting of John Wayne as well. In both cases, the detractors are horribly misguided. Yes, there are similarities between the gangsters that Cagney portrayed throughout his career. But in each role, Cagney was able to add nuances that distinguished each individual character from any others. Rocky Sullivan is _not_ Tom Powers. And neither of them are Cody Jarrett or Eddie Bartlett (more on these two characters in the near future). For Rocky, it’s the trademark “Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?” phrase. It’s the quick shrug of the shoulders as he turns to exit a room. It’s the presence of some humanity that is lacking in other gangsters. Where Powers and Jarrett were sociopaths who seemed hell-bent on violence, Rocky Sullivan is constantly shown to possess redeemable qualities. His loyalty to his lifelong friend is unwavering, even when that friend is trying to dismantle his criminal empire.

As electric as Cagney is, this film is far from being solely his own. It would not have been the same without the direction of Michael Curtiz. While far from forgotten, Curtiz is underappreciated. The shadow cast by his most renowned film, Casablanca, seems too large for many of his other films to emerge from. He is often labeled a pawn of the Hollywood studio system, but that is an overly cynical analysis. While he was a principal of that system, one need only view a film like Angels With Dirty Faces to witness how successful he could be in manipulating that system to his own designs. Just witness the way that he uses smooth, simple, yet highly effective camera movement and brings the Lower East Side neighborhood to life (see above screen shot for an example). The viewer immediately gets the overcrowded feeling of tenement life and the swarming conditions in which Rocky and Jerry come of age. The bustling neighborhood takes on the status of a character itself. Above all, Curtiz was a master storyteller, a quality that is sometimes overlooked as people get swept up in technical achievements and innovation. He had a knack for extracting superlative performances from his leading actors.

Perhaps the best display of Curtiz’s significant contribution to the film is seen in his framing of the tour de force of an ending.

WARNING: As much as I hate to tell somebody to stop reading, if you haven’t seen the end of Angels With Dirty Faces, I beg you to stop now and see it ASAP before reading any kind of analysis on it. It is, in my opinion, among a handful of the best endings to ever come out of Hollywood and I don’t want to rob anyone of the joy that is watching it for the first time… after seeing it, though, make sure you come back and let me know what you think! For now, you can just skip down in the article to the “(/SPOILERS)” tag and continue.

Nowhere are Curtiz’s chops as a director on greater display. Jerry comes to Rocky in his final moments before going to his execution in order to ask a final favor of his pal. He wants Rocky to do the unthinkable – to “die yellow,” as an example to the Dead End Kids that he is not the hero they built him up to be. Rocky bristles at the idea, arguing that his reputation is the only thing he has left and he has no intention of ruining it with his final living action. The march to the death chamber, with Rocky and Jerry walking side by side is nothing short of beautiful. The hallway is ominously dark, with the silhouettes of the police officers trailing behind. The jail cells cast shadows onto the wall, creating the picturesque shot of Rocky walking through the bars and on toward his execution.

The moving conclusion can be read two different ways and apparently is still open to some debate. When Rocky inexplicably begins struggling and begging for his life just before being placed in the electric chair, is he going yellow or is he doing one final favor for Father Jerry? Cagney himself, when questioned about which theory was true, said that he meant for it to be ambiguous and left to the imagination of each viewer. I have no definitive answer as to which is true, but my high assessment of this film is built on the belief that Rocky was following through on what Jerry asked of him. Maybe it’s because I was completely drawn into the Rocky character and simply want to believe that is the case, but I think that the film works better when the ending is interpreted this way.

The ironic thing is that this is the only instance I can think of where having to conform to the Hays Code actually served to enhance an ending. In many crime dramas of the era, there is often the feeling of the story coming to a screeching halt in order to ensure there is time for the criminal to pay for his crimes. In this case, it never had the feel of a cop out, where the gangster has some magical “awakening” and then sees the error of his ways. It allows the Rocky character that was so charming throughout the entire film to retain his “self-respect,” at least between himself and Jerry, while at the same time delivering some form of redemption.


