Tag Archive: Gangster Movies


TheUntouchables1

It’s always disappointing to return to movies that you have very fond memories of from when you’re younger that fail to live up to the high expectations memory has endowed them with. It doesn’t happen often. Usually the sheer nostalgia factor tends to overwhelm the senses and make me push aside any shortcomings I have towards a film. This is particularly true of children’s films and the reason why you could pop in any episode of any 90s cartoon and I would be lost in joy for as long as you put it on. But for a film presumably for grown-ups which I watched first as a young teenager, my mature self (and certainly more knowledgeable of good vs. bad cinema) can pick out the flaws in films I used to enjoy so completely. And although The Untouchables can be a rousing adventure story; it is just that. While trying to capture the feel of the classic crime films of yore, The Untouchables comes off like an overly romanticized (and overly directed) boys tale.

In the 1930s, Prohibition is in full-swing and bootlegging alcohol is the key to making a quick buck. And in the corrupt streets of Chicago, nobody does it better than Al Capone (Robert De Niro). A self-made millionaire, Capone was a murderous gang leader who held the illegal alcohol racket under his boots through a mix of intimidation, murder, and great press relations. After one of his thugs accidentally murders a ten year old girl as part of Capone’s racketeering schemes, federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) makes it his personal crusade to bring down the most powerful man in Chicago. And when Ness quickly discovers that Capone has most of the Chicago police department in his back pocket, he forms a small team, including wise Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), crackshot rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia), and G-Man accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), to get the job done.

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I have a litany of complaints about the film but at the end of the day, it’s still enjoyable as long as you realize that this isn’t an especially serious take on one of our nation’s most famous criminal investigations. The film’s script came from the inimitable David Mamet (Wag the Dog), and either his famous ear for dialogue was completely broken for this movie or director Brian de Palma intentionally dumbed the script down. I don’t know who to blame. But at the end of the day, the film sounds almost comically noble. Whereas White Heat or The Public Enemy succeed because their dialogue sounds realistic and gritty, The Untouchables makes Eliot Ness and his crew sound like superheroes. The only exception, of course, being Sean Connery’s Jim Malone (but more on that shortly). Certain scenes ring with the typical Mamet brilliance (a great speech from Al Capone before he murders an associate rings to mind), but the majority of the film features hilariously overblown theatrics.

And this is going to sound crazy, but Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is also downright laughable. He’s a man that is perhaps one of the top three or top five beloved scorers in the history of cinema, but the score for the film is laughably over-the-top. It was holding the audience by the hand and telling them exactly how to feel in every single scene without a hint of concern for subtlety or not being laughably obvious. Though, to be fair to Morricone, certain numbers worked very well. Although one can’t blame him for his score being over-the-top and noble in a strained sort of way when virtually everything about the film screamed of simply trying to hard.

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And, boy, did Brian de Palma just over-direct the hell out of this movie. I love Fellini. I love Terence Malick. I love Akira Kurosawa. I love directors that put themselves into every frame of their films. But, you have to know what you’re doing in order to make that kind of constant visual flourish work. And, at least for this picture, Brian De Palma did not know what he was doing. And, if he did, he was clearly trying to frustrate trained viewers with almost unending, unnecessary visual quirks. One of the film’s most famous moments (and arguably the climactic shoot-out) nearly made me start laughing, not because the scene was supposed to be funny, but because De Palma was so desperately trying to channel Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin when it was totally not needed. And about half of the film consists of such over-the-top silliness.

The movie does have one absolutely perfect thing going for it, and it’s the delicious performance of Sean Connery as Jim Malone. As the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably racist, street-wise cop that helps Ness break up the whole Capone operation, Sean Connery breathes a breath of life and realism into a film that is otherwise something a bunch of wide-eyed teenage boys would tell each other around the camp fire as they recount the feats of heroism of “the Untouchables.” The way that Connery makes you forget how terrible his dialogue can be (and boy can it be bad) is a marvel. Compared to the stone-faced performance of Kevin Costner (who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly an Oscar-caliber performer), the Academy Award-winning performance from Sean Connery lights up the screen and your imagination, and if you’re anything like me, you likely spend much of the film simply wishing there was more Jim Malone.

