Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)

Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath who cares about nothing but himself, and craves power over everything. Robinson’s a cocky bantam rooster, strutting and swaggering his way across the screen; he’s a vicious animal to be certain, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Although he had a long Hollywood career (but believe it or not, never won an Oscar!), it’s as Rico most people remember him by, thanks to numerous bad impressionists and cartoon characters (i.e. THE KING AND ODIE’s Biggie Rat).

Film scholars make a lot about the homosexual subtext in LITTLE CAESAR: Rico’s got no time for dames, preferring the company of his fellow crooks; his close relationship with Joe, deriding him for keeping company with dancer Olga Stassoff; the fauning gangster Otero, who beams as his boss checks himself out in the mirror, donned in a tux. Though nothing is explicit or overt it’s definitely there, hidden in the shadows like like homosexuality itself during those more puritanical times.

What stands out even more for me is the proto-noir flourishes that appear throughout the film. LeRoy and his DP Tony Gaudio use devices such as montage and fades, and many of the scenes (William Collier Jr’s murder on the church steps, for example) precede the film noir movement by a good ten years. Gaudio’s fluid camerawork and Ray Curtiss’s slick editing keep LITTLE CAESAR from being static, unlike many early talkies, and that famous final scene, as the defiant Rico, trodding down a wind-swirled lonely street, gets cut down by the Tommy gun blast of copper Thomas E. Jackson, uttering the now-classic line “Mother of Mercy, is the the end of Rico?”, remains a highlight of Hollywood cinema. Mervyn LeRoy may not be a name that springs to mind when thinking of film noir influences, but films like this one, FIVE STAR FINAL , THREE ON A MATCH , and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tell a different story.

Young (21 at the time of filming) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also makes an impression here as Rico’s pal Joe Massara, a hoofer who wants to put his life of crime behind him after falling for Olga (Glenda Farrell in her film debut). George E. Stone as henchman Otero, infatuated with boss Rico, gives another of his outstanding supporting performances. Other cast members of note include the aforementioned Jackson as the laconic cop out to get Rico, Stanley Fields as the dimwitted ex-capo Sam Vettori, and Sidney Blackmer as the dapper boss ‘Big Boy’.

LITTLE CAESAR can be enjoyed on many different levels: as an influential  piece of Hollywood history, a precursor to film noir, or Edward G. Robinson’s star-making turn. But for me, it’s just damn good entertainment, a rip-roaring crime saga that outguns the rest of them, and the granddaddy of all gangster flicks to come.

 

Crashing Out: Humphrey Bogart in HIGH SIERRA (Warner Brothers 1941)

Humphrey Bogart played yet another gangster in Raoul Walsh’s HIGH SIERRA, but this time things were different. Bogie had spent the past five years at Warner Brothers mired in supporting gangster parts and leads in ‘B’ movies, but when he read John Huston and W.R. Burnett’s screenplay, he knew this role would put him over the top. James Cagney and Paul Muni both turned it down, and George Raft was penciled in to star, until Bogie put a bug in his ear and Raft also refused it. Bogart lobbied hard for the role of Roy Earle, and his instincts were right: not only did HIGH SIERRA make him a star at last, it led to him getting the lead in his next picture THE MALTESE FALCON , the directorial debut of his good friend Huston.

Roy Earle is an old-school criminal pardoned from an Indiana prison thanks to the machinations of gang boss Big Mac, who wants Roy to take charge of a big-time money and jewel heist at a California resort. Roy’s been locked up a long time, and this caper will finance the freedom he’s always longed for, a way to “crash out” of the life for good. Along the way, he has an encounter with the Goodhue family, farm people like himself, whose pretty daughter Velma was born with a club foot. Roy’s enchanted by the young girl, and gets the idea in his head to pay for her operation and ask her to marry him after his job’s complete.

