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John Farr

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Classic "Under the Radar" Gangster Movies

Posted: 08/15/2010 6:47 pm

Crime has not just been good to the criminals; it's been awfully good to Hollywood as well.

It so happens I just finished watching Josef Von Sternberg's "Underworld" (1927), the first in a compilation of three silent classics from famed director Josef Von Sternberg, now out via the esteemed Criterion Collection. For those unfamiliar with Von Sternberg, he would become best known later as the director who launched Marlene Dietrich's career in "The Blue Angel" (1930) and "Morocco" (1930).

Basically a love triangle involving a crime boss (George Bancroft), the alcoholic former lawyer he saves from the gutter (Clive Brook), and the girl torn between the two men (Evelyn Brent), the movie also features lots of rat-tat-tat action as the mobster rids himself of a key criminal rival.

When the film debuted in 1927, at a moment when gangsters were still riding high off the spoils of Prohibition, the movie was not only daring but timely, and fueled by strong word-of-mouth, soon audiences were overwhelming theatres to such an extent that show times had to be added to satisfy demand.

The burgeoning film industry, then as now, knew a good (and profitable) thing when they saw it, and since then, the gangster film has been pretty much an ongoing staple of Hollywood.

Re-examining the phenomenon of the gangster picture made me realize all over again its influence, staying power, and sheer vastness.

Just think of all the permutations: the pioneering sound pictures at Warner Brothers that made stars of Robinson and Cagney; the advent of film noir post World War Two; the heist film, the private eye film, the prison drama, and later, the ethnic gangster films, portraying the Mafia or organized criminal elements tied to other races and nationalities. And of course, this doesn't even count the rich store of excellent gangster films made overseas. ("Rififi", anyone?)

Perusing the AFI list of top American gangster pictures, I noted that practically every film is thoroughly engrained in the national consciousness: the first two "Godfather" pictures appear (1972/1974), as well as both iterations of "Scarface" (1932/1983), Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde"(1967), Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990), and Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Glaringly, the list omits the seminal Bogart/Robinson outing, "Key Largo" (1948) and Kazan's racketeering classic "On The Waterfront" (1954), but redeems itself somewhat by including Cagney's late career masterpiece, "White Heat" (1949).

While it's hard to argue with the AFI 's choices, the overwhelming familiarity of most of their picks made me want to compile a list of ten quintessential American gangster pictures that could fall under the radar of curious movie fans wanting to dig further into this incredibly rich, varied and enduring movie genre.

Note: I've limited myself to American films made from the dawn of sound up to roughly the time of "The Godfather." Not one of these titles made the AFI list, but in my opinion, all rival the quality of the classics that did.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) -- Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, two young hooligans on the make, are caught stealing, and only Jerry gets away. As the years go by, the reform school-hardened Rocky (James Cagney) enters a life of crime, becoming a famous and feared gangster, while Jerry (Pat O'Brien) ultimately sees the light and enters the priesthood. While maintaining affection for each other, criminal and priest must compete for the souls of a new generation of hoodlums in the neighborhood, played by the Dead End Kids. "Angels" represents the peak of the early gangster picture genre developed and refined by Warners in the thirties, when the age of Capone was still fresh in people's minds. Cagney, whose screen career had been launched seven years before in "The Public Enemy", perfects his rendition of the crook with a heart of gold, and his close real-life friend O'Brien counters him perfectly as the mellow, morally upright Father Connolly. Meanwhile Humphrey Bogart, in full villain mode, is deliciously slimy as Rocky's so-called "business partner". Whatever you do, don't miss that ending!