While O’Brien and Cagney are obviously the focus of the film, the supporting cast is still very good. Knowing the persona that he would go on to craft in the next decade, it’s always interesting to see Bogart playing one of his less savory roles. Although his on-screen time is limited, he brings just the right amount of sleaziness to the Frazier character. According to commentary on the excellent DVD release, the Ann Sheridan Laury character was originally slated to have a larger role in the story. While Sheridan does fine, it was a wise decision to pull the character back. The relationship between Rocky and Jerry deserved the bulk of the attention. The fact that Cagney and O'Brien were such good friends off-screen adds a touching element to the friendship that they are able to exhibit through Rocky and Jerry.

The only bum note for me is the Dead End Kids. I understand why they’re included, as they were wildly popular at the time. But there performance is the one aspect of the film that seems dated to me, coming across as very campy. This might simply be a sign of times having changed, but I think a more hard-edged group of teens would have been more effective than the slapstick routine of the Dead End Kids.

I can understand how some people might find it to be overly moralistic, but for me it works masterfully. There is a message being delivered, but the ingenuity of the finish is that it doesn’t force-feed that message to the viewer. It allows the social commentary to be delivered clearly, but it doesn’t completely discard the Rocky Sullivan character that had been cultivated so brilliantly over the course of the film. But it's not just the conclusion that is so captivating. It's beyond just that momentous scene -- it's also little things like the scene where Rocky tells Frazier that he'll take the three years in prison, but leaves an ominous warning to his lawyer: "Look, I know you're a smart lawyer... very smart. But don't get smart with me." It's only a minor couple of seconds in the film, and a lot of people probably never give it a second thought, but something about Cagney's delivery just gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. There are actually quite a few of these seemingly insignificant scenes throughout the film that are just magical.

I've wavered on whether or not to include this in the Perfect 10s. I understand that this is not a flawless film, but it's a prime example of one that has strengths that more than compensate for any weaknesses. It may be extremely subjective, but I can't resist making this entry #2 in the Perfect 10 Reviews section.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931)

[NOTE: This is the first of a series of reviews that will examine four seminal James Cagney gangster films: The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat. The other reviews will follow over the next few days.]

Released: April 23, 1931

Director: William A. Wellman; Screenplay: Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Harvey F. Thew; Cinematography: Devereaux Jennings; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck

Cast: James Cagney (Tom Powers), Jean Harlow (Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (Matt Doyle), Donald Cook (Mike Powers), Leslie Fenton (Nails Nathan), Beryl Mercer (Ma Powers), Robert O’Connor (Paddy Ryan), Murray Kennell (Putty Nose)

As part of the trio of films that ushered in the era of the classic gangster film (along with 1930’s Little Caesar and 1932’s Scarface), and also as the film that established James Cagney as the archetypal on-screen gangster, The Public Enemy is a movie that is of significant historical value. For these facts alone it’s worth still being seen today. Fortunately, 78 years after its release, after having the gangster genre explored in The Godfather, Goodfellas and a myriad of other films, The Public Enemy still holds up surprisingly well. It’s still relevant today because in it you can see the origins of many characteristics that would become staples of the gangster and crime films of the future.

With all due respect to Edward G. Robinson and his role in the previous year’s Little Caesar, it is Jimmy Cagney’s role in this film that set the standard and has endured to the present day. As a rising young gangster in the Chicago underworld, Tom Powers is cunning, ruthless, and possesses unbridled ambition. He is at times joking and lighthearted, as he pals around with longtime partner Matt Doyle (Edward Woods). But he can quickly turn vindictive and sadistic – witness the famous “grapefruit scene” where he shoves a grapefruit into the face of his girlfriend (Mae Clarke) or the grudge he holds against former employer Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell).

For me, it was impossible to look at the Tom Powers character and not see the prototype for future on-screen hoodlums like Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. The similarities are undeniable, and Cagney is able to masterfully have his character switch from periods of teasing and playfulness to unbridled rage in a flash. What makes this so impressive is that in many instances a character like this would come off as something of a schizophrenic and completely unbelievable. The beauty of Cagney’s performance is that he makes it feel authentic. He gives Tom Powers enough depth that the audience at times roots for the young hoodlum and at others hopes that he is made to pay dearly.

The irony is that according to Hollywood legend, Cagney was not originally supposed to play Tom, but instead to be the sidekick Matt Doyle. Edward Woods was slated as the lead. But soon into shooting, William Wellman decided to swap roles between the two… and the rest, as they say, is history. Woods is very good in his supporting role and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Cagney as Tom Powers.