Roy heads to a camping grounds in the Sierra mountains to meet his new cohorts, a pair of inexperienced hotheads named Red and Babe, who’ve brought along a “dime-a-dance” girl, Marie, and “inside man” Mendoza. The veteran gangster doesn’t like the idea of having a dame around, but the girl, who has nowhere else to go except back to her sordid dance hall life, persuades him to let her stay. A mutt in the camp called Pard starts following Roy around, and the two kind of adopt each other, despite warnings from caretaker Algernon that the pooch brings bad luck to whomever he attaches himself.

Things start to go downhill, as Roy returns to the now-cured Velma, who rejects him. The heist goes awry when a security guard shows up and Roy is forced to plug him with lead.  A police chase ensues, with the panicked Mendoza tagging along, leading to death for the wet-behind-the-ears thugs. Roy and Marie manage to escape, but Mendoza rats, and the manhunt is on. Big Mac dies of a heart attack, and his lieutenant Kranmer tries to pull a fast one, resulting in another notch on Roy’s belt. He sends Marie away and makes it for the High Sierras, where “Mad Dog” Earle (as the papers have salaciously dubbed him) makes his last stand….

Everyone seems to be damaged goods in the powerhouse screenplay by Huston and Burnett. Roy Earle can’t shake his past, no matter what he does, and in the end finds his elusive freedom only in death. Marie, played by top-billed Ida Lupino , is a broken soul from an abusive home, who creates a family of her own with Roy and Pard. Velma (Joan Leslie) was born with a deformity, yet when she has her operation turns ungrateful towards Roy. Red and Babe (Arthur Kennedy,  Alan Curtis ) are wanna-be tough guys in way over their heads. Kranmer (Barton MacLane) is an ex-cop now on the wrong side of the law. Big Mac (Donald MacBride) suffers from a “bum ticker” due to his life of excess. Even Pa and Ma Goodhue (Henry Travers, Elisabeth Risdon), decent  folks they may be, are fleeing a life of poverty in their native Ohio.

Walsh’s direction is top-notch, as always, and DP Tony Gaudio gets some breathtaking location shots on Mount Whitney.  The rest of the cast features Henry Hull as a crime doctor, Willie Best in a rare dramatic role as Algernon, young Cornel Wilde as Mendoza, Jerome Cowan as a reporter, and Eddie Acuff, Dorothy Appleby, Wade Boteler, Spencer Charters, James Flavin, Isabel Jewell, and George Lloyd. Pard is played by Bogie’s real-life pooch Zero! And stuntman Buster Wiles appears on camera as the sharpshooter who nails Roy… and performs the stunt of tumbling down that treacherous mountain, which basically means Wiles kills himself!

“Thanks, George!”: Raft and Bogie in 1939’s “Invisible Stripes”

There’s a strong MALTESE FALCON connection, with Bogart, Huston, Cowan, and MacLane all participating in the film noir classic. But it’s HIGH SIERRA that made that movie possible, again thanks to George Raft, who turned down the part of Sam Spade to appear in Walsh’s next film, MANPOWER. Walsh remade this film eight years later as a Western, COLORADO TERRITORY, with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, and the story was refilmed in 1955 as I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. I haven’t seen the former, but have viewed the latter, and there’s no comparison. HIGH SIERRA is mountains above it, and remains a bona fide gangster classic.

The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches brought on by some unnamed trauma that only Ma can soothe. The actor is an untamed hurricane in this role, swaggering one minute, having a complete meltdown when he gets news of Ma’s death the next. He’s at his best when he’s totally unhinged, cold-bloodedly ventilating the car  trunk containing a would-be traitor with bullets, knocking spouse Verna off her chair, and the spectacular fiery finale where his madness engulfs him as much as the flames, delivering that immortal “Top of the world” line with gusto. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is dangerous and unpredictable, a man to be feared, and that thread of fear permeates the film.

The women in Cody’s life say a lot about the kind of man he is. Margaret Wycherly is chilling as Ma, a far cry from her loving mother in SERGEANT YORK. Based loosely on Ma Barker, she’s been a criminal all her life, and has groomed her boy to be as ruthless as herself, if not more so. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s wife Verna is just as much a sociopath as he is, a duplicitous woman without morals who doesn’t hesitate to take up with Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed when her man goes to jail. Verna will lie and backstab to get her own way, but she’s deathly afraid of Cody’s wrath, letting Big Ed pay for Ma’s demise even though she pulled trigger that killed the older woman… shot in the back, no less! Cody and Verna are a match made in hell, and Virginia Mayo, who was one of Warner’s biggest stars at the time, received above the title billing just below Cagney. Both should’ve been nominated for Oscars.

