Category Archives: Gangsters/Crime

The Mayor of Hell (1933)

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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.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Review, Gangsters/Crime

Smart Money (1931)

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3 stars out of 4.

Someone obviously came up with the idea to re-team Robinson and Cagney after their huge successes with Little Caesar and  The Public Enemyrespectively the previous year. This is exactly what Smart Money is, another gangster picture culled from “ripped from the headlines” news stories where the lead character will be a fictionalized variant based on several real life notorious crime figures.

This became Warner’s bread and butter release during the worst years of the Depression and still pack quite a punch these days, particularly these earlier films that arrived before the Code implementation. These Pre-Code gangster releases are grittier and darker, and today are finally seen again uncut. If they were reissued or put on tape any earlier it was always in a truncated Code enforced edit.

All this aside, Smart Money is an inferior picture that skirts by on the charm of its stars and the PreCode elements. Otherwise it’s all  very standardized and drags despite its short runtime. Robinson is given the lead, with Cagney playing a supporting role. He naturally steals all his scenes and it only when both are present onscreen that the picture really lights up. Of particular note is a small bit part for pre-fame Boris Karloff as some sort of pimp and a scene where Cagney pantomimes the err…accentuations of a certain lady that Robinson will find of certain interest.

It’s thankfully short, but many narrative contrivances cannot be overlooked, especially the apparent bloodthirstiness of the police and the sudden ending designed to punish evildoers.

Not a bad way to spend a little bit of time though. An hour and twenty minutes of pure American cinema pairing two of the great stars. Found in WB’s phenomenal Gangsters Volume 3 DVD set which can be had for NOTHING online. Highly recommended.

The transfer is astonishing for those used to grimy tape and laser releases. The film is uncut 1.33:1 in a clean typical WB transfer with a healthy grain field. The sound is clear and undistorted mono. There is a commentary  and full WB night at the Movies feature on all these from the Gangster sets. Maybe someday the studio will get its act together and do one big set of all their classic Gangster pictures.

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Filed under 3 stars, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Film Review, Gangsters/Crime, Uncategorized