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After so many harsh words (and so few good ones), you might think that I really hated this film. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. As a cops & robbers movie, it’s fun. You just have to know that it isn’t a serious look into this fascinating period. It, in fact, reminds me of a conversation Jesse James and  Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James about Robert Ford’s love of the dime novels about Jesse’s exploits. This film is the 1980s version of a 1930s story. And that’s ok. For what it is, it’s a fun movie. Just don’t expect it to be anything more. Because otherwise, you’re going to be greatly disappointed. It’s just sad because you expect so much more from the pairing of David Mamet and Brian De Palma.

Final Score: B

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WhiteHeat1

(Quick reminder before I start this review. I just want to remind all of my regular readers that I have another film studies class this semester. And it’s all gangster movies. And we’re starting with the classics. That’s why there’s two James Cagney movies in such short succession like this. The last was The Public Enemy and now we’ve moved on nearly twenty years to a film that’s just as influential and celebrated. But more on that later. That little aside was for anyone who might be getting burnt out on the gangster movies. And I hate to tell you, but The Untouchables is the next thing in my Netflix Instant queue. But that’s the random blog gods. Not my class. Seacrest out.)

“Made it, ma! Top of the world!” It’s one of the most famous (and misquoted) lines in all of cinematic history from one of the medium’s most famous closing scenes. And it comes from a heralded classic of both the gangster and film noir genres (though by the mid 1940s, the two were inseparable). Director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 crime epic, White Heat, contains one of the most legendary villainous performances in film history from James Cagney as a man at the top of his game, and having seen two of his films in short succession, it’s easy to say that he may be one of the most influential performers of all time. Though certain aspects of White Heat devolve into a dull police procedural, this film easily represents one of the high watermarks of the entire gangster genre, and Cagney’s explosive performance (visual pun intended) cements his legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men.

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White Heat is the masterfully constructed tale of the psychotic and mama-obsessed Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). Leader of a group of then modern day bandits, Cody Jarrett is a mentally unhinged murderous madman with the mother of all oedipal complexes (once again, pun sort of intended) thanks to his equally evil mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly). When Cody, Ma, and Cody’s gold-digging wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) finally realize they’re trapped by the law, Cody concocts a plan to get himself sent to jail for a different crime than the one he’s being accused of (to make an alibi for the actual capitol offense). But the police know the truth, and they send in undercover cop Hank Fallon (A Double Life‘s Edmond O’Brien) to figure out where Cody’s stashed the money from his last heist and to catch Cody’s high-level fence. When Cody busts out of jail dragging Hank with him (as he’s become the only man Cody trusts), it all leads to a fiery finale.

If I thought Cagney was great in The Public Enemy, he just blew me away in this film. Alongside slowly unhinged performances like Nicholson in The Shining or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Cagney manages to envelope the audience in Cody Jarrett’s madness. With his headaches (and possible epilepsy) and schizophrenic mood, Cody Jarrett is a being of pure, destructive energy, and Cagney taps into something dark and deep to provide the chills. Without wanting to spoil a plot point, there’s a scene in the prison where Jarrett gets bad news that causes Jarrett to (pardon my french) flip the f*** out. He loses his shit. And none of the extras in the scene knew what Cagney was going to do. And the pure look of shock on their faces in that scene is real as they begin to wonder if James Cagney hasn’t already lost his damn mind.

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And unlike The Public Enemy, there were few if any botched supporting performances to bog the film down. Edmund O’Brien was surprisingly endearing as the undercover cop even as the scenes with his peers threatened to destroy the film’s pacing. Virginia Mayo was delightfully crude and vulgar as Cody Jarrett’s simple-minded femme not so fetale. Margaret Wyncherly was the perfect proto-Livia Soprano as Cody’s domineering and manipulative mother. In fact, Edmund O’Brien and Margaret Wyncherly brought so much presence to the film that although they weren’t able to compete with James Cagney for the audience’s undivided attention, they ensured that any scene focused on them didn’t leave you wishing that Cagney was still on screen.

And man. This film was violent. For a film from the Hays Code era, Warner Bros. really got away with a lot of (for the time) shocking scenes of destruction and wanton mayhem. Before the film started, my film studies professor put up the film’s total death count which was at 17. That may seem tame in an era of Die Hard‘s and zombie movie revivals, but for the time, they may have well just spent the whole film massacring cops and robbers. And Virginia Mayo’s Verna snores, drinks, spits out her gum and generally doesn’t act like a lady at all. It destroyed the notion of what a mother was supposed to be in classic cinema. And the film builds to an absolutely rousing climax that left me on the edge of my seat even though I more or less knew how it was all going to ultimately go down.