Edmond O’Brien  plays T-Man Hank Fallon, who goes undercover as convict Vic Pardo to try and gain Cody’s trust. It’s a tricky part, but the always reliable O’Brien pulls it off. Steve Cochran is his usual menacing self as Big Ed… just not as menacing as Cagney! Another old reliable, Fred Clark , is on hand as ‘The Trader’, brains behind Cody’s crimes. And the Familiar Face brigade is out in full force – say, isn’t that young Robert Foulk? Omigosh, there’s Claudia “ROBOT MONSTER” Barrett! That guy looks like the butler in SON OF  FRANKENSTEIN! I could go on, but you get the idea, so happy hunting!


Raoul Walsh’s muscular, masculine direction makes WHITE HEAT even tougher. Walsh had success in the gangster genre before, helming Cagney’s THE ROARING TWENTIES and Bogart’s HIGH SIERRA, but he was one of those equally adept in any genre: silent classics like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and WHAT PRICE GLORY, period pieces (THE BOWERY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE), westerns (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, COLORADO TERRITORY), war dramas (DESPERATE JOURNEY , BATTLE CRY). This is the third of four films Walsh would make with Cagney, and a fine coda to the gangster cycle. WHITE HEAT is a classic in every sense of the word, a movie that absolutely lives up to its reputation.

 

 

 

Psycho-Killer: Peter Falk in MURDER INC. (20th Century-Fox 1960)

American filmgoers have had a long love affair with the gangster movie. The Pre-Code era was riddled with rat-a-tat-tat tommy gun action from Warner Brothers, MGM, and the other studios, helping to make stars out of Edward G. Robinson , James Cagney , Clark Gable , and a host of movie tough guys. Things quieted down once the Code was strictly enforced, but the gangster was still around, sometimes in comedy masks as likeable lugs, deneutered yet always lurking on-screen in some capacity.

By the late 1940’s, film noir introduced us to a darker vision, one seething with murderous rage. Cagney in WHITE HEAT, Robinson in KEY LARGO , and virtually everything Lawrence Tierney was in showed us gangsters were no “swell guys”, but anti-social psychopaths. The 50’s saw the gangster relegated mainly to ‘B’ status, just another genre to pit the good guys against the bad guys. Then in 1959, along came TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, bringing the Roaring Twenties back to colorful life, and the gangster was back with a vengeance.

It’s here we find MURDER INC., a true-life tale about the infamous hit squad from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section who conducted a nationwide kill-spree under orders from organized crime. The film doesn’t break any new ground, but it does introduce Peter Falk as a force to be reckoned with playing Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a psycho-killer if there ever was one. Falk’s Reles fits right in with the Warner Brothers’ Gangland Rogue’s Gallery of Cagney, Bogart, et al, and earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He’s as cruel and vicious as the devil, his weapon of choice an ice pick, and makes for one memorably malevolent mug!

Reles and his band of assassins get their contracts from Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (David J. Stewart), a Jewish “businessman” who controls New York vice alongside Mafioso Albert Anastasia (Howard I. Smith). Their first hit is on Catskills comic Walter Sage (Morey Amersterdam in a cameo ), and Reles recruits unwitting ex-band singer Joe Collins (Stuart Whitman), in debt to Reles up to his ears, to help set the crooked comedian up. Collins’s dancer wife Eadie (May Britt) is repulsed by Reles and insults him when he’s brought to her home; the hood later responds by attacking and brutally raping her. Reles then sets them up in a lavish apartment furnished with ill-gotten gains.

