Warner Bros. Pictures GANGSTERS COLLECTION:

Includes WHITE HEAT , PUBLIC ENEMY, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, THE ROARING TWENTIES, LITTLE CAESAR, and THE PETRIFIED FOREST (WARNER BROS. HOME ENTERTAINMENT)

At last dedicated classic film fans can immerse themselves in no less than six  blistering examples of what made the particular Warner Bros. brand of mobsters, mugs, madams and mayhem so distinctively unique. (While we usually cover box-set titles in chronological order, this time I'll review them in order of my particular preference.)

Sometimes it's a difficult task to pinpoint exactly what makes a film truly great. Not so with WHITE HEAT (1949)--its ability to transform what might have been just another by-the-numbers crime film into something special by way of continuous and inspired last minute on-the-spot semi-improvisational invention invigorates every single frame of a film that exhibits a personality unlike that of any film released before it, and provides the viewer with original and gutsy "set-pieces" that have understandably secured their place in film history, all of which would not be possible if director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney  had not been in perfect synch with each other.

When an actor such as Cagney has contributed so many fine performances  it becomes difficult to maintain that any single one is superior to the other, but his Cody Jarrett is a creation of such sheer and unapologetic audacity that I'm sorely tempted to label this as his best ever, and there's no question that Steve Cochran, Edmond O'Brien, John Archer and the recently-departed Virginia Mayo respond to Walsh's relentless "take no prisoners" direction (which even manages to enliven the "police procedural" scenes that normally bring such films to a dead halt) with their very best work, and Max Steiner contributes a vibrantly violent score that galvanizes and enriches the frenetic but electrifying doings to perfection.

Thanks to William Wellman's brisk and fluid direction, and the decision to cast relative newcomer James Cagney in his first starring role, PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) is quite possibly the first sound-era gangster film not weighed down by the lumbering and static early sound problems that marred most previous such efforts. From his very first cocky and self-assured appearance in this extremely well-made time capsule of the  Prohibition era Cagney's ferocious performance as gangster Tom Powers leaves no doubt about the fact that a major and utterly original star has been unleashed on the moviegoing public. His is a performance that miraculously has not dated one iota, which is more than can be said for the pompous and stiff recitations of Edward Woods as his decent brother, as well as the unbearably coy posturing of Beryl Mercer as his mother, and the laughable grade-school awkwardness of a clearly inexperienced Jean Harlow, all of which are not nearly enough to diminish the timeless and electric force that Wellman and Cagney bring to this certified classic.

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), despite the fact that there was nothing ragingly new about its storyline even in 1938 (ghetto boy Cagney becomes a gangster and his best pal Pat O'Brien becomes a priest) is conceivably the finest film of its type ever turned out during the 30's, all of which is due to a terrific script and a fine cast that is directed with typical flourish by  Michael Curtiz. However, it is the multi-faceted and three-dimensional performance of Cagney that invests  this saga with a complexity that makes it crystal-clear why he received the 1938 New York Film Critics Best Actor Award, as well as one of the three Oscar nominations this film so richly deserved.

While the performances of Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and the numerous and vivid newsreel-like montages that so brilliantly convey the speakeasy era retain their original power today, it must be acknowledged that a dull and conventional romantic back-story unimaginatively portrayed by charisma-challenged Jeffrey Lynn and, especially, Priscilla Lane reduce the roar of THE ROARING TWENTIES  (1939) to a mere purr, but thanks primarily to a poignant Texas Guinan-like supporting performance by Gladys George and thumpingly rhythmic Ray Heindorf arrangements of some of those great 20's tunes there remains a considerable amount of entertainment value in this Raoul Walsh-directed opus, despite its lamentable soft-center.

There's nothing soft about LITTLE CAESAR (1930) as portrayed by a supremely surly and confident Edward G. Robinson in his first cinematic lead. The instant he swaggers pugnaciously on screen it becomes readily apparent that this is one denizen of the underworld you do not want to break bread with. While Robinson's performance lacks the varied shades that he would later deliver in similar roles, such as KEY LARGO and the unfortunately rarely-seen BLACK TUESDAY, he controls all around him in such a forceful manner that you can never take your eyes off of him, which is a good thing, as director Mervyn LeRoy is no Wellman, Curtiz or Walsh. Indeed, so clearly is this film occasionally grounded by the remnants of photographic and aural stiffness that stifles so many films of this era that only a performance of  overbearingly mesmerizing power could compensate, and this Robinson delivers in spades. There's nothing little about Robinson's Caesar. It's a one-man show.

There's a distinct possibility that the first half hour of THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), with its stately pace and verbose screenplay, may baffle those viewers who've grown accustomed to the murder, mayhem and frenetic speed which characterize the other five films in this collection, and may in fact wonder why it's included here at all . My advice to them: wait for Bogie! While I have to acknowledge that some of the dialogue that author Robert E. Sherwood dishes out to the disillusioned author and wistful waitress that Leslie Howard and (somewhat improbably) Bette Davis portray no longer seems as profound as it once did, and that Howard's character and subsequent "unselfish" sacrifice today firmly plant him strictly in the loser category, once our Bogie-man makes his surly and sullen entrance as Dillinger-like fugitive Duke Mantee and single-handedly justifies all that went before it, energizing what remains with a portrayal that's nothing short of riveting in its ability to dominate the proceedings completely with the sparest of looks, gestures and words. This is the very first time Bogart made his mark, and he delivers a  portrayal that differs radically from most of his subsequent assignments. (It's tantalizing to realize that more than a decade later Bogart would effectively and economically portray a similar role to Howard's in John Huston's vastly superior KEY LARGO.)

The full-screen black-and-white transfers of WHITE HEAT and, most amazingly, PUBLIC ENEMY, are nothing less than astonishing in their degree of richness and clarity. There is simply no way to improve on them! Not far behind is ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, which demolishes any favorable memories of the laserdisc image, as does, though to a somewhat lesser extent, THE ROARING TWENTIES. While THE PETRIFIED FOREST exhibits minor signs of wear in some instances and LITTLE CAESAR is the softest looking of the bunch, neither has looked this good for decades, and the monaural sound is full, warm and distortion-free, the better to fully savor the vigorous and vital musical contributions of Steiner and Heindorf.

Any mug that doesn't purchase this exemplary WARNER BROS. GANGSTER SET should be taken for a ride. Cement overshoes optional.

--DICK DINMAN

 

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