So here is the proper time to stand and applaud director William Wellman for making what probably seemed like a minor decision at the time, but that would ultimately have very large implications on the development of the crime drama. Wellman is something of a forgotten man in film history, at least in comparison to many of his heralded contemporaries. His 1927 film Wings was awarded the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture, so he was already well established in Hollywood prior to making The Public Enemy. Later, he would go on to make highly successful films such as 1937’s A Star is Born and the legendary 1943 Western The Ox-Bow Incident. His overall body of work is eclectic, so there isn’t necessarily a definitive film used to identify him. In addition, he was incredibly prolific, directing over 80 films, and the quality is often erratic. While not revered for great technical abilities as a director, there are certain thematic elements that are apparent in Wellman’s best films. His films are honest, sometimes brutally so, and are often characterized as gritty in his depictions of very independent, masculine characters. Bad things happen to people in his films, and without a lot of wizardry or ceremony, he serves as vehicle for the audience to observe.

Aside from the typical gangster rise and fall story, the crux of this film centers on the conflict between Tom and his virtuous brother Mike (Donald Cook). When Tom is drawn toward a world of crime at an early age, his older brother is always nearby to reprimand him and attempt to act as something of a moral conscience. This tactic obviously doesn’t work, as Tom instead continues to rise up the ranks of the underworld. They clash many times, with Tom making fun of Mike working a real job for little money and Mike becoming upset about Tom deceiving their mother. Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) does her best to keep the peace between her sons, but in most instances she is powerless to do so. The most memorable such episode occurs when Mike returns injured from World War I. The family has a dinner together and Tom brings a keg of beer to celebrate. Mike refuses to drink any, saying that there is more than beer in the keg – that there’s blood and that Tom is a killer himself. As Tom storms out of the house, he turns back toward his brother and declares: “"Your hands ain’t so clean! You killed and liked it! You didn't get them medals for holding hands with the them Germans!"

The story borrows liberally from real-life gangland developments in Chicago. Many characters are based on or are composites of hoodlums involved in the bootlegging wars of the Windy City. Gang leader Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) is quite clearly based on the real-life Samuel “Nails” Morton, a North Side bootlegger who was killed in the same way as the cinematic Nails – dragged to his death by a horse he was riding after losing control and falling off. Legend has it that members of Morton’s gang sought out the unlucky equine and took their revenge with four slugs. In the film, Tom and Matt do the same to the horse that kills Nails Nathan. Tom’s mentor Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) appears to be a composite of former gang leaders Dean O’Banion and Bugs Moran. Matt is gunned down in the same manner that North Sider Hymie Weiss was killed in 1926.

As someone who follows organized crime and its history at an obsessive level, it’s interesting to see some of these historical details included in the story, but I also think it detracts from the overall experience for me. This probably isn’t the case for others who are not scrutinizing minutia such as this, but for me it at times plays like a mishmash of random 1920s gangland episodes.

The key weakness of the film for me is the lack of dynamism of the actors outside of Cagney. Even the inclusion of Jean Harlow, playing Cagney’s girlfriend is underwhelming. She enters so far into the film that she has very little impact or on-screen time. Woods is quite good as Cagney’s partner, but outside of that the other gangsters in the film are more like caricatures. Whereas Cagney’s performance still plays as fresh as ever, the Nails Norton and Paddy Ryan characters are very much dated. Mike Powers seems equally out-of-date. It’s possible that this is just an artifact of the times, that this is how actors performed in the 1930s, but I think that’s a bit of a copout. The character of Mike, which is central to the story, isn’t dynamic enough to counter Cagney’s Tom Powers.

In what would become a staple of Cagney gangster film, the finish is stirring. Stumbling down the rain-soaked street after a shootout with rival gangsters, Tom sums himself up in one simple utterance: “I ain’t so tough.”

I’m in no way attempting to proclaim this as Cagney’s greatest performance – he’s far too good in Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat to make that declaration. But this is definitely the film that put Cagney on the cinematic map. It’s worth seeing for his performance alone.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Released: October 15, 1973 (U.S.A.)