When Lepke is under indictment and forced to go into hiding, he stays with Joe and Eadie, keeping them virtual prisoners catering to his whims. Lepke sends his right-hand man Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard in a chilling performance) to kill the witness against him. The crime lord ends up in Leavenworth, and pressure is put on the mob by crusading DA Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan, the radio and TV personality, not the man from M*A*S*H). Lepke, feeling the heat, orders Mendy to hit everybody, including the Murder Inc. gang (which may have served as the inspiration for Michael Corleone’s revenge in Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER!). Reles and Eadie start singing like canaries; she’s killed on the boardwalk, and Reles is thrown out a window, leaving only Joe to lift the lid off organized crime and reserve a seat for Lepke in the electric chair.

There are some good flourishes in MURDER INC., with the violence coming in quick spurts, but on the whole the movie suffers from its budget limitations. Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE ) began the film as director, but was fired and replaced by producer Burt Balaban (actor Bob’s cousin). The actors, while all good, were from the Broadway (and Off-Broadway) stage, giving the film little star power. Falk was a virtual unknown at the time, and Whitman just another Fox contract player. The movie boosted both their careers, with Falk going on to much greater success as everyone’s favorite rumpled detective Lt. Columbo.

MURDER INC. features soon-to-be Familiar Faces like Simon Oakland as a dogged cop and Vincent Gardenia as Lepke’s mobbed-up lawyer. Actors Seymour Cassel and Sylvia Miles make their film debuts, and jazz singer Sarah Vaughn shows up to perform a couple of numbers. While not in the same category as gangster films past, it will certainly sate the crime buff’s appetite for destruction, and Peter Falk’s sociopathic ‘Kid Twist’ alone makes it more than worth watching.

That Old, Familiar Song: MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (MGM 1934)

The plot of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA will certainly be familiar to movie lovers: there’s two kids, one rambunctious, the other studious. Rambunctious grows up to be on the shady side of the law, while Studious represents law’n’order. There’s Girl in the Middle, who loves Rambunctious but always winds up with Studious. Rambunctious perpetuates some evil deed, and Studious must now bring his old pal to justice. Girl in the Middle is torn between the two. In the end, justice prevails, and Rambunctious pays for his crimes, but not before making peace with Studious.

Sound familiar? Sure it does, having been rehashed umpteen times in countless westerns, gangster sagas, wartime dramas, and other genres. But MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the first, even winning an Oscar for Arthur Caesar’s Best Original Story. Too bad Caesar didn’t copyright the idea; he’d have been a very rich man! The film also has that MGM shine going for it, with a stellar cast toplined by Clark Gable , William Powell , and Myrna Loy as Rambunctious, Studious, and Girl in the Middle, respectively. This was the first teaming of Powell and Loy, by the way, the beginning of a beautiful screen relationship that saw them paired in six THIN MAN movies and seven others.

Gable, Loy, & Powell

Gable’s quite the charmer as “rambunctious” Blackie Gallagher, the gangland gambler who’s never played by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s a likeable hoodlum, even though he’s also a stone-cold killer who commits murder not once, but twice during the course of the film. Powell’s “studious” Jim Wade is likeable, too… after all, how can you not like William Powell? He gets to strut his stuff in the courtroom scene that sends Blackie to the electric chair, getting himself elected governor in the process. Myrna Loy as socialite Eleanor Packer is simply divine, as always, and it’s not hard to see what attracts both men to her. The film runs along smoothly, but bogged down towards the end for me when the “melodrama” part kicked in and things got a little too sudsy. Still, I thought it was a great entry in the 30’s gangster cycle.

Nat Pendleton, Muriel Evans, & Isabel Jewell

I also loved the supporting cast, with Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s dimwitted right-hand man Spud and Isabel Jewell as his ditzy girlfriend Annabelle. Leo Carrillo plays Father Joe, who saved the two boys from drowning so they could grow up to be Gable and Powell. Speaking of which, young Mickey Rooney got a big break here playing young Blackie in the early scenes; not long after this picture, he became one of MGM’s top stars. And there are loads of Familiar Faces popping up in smaller roles: Oscar Apfel, Stanley Blystone, Muriel Evans, Donald Haines, Samuel S. Hinds , Leonid Kinskey , Noel Madison, Sam McDaniel, and Edward Van Sloan among them.

