Tag Archives: Warner Gangsters

Black Legion (1937)

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3.5 stars out of 4. A strikingly bold picture for the time, and an early Bogart classic.

This is not an easy one to swallow. black Legion deals with a realistic KKK-like organization that unjustly takes out the frustrations of citizens against innocent foreigners and those of foreign descent. Based on a real life incident and court case, this is a great example of Warners adept production and refinement of the social issue picture.

Bogie stars as a worker passed over for a promotion he had been waiting for in favor of a better educated candidate who happen to be both younger and of foreign descent. This leads others to suggest he go to a secret meeting which of course turns out to be for the titular Legion, and it is at this point that he falls down the rabbit hole and will never make his way back out again. Seen today, what is most chilling is the degree to which the Legion infiltrates all aspects of society and these men’s lives, much as we have seen throughout modern times with the rise of various terrorist groups and factions hidden in plain sight.

Black Legion predates the Noir movement by a number of years but fits in right alongside other Warners productions from this era that effectively hint at what would later arise as Noir. Warner was always the studio that focused on real life dramas or stories of the streets. Aside from the gangster films, it was their continued adaptation of stories based on true events that set them apart from the other major studios.

Archie Mayo directed this film and it shares a number of similarities with  The Petrified Forest (1936), particularly in its strong use of Bogart as a dramatic performer. Mayo was able to get the most out of Bogie in both films before he was relegated to just playing the heavy or Gangster no.2 second fiddle to the rest. It is really only in these two films that you are able to see his range later glimpsed in his breakout role of Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra (1940). Assisting this strength is a great gathering of the great WB stock company of actors, including the later forgotten Dick Foran.

So if you’re in the mood for a hard hitting and truly dark drama from the 30’s that feels miles ahead of its time, or are a Petrified Forest fan, this one’s for you.

The transfer is great, as always from WB’s classic titles, and being from the Gangsters Vol. 3 set has commentary and Night at the Movies option. Another great rendering of a studio classic.

A must own for Bogie fans.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Review, Humphrey Bogart

Lady Killer (1933)

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3.5 stars out of 4. My favorite Cagney vehicle.

This is the third 1933 produced Cagney vehicle I have reviewed. Amazing how the breadth of one’s work back in the golden age could be so quickly put together. Lady Killer is pure contrivance and absolute fun.

Cagney plays a movie usher who winds up throwing in with a small time gang, who he then builds into an empire out East until it blows up and they must go run out West to escape the law. Cagney winds up broke and betrayed, only to find work as a movie extra and eventually becomes the top star in Hollywood.

If that paragraph doesn’t grab you, then stop reading here. This is the film that firmly cements the audience’s love of Cagney forever. He is at his charming best, and runs the gamut of opportunist and honest guy. And it also features more turmoil for poor Mae Clarke, who was the same actress on the receiving end of Jimmy’s grapefruit in The Public Enemy.

In addition to all the fun, there’s a nice criticism of Hollywood and the system at the time while providing a real glimpse into the workings of 1933 production that goes beyond just the stuff you can read in books. And any picture that can get Cagney to laugh at himself while riding a fake horse in full Indian chief regalia in front of back projection footage is tops in my book.

Another winner in WB’s Gangsters Vol. 3 with commentary and the always lovely night at the Movies option. Transfer is great as usual with these.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Cagney, Film Review

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

Picture Snatcher (1933)

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3.5 stars out of 4. Classic Jimmy. The above poster says it all.

Here we have a pure Cagney vehicle, and one where he is allowed to keep the trademark snarkiness that still endears him to film fans while actually being a good guy for a change. Picture Snatcher deals with tabloid journalism and trying to get that perfect stolen shot of the juiciest story to sell editions before the next guy. Has very much changed all these years later?

Here we see the Warners machine really getting revved up, particularly its usage of the same tried and true on staff directors who could make even the lowest of pictures sing. Here the film is directed by Lloyd Bacon who does a remarkable job at keeping this one tight and compact as it crams quite a bit of story into its blistering 77 minute runtime.

Cagney plays an ex-con just out of the joint who takes up an offer to join a tabloid and lands the job of photographer after a particularly dangerous shot gets him the job. His supervisor is a surprising Ralph Bellamy, who portrays a cynical and beaten drunkard who once had grand ideals of journalism. Bellamy who seemed forever stuck in the role of the country bumpkin does really fine work here, showing even earlier on that he had the necessary dramatic chops to to portray greater roles.

But it is Jimmy Cagney who we’re staring at, it’s his picture and for good reason. Nobody else could have sold us a guy who so blatantly teeters on the line of good taste and breaking the law again. When they finally gave him his own starring vehicles, Cagney was basically unleashed upon the whole WB classic era backlot. From charming the ladies to worming his way into an execution to secretly snap the shot of the chair flashing…this is pure PreCode fun in every way possible.

The second entry in WBs Gangsters Vol. 3 set, complete with commentary and Night at the Movies option.

The transfer is solid with good sound, and miles ahead of previous tape copies.

If you don’t have the WB Gangster sets, what’s stopping you? The probability of these ever hitting Blu-ray is practically nil.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Cagney, Film Review

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