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And yeah, the parts that are told through the point of view of Hank Fallon’s partners in the feds aren’t as gripping as either Hank’s attempts to not be discovered by Cody Jarret or Cody’s simple attempts to stay alive and get his vengeance. But, for a film that is 63 years old, White Heat has aged spectacularly. After just two of his films, Cagney has proven to me why his legacy exists in the first place, and White Heat reminds me why film noir is a regular contender for my favorite film genre. This film is likely the peak of Cagney’s career and he probably never did anything half this good after this (I can’t remember any other high profile roles after this of his), and for real movie lovers, it’s a must-see. Gangster cinema at some of its finest.

Final Score: A-

The Public Enemy

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I’m almost hesitant to write this review. Without fail (continental divide-wide power outages not withstanding), I try to have my reviews for films up at least a day or so after I first watch the movie. That will not be the case for the 1931 gangster classic, The Public Enemy. I have a film studies class this semester (because the one I took last semester didn’t fulfill the GEC requirement that I thought it did), and all of the films that we’re watching are “gangster” movies. I’m not crazy about that because that’s way too specific for my tastes for a movie every week but it has potential. We watched our first film, James Cagney’s breakthrough film The Public Enemy, on Tuesday and I’ve only just now had the chance to review it. I apologize if my details are hazy.

1931 marked one year into the Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code. Films had to follow a very strict moral code. Yet, despite these strictures by the Hays Office, certain movies slipped through the cracks (even if they ultimately had to wrap things up at the end in a “moral” way). Gangster movies and film noir scratched the need for darkness and depravity that the American public craved (even if the law said it was wrong). William Welman’s directorial high-watermark The Public Enemy marked the beginning of the true “ganster” film classics. And despite the film’s real flaws, it was the rare classic where the excesses of the Hays Code never seemed to mar the picture.

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In his first leading role, James Cagney portrays Tom Powers, a young hood on the streets looking to rise the in the ranks of the criminal organization with his best friend, Matt Doyle. Even from a young age, Tom had an almost psychopathic lack of respect for authority. While his brother Mike (Donald Cook) gets a real job though never really rises out of poverty, Tom dives into a life of crime and the immediate riches of running booze and breaking arms for hire. As he climbs higher and higher in the Paddy Ryan crime family, Tom gains more infamy and respect while constantly painting a bigger and bigger target on his back.

Before we watched the film in my class, we watched a mini-documentary where Martin Scorsese called James Cagney’s first appearance on screen the moment where modern acting began. He couldn’t have been more right. Cagney brought an intensity and naturalism to his performance that was lacking in virtually every screen performance before him. He was the Brando before Brando was a thing. He was violent, sexual, menacing, and full of the type of little theatrical flourishes that were unheard of on the silver screen before him. This was the first James Cagney film I’ve ever seen, and I totally get it now.

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Throughout the entire film, I found myself disoriented and I couldn’t put my finger on it til halfway through. There was a striking clarity to the images and I thought that maybe the people who had digitally remastered the film had went a little overboard. That might have been the case but as someone who immediately thinks of film noir when I think of black & white crime movies, I was put off by the film’s almost documentary photographic feel. The lighting is bright, harsh, and very realistic. None of the shadows and atmosphere of later crime films (think Double Indemnity). I can’t fault the film for it but it lacked much of the visual excitement I expect from classic crime films.

But, ultimately, that “true-to-life” visual style meshes with the film’s (dated) attempts to capture a type of sociological realism to poverty and crime in the early 1900s. The Public Enemy seems to revel in its attention to both period detail and a cynical, pessimistic take on the cultural conditions that produced men like Tom Powers. By no means does this film produce the insights of crime films like Winter’s Bone or American History X, but for it’s time, it was an exciting and sophisticated bit of popcorn art.

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The film has its flaws. It does come across as dated. Certain moments carry more comedic weight than their intended dramatic weight. Jean Harlow is an all-time Hollywood legend but I don’t understand it at all. She seemed touched in the head in this film. But, the film’s perfect moments (the infamous grapefruit scene, the great understated moments of violence, Cagney’s pure whirlwind force) remind you why this film has remained a beloved classic for 80 years. Like I said, I watched it a week ago so many of the details are too hazy for me to make a truly insightful review, but if you love gangster movies, The Public Enemy is worth a spin.

Final Score: B+