Powell says goodbye to old pal Gable

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is historic on several other levels beside the plot and the first Powell/Loy teaming. It’s the only film to costar Gable and Powell, both of whom were married at one point to Carole Lombard. A scene set in The Cotton Club features Shirley Ross singing a Rogers & Hart composition “The Bad in Every Man”; after the film was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics and the song became the standard “Blue Moon”. And of course, the movie has become a part of American folk-lore as the film Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on 7/22/34. I wonder if he liked the film as much as I did?

“Other than that, Mr. Dillinger, how did you enjoy the movie?”

Hoods vs Huns: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers 1942)

A gang of Runyonesque gamblers led by Humphrey Bogart take on Nazi spies in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, Bogie’s follow-up to his breakthrough role as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. Here he plays ‘Gloves’ Donahue, surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors in a grand mixture of suspense and laughs, with both the action and the wisecracks coming fast and furious in that old familiar Warner Brother style. Studio workhorse Vincent Sherman, whose directorial debut THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X also featured Bogart, keeps things moving briskly along and even adds some innovative flourishes that lift the film above its meager budget.

Bogie’s gangster image from all those 1930’s flicks come to a humorous head in the part of ‘Gloves’. He’s a tough guy for sure, but here the toughness is humanized by giving him a warm, loving mother (Jane Darwell ) and a fondness for cheesecake (the eating kind, though he loves the ladies, too!). ‘Gloves’ and his cronies (William Demarest,   Frank McHugh , and a young Jackie Gleason!) get embroiled in the murder of local baker Miller (Ludwig Stossell), with the notorious ‘Gloves’ as prime suspect. A mystery woman (Kaaren Verne) leads the gang to rival Marty Callahan’s (Barton MacLaine) nightclub, and intrigue involving a nest of Fifth Columnists led by Conrad Veidt , Peter Lorre , and Mrs. Danvers herself, Judith Anderson !

There’s a truckload of hilarious one-liners (some a bit dated) and some clever Code-bending double entendres, most of which center on newlywed McHugh’s plight. Sherman and DP Sid Hickox stage a novel and well shot fight in a freight elevator between Bogie and an Axis spy that’s very noir-ish in its execution. A scene Sherman dreamt up features Bogart and Demerest infiltrating a Nazi sympathizer rally and giving the Krauts the “doubletalk”. This scene, mostly improvised by the two stars, was ordered cut by studio boss Jack Warner, but when test audiences reacted positively to a snippet Sherman purposely left in the mogul relented. I’m glad he did, because it’s a very funny bit, allowing Bogie to show off his comedy chops!

Veidt, Lorre, and Anderson all excel as the bad guys, and the two male ex-pats would later join star Bogart in my favorite film, CASABLANCA . Kaaren Verne is quite good as the mystery woman, who of course is not what she seems. Miss Verne was in Sherman’s previous anti-Nazi film that year, UNDERGROUND, and acted in KING’S ROW, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , and THE SEVENTH CROSS before marrying costar Lorre and retiring from the screen. After their divorce in 1950, she made a brief comeback in movies and TV, including a memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Death’s-Head Revisited”. It’s too bad she wasn’t given a higher profile during her Hollywood career; she’s both skilled and beautiful, and with the right part could’ve probably been a big success in films.

The supporting cast features a pair of comics who later gained success in the world of television. Gleason, billed as Jackie C. Gleason, shows glimpses of his comedic talent; he wouldn’t make it in films until after he was firmly established as a top TV comic. Louie the waiter is played by Phil Silvers , who fared slightly better in movies, but did much better after bringing SGT. BILKO to life on the small screen. Familiar Face spotters will have a field day with this one, as Jean Ames, Egon Brecher, Ed Brophy , Walter Brooke, Wally Brown , Chester Clute, Wallace Ford, William Hopper, Martin Kosleck , Sam McDaniel, Emory Parnell, Frank Sully, Philip Van Zandt, Henry Victor, and Ben Welden all appear in small roles (some of them of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety).