High Sierra (1941) -- Weary, aging gangster Roy "Mad Dog" Earle (Bogart) is enlisted in a hotel-robbery scheme after mobster friend Big Mac (Donald MacBride) springs him from prison. On his way to a rendezvous point, he meets and falls for club-footed farmer's daughter Velma (Joan Leslie). Meanwhile, Marie (Ida Lupino), his colleague's tough-as-nails girlfriend, develops a soft spot for Earle. Once the heist goes down, however, the attachments he's formed with the two women could bring about his downfall. No longer playing second banana to James Cagney, here Bogart was given a juicy breakout role in Raoul Walsh's "Sierra", as a killer with a compassionate side. Indeed Bogart's "Mad Dog" Earle was modeled more on criminal folk hero John Dillinger than the evil, sadistic Al Capone. Yet even though Roy seems quite human and sympathetic at times, he's still a scary individual when threatened. Young Lupino (who'd go on to direct films) stands out as Earle's loyal protector who can't win his love. Co-written by a young John Huston, "High Sierra" is a solid, flavorful entry for "Bogie-as-bad-guy" fans, boasting a slam-bang finish.

This Gun For Hire (1942) -- After carrying out a contract killing in a seedy San Francisco hotel room, icy assassin Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd) is betrayed by crooked nightclub owner Willard Gates (Laird Cregar). Meanwhile, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), girlfriend of a detective out to nail Gates, takes a job in one of Gates's clubs, while secretly keeping tabs on his illegal work. One night, the singer-turned-spy meets Raven on a train, sparking a relationship that leads to revenge. Featuring Ladd's breakthrough role as a baby-faced killer, "Gun", adapted from a Graham Greene novel, paired the diminutive actor for the first time with the mysterious, wildly seductive Lake, famous for her "peek-a-boo" hairstyle. (On the strength of their on-screen chemistry here, the pair would make six more movies together.) "Gun" has all the elements you'd expect from a gangster picture: murder, deception, lust, violence, and dark, moody cinematography to match the conspiratorial tone. Rich in atmosphere and with plenty of clipped tough-guy dialogue, you'll understand just why this movie made Ladd and Lake overnight stars.

Murder, My Sweet (1944) -- Former crooner Dick Powell was first to assay the role of Raymond Chandler's famous gumshoe Philip Marlowe in this screen adaptation of "Farewell, My Lovely". Here Marlowe is hired by hulking underworld figure Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his missing girlfriend, Velma. Being versatile and money-hungry, at the same time Marlowe takes on another assignment to recover a stolen necklace. Could the two cases be linked? Marlowe endures a lot of pain finding out, but then, that's what he's paid for. Edward Dmytryk's trim, crackling detective tale has enough twists and turns to befuddle most any snoop, but that's the whole fun of it. Powell's gritty, bravura turn as the original Marlowe (Bogie would follow him two years later in "The Big Sleep") opened up gritty new avenues for the actor, and the sultry Claire Trevor scorches the screen as femme fatale Helen Grayle. Packed with the patter of gunsels and molls in dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms, noir doesn't get much "noirer" than this. Hard-boiled mystery fans should pounce.

Kiss Of Death (1947) -- Pinched in a Manhattan jewelry heist, Joe Bianco (Victor Mature) faces a tough choice: He can rat out his accomplices to assistant DA D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) or spend 15 to 20 in the clink, far from his two young daughters. Joe loves his family, but he's no stool pigeon, and elects to do the time. But after a tragic event, he changes his mind and makes parole. Joe settles into a quiet, honest life with his new wife, Nettie (Colleen Gray), until a vicious mobster he testified against, Tom Udo (Richard Widmark), is unexpectedly released, forcing him to meet the threat head-on. Scripted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, this taut gangster thriller is chilling and literate, with consummate performances by Mature (at his dour best as unwilling squealer Bianco) and co-stars Donlevy, Gray, and a young Karl Malden. But the film is best remembered for launching the career of Widmark, never creepier than here, playing a sadistic criminal with a cackling, fearsome laugh. Director Henry Hathaway handles the noir elements with expert attention to detail, including filming the stark action on-location in 1940s New York City. For a gritty, hard-hitting crime drama, pucker up for "Kiss of Death."

