3.5 stars out of 4. Somehow it works.
Here is a prime example of how effective the Warners machine was back in the day. The Mayor of Hell is basically a gangster film crossed with a youth reformation picture crossed with the studio’s successful hit I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). And yet despite seeming like a silly combination it actually manages to work in some strange fashion.
The film opens with miscreant youths progressing in acting up throughout their section of New York. Eventually they are picked up by the police and finally sent off to reform school upstate. Now this might have one thinking that the ringleader would then grow up into the Cagney character as would later occur in Angels With Dirty Faces and others, but you’d be dead wrong. They arrive at the “school” which is run more like a corrupt prison from Chain Gang. The headmaster is corrupt as hell and secretly delights in punishing the youths in his charge.
Enter Cagney as a gangster given the top job as payback in order to simply collect a cushy government salary. Yet despite his seemingly carefree attitude he takes an active interest in the treatment of the boys held there as they remind him of himself coming from the same neighborhood. This leads to an eventual clash of wills and temperaments that despite some slightly unbelievable elements eventually boil over to a flame filled full scale riot that truly gives Cagney the titular role.
It is this surprising honesty and darkness that led to the ending being partially re-shot by studio expert Michael Curtiz who was the master of action sequences. This steps up the game to a point where the Code started cutting chunks out of the picture like crazy when it had to be re-certified a year after release. By no means is this a happy picture or one with a positive outcome no matter what the tacked on ending tries to sell.
If you can forgive its narrative contrivances, this one is an interesting and invigorating watch that actually has some balls to it. Cagney can sell just about anything, and the nods to Chain Gang serve to only heighten the film’s dark tone.
A great uncut transfer on DVD, from WB’s Gangsters Vol. 3. Picture and sound are great, aside from a hair or two in the gate. Commentary and Night at the Movies options make this another essential slice of classic WB.