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT is one of those enjoyable 40’s films made in an innocent time, where even gangsters rallied ’round the flag for freedom against the Nazi menace. It’s colorful dialog and cast of pros make this a fun vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, on the cusp of superstardom after years of toiling in secondary parts for the Brothers Warner. Soon Bogie would be travelling to CASABLANCA and achieve even greater success, thanks in large part to his work in films like ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Movie lovers like yours truly are forever grateful!

 

Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)

Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes off, vowing revenge, and assigning his torpedo ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) to plot the infamous mass murder.

Robards goes waaay over the top as Capone, a part Corman originally wanted Orson Welles to play (can you imagine?). He bellows, hollers, snarls and growls like a rabid wolverine, pops his eyes, and mugs shamelessly while chomping on a big old stogie. Yet somehow, it all works, since Capone’s such a larger-than-life character anyway. Meeker’s just a trifle more subdued (but not much!) as Moran, whether roaring at his own men with equal intensity, or throwing darts at a picture of Capone in his office.

The rest of the cast is a regular Rogue’s Gallery of Hollywood hoodlums. Segal gets most of the supporting screen time as Gusenberg, and he chews the scenery with the best of them, especially in the scene with his spendthrift moll (Jean Hale). You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all the Familiar Faces here: John Agar , Richard Bakalyan, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Mary Grace Canfield, Alex D’Arcy, Mickey Deems, Bruce Dern Charles Dierkop , Milton Frome, Reed Hadley, Kurt Kreuger, Celia Lovsky , Paul Richards, Alex Rocco, Joan Shawlee, Frank Silvera, and Harold J. Stone all appear, in roles both large and small. Some of Corman’s stock players also make cameos, including Leo Gordon , Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Dick Miller (of course!), and Barboura Morris. Jack Nicholson, as a favor to Roger, does a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit as one of the hired killers. When Miller asks what his goombah is rubbing on his bullets, Jack (using a raspy voice), says, “Garlic. If the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning!”

Howard Browne adapted his 1958 PLAYHOUSE 90 teleplay “Seven Against the Wall” into the screenplay. Browne was an old pro at pulp fiction, a former writer/editor of the magazines “Amazing Stories” and “Fantastic Adventures”. Browne only wrote two other films (1961’s PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER and 1975’s CAPONE, with Ben Gazzara as Scarface), but he was prolific in TV, writing for, among others, CHEYENNE, MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His 1954 novel “Thin Air” was adapted as episodes of both THE ROCKFORD FILES and SIMON & SIMON.

There’s plenty of violent tommy-gun action though the actual massacre takes less than thirty seconds. Corman is ably aided and abetted by DP Milton Krasner and Lionel Newman’s period score. The sets were refurbished from films like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE SAND PEBBLES, and HELLO, DOLLY to replicate 1920’s Chicago, and there’s loads of vintage autos and 20’s slang sprinkled throughout. Corman allegedly didn’t like working in the studio confines, and returned to his home at American-International. The independent filmmaker wanted to remain independent, free of the constraints of big-budget moviemaking and studio politics. But with THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, he proved to the world he could work within those confines just as well as the big boys, and gave fans of his work an entertainingly bloody valentine.

End of an Era: THE ROARING TWENTIES (Warner Brothers 1939)

Warner Brothers helped usher in the gangster movie era in the early 1930’s with Pre-Code hits like LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and at the decade’s end they put the capper on the genre with THE ROARING TWENTIES, a rat-a-tat-tat rousing piece of filmmaking starring two of the studio’s top hoods, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart , directed with the top down by eye-patch wearing macho man Raoul Walsh for maximum entertainment.

The film’s story was written by Mark Hellinger, a popular and colorful New York columnist in the Damon Runyon mold who based it on his encounters with some of the underworld figures he knew during that tumultuous era. Hellinger was later responsible for producing some of the toughest noirs of the late 40’s: THE KILLERS BRUTE FORCE , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, and THE NAKED CITY. Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, and Robert Rossen adapted Hellinger’s story for the screen, and the film has a novel way of moving through the decade via montage, nine of them to be exact!