Director: Terrence Malick; Screenplay: Terrence Malick; Cinematography: Brian Probyn, Steven Larner, Tak Fujimoto; Studio: Warner Bros; Producer: Terrence Malick

Cast: Martin Sheen (Kit Carruthers), Sissy Spacek (Holly Sargis), Warren Oates (Father), Ramono Bieri (Cato), John Carter (Rich Man), Terrence Malick (Caller at Rich Man’s House)

I can think of few directors that are as polarizing as Terrence Malick. In my experience, there is very little middle ground in opinions of his work. Either he is loved and revered for his visual sense and dream-like, flowing narratives, or he is absolutely loathed and labeled as pretentious and boring. I don’t hesitate in placing myself in the former camp, finding his films to not only be distinctive, but among the most captivating in my collection. But with that being said, in regards to this debut film, I come down in the position that I just said tends not to exist – exactly in the middle. While a large percentage of Malick fans consider it his crowning achievement, I view Badlands more as a springboard from which he would move on to great heights with his filmmaking.

The storyline has been done many different times: a young couple sets off on a crime spree, evading laugh enforcement and leaving bodies in their wake. It is loosely based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. It has quite a bit in common films such as Bonnie and Clyde. This story is narrated by the teenage girl of the duo, Holly (Sissy Spacek), who is naively in awe of her older boyfriend Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen). Kit is a knockaround greaser-type who bounces around as a garbage man, farmer, and other odd jobs. When Holly’s father forbids her from seeing Kit any longer, Kit tries to no avail to convince him that he truly cares for Holly. This fails and Kit responds by sneaking into the home and declaring that he is taking Holly with him. When the father (Warren Oates) moves to call the police, Kit shoots and kills him. Holly calmly tells Kit that he didn’t need to kill her father, but does little more to resist. Instead, the two set the family home on fire and set off on their cross-country trek.

While narration is often difficult to handle in film, Malick is one of the few directors that utilize it effectively. By using Holly as the narrator, it sets the crime spree in an unusual light. She is so naïve in her descriptions, that without knowing the plot of the movie, an unsuspecting viewer would have no idea that this couple was hiding out from law enforcement, breaking into millionaire’s mansions, and dropping bodies wherever they stopped. Holly is completely indifferent toward the violence. In one telling scene, they encounter another couple on a deserted farm. Not wanting to allow any witnesses to turn them in, Kit pulls a revolver and begins to march the man into a field. Holly follows behind them with the other female, skipping and discussion mundane, common things. She seems completely oblivious to the fact that just yards ahead of her, Kit is holding a man at gunpoint and is very likely going to kill him.

Outside of his violent and murderous outbursts, Kit is portrayed as a regular everyman who is just drifting aimlessly through life trying to find a purpose. He takes pride whenever someone tells him that he resembles James Dean and seems hell-bent on flaming out in similar fashion. Kit recognizes that what he is doing is “wrong,” at least by societal standards, but he too seems to exhibit a complete lack of empathy. When the couple is finally captured, Kit acts almost joyous in lapping up the attention that is paid to him by the local sheriffs.

The issue that I ultimately have with the characters is that they just feel flat. Both Kit and Holly seem locked into the outlooks described above and never stray from them, maintaining these lifeless dispositions even through incredibly violent outbursts. The worst thing that can happen to me in a film is to have absolutely no interest in what happens to the characters that I’m watching. It doesn’t matter whether I wish them ill or well, what is important is that I have some kind of feeling toward them. Neither Holly nor Kit was able to generate much of that feeling for me, and thus I was left with simply enjoying the scenery.

Fortunately, this is Terrence Malick that we’re talking about, so simply “enjoying the scenery” can be a journey in itself. While I think it pales into comparison to some of his later films, the visuals in Badlands are still excellent. The amazing thing is that Malick rotated through three different cinematographers in the course of filming, yet managed to preserve a unified visual style. Watching Kit and Holly traveling across the open lands of South Dakota, driving into mountains and gorgeous setting suns, never fails to keep your attention glued to the screen. It’s not enough for me to place this film in the same lofty status that others have, but it does still make the film worthwhile and enjoyable for me.

As I said, Terrence Malick is among a handful of my favorite directors. Ironically, my feelings toward Malick are the exact opposite of how most serious fans of his work feel. It seems that a majority believe that this debut film was his pinnacle, and that in his three films over the next 32 years he never again reached this level. I completely disagree and feel that he has actually gotten better with each successive outing (which I will also be reviewing in the near future), and that is why Badlands is still an interesting film for me. Even though it’s not a favorite, it’s fascinating for me to be able to see the progression of Malick as a director.

Rating: 7/10