Force Of Evil (1948) -- Slick, scrappy Wall Street lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) is engineering a takeover of the Manhattan numbers racket for his mob-connected employer, Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Knowing estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who runs a small, mom-and-pop numbers operation, will be bankrupted by the scheme, Joe pays him a visit and attempts to persuade him to join the syndicate. But Leo refuses, landing them both in the middle of a dangerous gang rivalry. A dark, cynical film about the culture of greed in America, "Force" helped earn director Polonsky and its talented star, John Garfield, a place on the Hollywood blacklist. With its edgy moral themes and exquisite angled lighting by George Barnes (who visited an Edward Hopper exhibit to achieve the look), this unusual film has influenced many, including Martin Scorsese. In his finest role, Garfield soars as a conflicted, hard-driving lawyer, abetted by Beatrice Pearson (as a secretarial voice of conscience) and Gomez, playing a stubborn businessman who equates his kid brother with the way of the gangster. Brutal and beautifully photographed, this is a "Force" to be reckoned with.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) -- A vivid, painstaking chronicle of the planning, execution and aftermath of a daring jewel robbery, "Jungle" is first and foremost a superb mood and character piece. Suave Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) is to all appearances a respectable married businessman, but in fact, he is both crooked and in urgent need of cash. Increasingly desperate, he helps mastermind a heist, drawing out the more skilled denizens of the city's criminal underbelly. Legendary director John Huston delivers one of the finest heist pictures ever made filled with furtive underworld figures in a gritty urban atmosphere. The film's colorful cast all turn in memorable, compelling performances, in particular Calhern, the Oscar-nominated Sam Jaffe and a young Sterling Hayden. Huston deservedly received Oscar nods for both direction and script, along with Harold Rosson for his shadowy, evocative cinematography. (Trivia note: also look for an early Marilyn Monroe appearance as Calhern's child-like mistress. )

The Big Heat (1953) -- Scrupulous, dedicated police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) targets mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague's suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana's men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion's wife, prompting the enraged lawman to seek vengeance. This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft by German ex-pat Fritz Lang is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford's portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. "Heat" is particularly memorable for two performances: Lee Marvin, as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whose face Marvin cruelly disfigures-with a cup of scalding hot coffee! Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, "The Big Heat" is one steamy ride.

The Killing (1956) -- A young Stanley Kubrick helmed this superb depiction of an intricate racetrack robbery, masterminded by one Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). Johnny's plan seems pretty airtight, but as always in crime, there's the unknown human element to worry about. A small-timer up to now, the money-hungry Clay may be in over his head, and unfortunately, his crew begins to sense it. From the outset, the film gives off a palpable tension and sense of impending doom, but the caper goes ahead anyway. Shot verite-style on a miniscule budget, this trim little noir delivers skillfully paced, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, accented by vivid characterizations (Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor stand out as a wildly dysfunctional couple). This picture put the brilliant Kubrick on the map, and it's easy to see why. Beyond memorable performances from the distinctive "B" cast, its assets include Lucien Ballard's stark, striking cinematography, and a biting script by Kubrick and Jim Thompson, who also wrote "The Grifters." Lean and raw like its protagonists, "The Killing" still shapes up as one thrilling horse race.

Point Blank (1967) -- It's not a good idea to double-cross Walker (Lee Marvin), but the Organization, a far-reaching crime syndicate, actually thought they could get away with it. Leaving him mortally wounded (they thought) and without his cut of a lucrative heist, they become understandably rattled when Walker is suddenly back in their midst, wanting his money and not taking "no" for an answer. Director John Boorman's peerless crime drama endures as one of the signature films of the 1960's. Marvin is a walking, talking time bomb as the obsessed Walker and Lloyd Bochner looks and acts the part of slimy chief betrayer Frederick Carter, a man we dearly want to see get what's coming to him. Angie Dickinson is her sexiest as wily femme fatale Chris, who hops between men (and beds) with ease. And just wait for a pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O'Connor in a pivotal role as Brewster, the big syndicate boss. One of my personal favorites, and endowed with a swingin' sixties look and feel, this one really hits the bull's eye. Pounce, action fans.

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