WWI vets Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart (Cagney, Bogie, Jeffrey Lynn) return home to vastly different circumstances. While Hally returns to saloonkeeping and Hart begins a law career, Eddie finds himself an out-of-work mechanic. Pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) gives him a job driving hack, but when the Volstead Act goes into effect, Eddie becomes a bootlegger. He joins forces with saloon owner/hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George), and soon buys a fleet of cabs to deliver the hootch. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, and Eddie is off and running in the illegal booze business.

Sweet Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who once sent Eddie her picture during the war (she was a teen at the time), is trying to break into show business, so Eddie gets her a job as a singer in Panama’s joint. He’s infatuated with Jean, but she only has eyes for Lloyd. Meanwhile, competition in the rackets causes violence to escalate between Eddie and rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). George is working as Brown’s lieutenant, but double-crosses him to join forces with Eddie. Pal Danny’s body is dumped in front of Eddie’s nightclub, and the mobster goes for revenge against Brown, only to be double-crossed by that double-crosser George!

Times change, the stock market crashes, prohibition’s repealed, Lloyd and Jean get married, and Eddie hits the skids, crawling into a bottle with only loyal Panama by his side. Jean searches for and finds Eddie in a run-down gin joint and asks for help. Lloyd is now with the DA’s office, and George, still a top hood, wants to put him on ice. This last segment has the look and feel of an early Thirties Warners gangster pic, as the studio pays homage to itself and its  films. The famous final scene featuring Cagney, pumped full of lead and dying on those snow covered church steps, with Panama uttering the memorable last line “He used to be a big shot”, is one of my favorites in cinema history.

The casting is perfect. Cagney is Cagney, and can do no wrong far as I’m concerned. Bogart is thoroughly despicable as rotten George, the kind of villain you want to “boo and hiss” at. Priscilla Lane is all sweetness as Jean, and even gets to sing some period songs like “Melancholy Baby”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, and “It Had to Be You”. But it’s Gladys George who steals this one as Panama, the proverbial “tough-dame-with-the-heart-of-gold”, a part usually reserved for the likes of Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, or Claire Trevor. Gladys was better known to audiences for “woman’s pictures” like VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE and MADAME X, but here she gets down-and-dirty with the best of ’em. I don’t think Joan, Glenda, or Claire could’ve done it any better than Gladys, she’s that good, and should’ve been Oscar nominated. Gladys later reunited with Bogart as Miles Archer’s widow in THE MALTESE FALCON.

As you’d expect in a Warner Brothers film of this era, there are tons of Familiar Faces floating through the plot, way too many to mention them all here, so I’ll just list Elisabeth Risdon, Joe Sawyer, John Hamilton, Jack Norton (as a drunk, of course!), Eddie Acuff, Abner Biberman, Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!), Maurice Costello, Wild Bill Elliott, Bess Flowers, Donald Kerr, George Tobias, Ben Weldon, and Frank Wilcox, and let you find the rest! Happy hunting, film fans!

 

 

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Pre-Code Confidential #1: James Cagney in LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933)

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Pre-Code Hollywood movies like LADY KILLER are always fun to watch. They’re filled with risqué business, sly innuendos, and are much more adult in content than post-1934 films. This little gem features James Cagney in one of his patented tough guy roles as Dan Quigley. Dan’s a brash, cocky movie usher who gets fired for insulting his patrons. While indulging in rolling some dice at a hotel lobby, he sees Myra (Mae Clarke)  drop her purse as she’s leaving. Ladies man Dan follows her to her apartment with it, hoping for some afternoon delight.

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Dan and Myra

Myra’s grateful, and offers him a drink (Her: “Chaser?” Him: “Always have been!”). Myra’s “brother-in-law” Duke (Douglass Dumbrille) emerges from the next room, and invites Dan to play a little poker. Losing all his dough, Dan leaves the apartment. He comes across a gentleman holding another purse in the hallway looking for Myra. Realizing he’s been set up, he storms back in and demands his money back. Yet another sucker comes in with a purse, and Dan muscles his way in on the con. Soon he’s leading the gang, and they make enough to open their own speakeasy, the Seven-Eleven Club. The gang branches out into burglary, targeting a rich widow. Dan fakes a car accident, weaseling his way into her home to get a layout of the joint. Things go awry when a maid is “brutally slugged” and dies. One of the gang squeals and gets iced by his pals just as the cops raid the Seven-Eleven. The gang takes it on the lam, with Dan and Myra ending up in LA. The coppers pick him up at the train station for questioning, and hold him on bail. He calls Myra at their pre-arranged hotel room to post bond, but the devious dame has hooked up with Duke scramed to Mexico, leaving Dan high and dry. Dan’s released when “New York can’t get the goods” on him, with a warning to find employment in 48 hours or get out of town. At a pool hall, Dan’s discovered by a Hollywood producer looking for new faces, and begins working as an extra in a prison picture.

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LADY KILLER now shifts gears to give us a backstage look at Hollywood. Cagney does bits as a con and an Indian chief (!) as the tone turns from gangster pic to comedy. He meets up with leading lady Lois Underwood (Margret Lindsey) and becomes a star in his own right. Seems the studio’s looking for the “rough and ready” type, and Dan writes bogus fan letters extolling his popularity! Now a star (complete with pencil-thin moustache), Dan and Lois start dating. She facetiously tells him she wants “a crate of monkeys, Tyrolean yodelers, and an elephant” for her birthday party, and wise guy Dan obliges in a hysterical scene.

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Dan’s still the same street kid he’s always been, as we see where he makes a critic literally eat his words (an actor’s dream!). Dan brings Lois to his apartment, only to find Myra waiting in his bed! Lois storms out. In a scene that could only happen in a Pre-Code movie, he drags Myra out by her hair and kicks her ass out the door! It’s not the first time Cagney brutalized Clarke on screen. Film fans all remember the classic grapefruit scene in PUBLIC ENEMY.

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Next day, we find the old gang back in town (including Myra), wanting Dan’s Hollywood contacts to set up more robberies. Dan gives then ten grand to keep away from him and leave Hollywood, but Duke and his boys take a guided tour of star’s homes to do their own dirty work. Lois’s house gets robbed and a cop is killed during the escape. Dan busts in on their hideout, gun in hand, and demands the loot to return to Lois. The cops then arrive and arrest him, allowing the gang to flee. They bail him out, and Myra is waiting for him in a car. She confesses to Dan he’s being set up by his old pals who plan to bump him off on the highway. But Dan’s no dummy. He’s alerted the coppers, and they’re in pursuit. A wild car chase with tommy-guns blazing sets up the final shootout. Dan is exonerated, and he and Lois fly to Yuma for their wedding.

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LADY KILLER is fast paced fun, loaded with snappy dialogue. One of the gang asks Dan where he’d like them to go, and he replies with a smile, “Need I say?” Offering one of them some fruit, Dan slyly says, “You like fruit. That I know.” In one scene, he sneakily kisses Myra on the breast (through her dress). The film’s director Roy Del Ruth got his start as a Mack Sennett gag writer. The veteran also worked with Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY, TAXI, and BLESSED EVENT. Other films include THE BABE RUTH STORY, the noir RED LIGHT, and horror entries PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Del Ruth was by no means a top-flight director, but he did some interesting films and his career deserves a second look.

LADY KILLER abounds with familiar faces, Besides Dumbrille (who’s good as Duke), the gang members are Raymond Hatton, Leslie Fenton, and Russell Hopton. Others in various roles are Henry O’Neill, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, George Chandler, Edwin Maxwell, Dewey Robinson, Sam McDaniel, and Dennis O’Keefe. While not a classic, LADY KILLER is a great example of Pre-Code filmmaking, with an energetic performance by Cagney. Pre-Code fans, gangster buffs, and movie manques looking for a peek at the soundstages of 30s Hollywood will all enjoy this well made time capsule.