Cape Fear – 1962 – 1991

Cape Fear – 1962 – 1991

Much like the original 1932 Scarface (reviewed earlier here), the original 1962 Cape Fear is an innovative classic which has become subsequently overshadowed by a big-budget Hollywood remake. In both cases, the remakes are excellent films in their own right, but have the unfortunate effect of relegating their predecessors to somewhat forgotten-relic status. After reviewing Scarface last week, I thought a side-by-side review of both version of Cape Fear might be of some interest. So here goes… Continue reading

Film Review – Scarface (1932)

Scarface

1932

Director: Howard Hawks

 

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Continuing my exploration into the original gangster movies (following up my earlier review of Little Caesar) I picked up the original 1932 Scarface. Like a lot of people, I’m quite well-acquainted with the more well-known 1983 version staring Al Pacino. That film has embedded itself quite firmly into movie culture, and seems to have pretty thoroughly overshadowed the original in a way akin to the big-budget 1991 adaption of Cape Fear did to its 1962 predecessor.  But, the original is still fortunately widely (and cheaply) available on DVD. Suffice to say, it is well worth picking up.

The original Scarface (based on a 1929 novel by Armitage Trail) stars Paul Muni as Tony Carmote, a low-level gangster keen to move up the ranks in the power vacuum left by his assassination of a mob boss (which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be the beginning of several). Nicknamed ‘Scarface’ for a mark on his face suffered earlier on, the story is effectively a fictional take on the rise of Al Capone in prohibition-era Chicago.

For those acquainted with the 1983 version, the underlying plot is the same. Tony gets in with another mob boss (this one involved in selling alcohol rather than cocaine), thinks he can do a better job, makes his own deals, falls in love with the boss’ woman, and has an unhealthy obsession over his teenage sister. Oh, and the ‘The World is Yours’ moniker is also present. It’s not unfamiliar territory, but the style and setting of the film, combined with the fact that it pretty much defined the stereotypes that the genre became known for (tommy guns, fast-talking detectives shouting ‘see!’ a lot), makes it a film worth watching. If 1931’s Little Caesar and Public Enemy were the films to start the gangster genre, then Scarface is the movie that defined them. It is fast-moving, contains enough shoot-out scenes to rival a modern video game, and Muni gives a spectacular performance as the unhinged gangster on his way to the top. The rest of the cast is also solid, and although Muni is unquestionably the centrepiece, the rest of the cast are memorable and varied enough to make it so that the movie doesn’t rely solely on the strength of the lead (as opposed to Little Caesar).

What also makes the film interesting is the blunt and direct political message the film makers were trying to make. Before the opening scene, a series of flashcards show up making an indictment of the American government’s failure to react to organised crime and claiming that movie which follows reflects a portrayal of the real world. They aren’t wrong either. As mentioned, the film draws heavily on Al Capone (who shared the moniker of the title character here) and plenty of parallels between the two characters are made (see: the killing of a gang rival in his flower shop is an obvious comparison to Dean O’Banion’s killing; and frankly the St Valentine’s Day Massacre scene needs no commentary). The story goes that Capone’s men also ‘assisted’ with the production of aspects of the film. Quite what they made of the opening flashcards, we can only guess…but the fact that the film makers (including director Howard Hawks, who went on to make a number of subsequent classic movies, not least of all The Big Sleep) were left with their legs intact probably suggests they weren’t too fussed…

Quite whether the film had the political effect it intended is probably doubtful (although prohibition did come to an end the year after it was released), but it is still great entertainment all the same. If you’re sick to death of the indulgent Pacino version of the eighties (as great a film as that is), you could do worse than seeking out the original.

 

Book Review – Build My Gallows High (Out of the Past) – Geoffrey Homes

Build My Gallows High (Out of the Past)

Geoffrey Homes

1946

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Being a big fan of the film Out of the Past, which is rightly lauded as being one of the defining films of the noir era, I decided to seek out the original book it was based on. Surprisingly, it turns out to be harder to get hold of than expected. Given the wide availability of the film, one might expect the book to still be in print somewhere around – but no, instead we have to resort to the good graces of Amazon and eBay to find it.

Given the popularity and recognition of the film, I thought it might be interesting to put a few thoughts down about the original book, rather than regurgitating lines about the film (which deserves the accolades it gets). I have to say, I’m glad I did.

Released in 1946 by Geoffrey Homes (a pen name of screenwriter and crime novelist Daniel Mainwaring), Build my Gallows High tells the story of a former private detective ‘Red’ Bailey (later renamed as Jeff for the film version, portrayed by noir stalwart Robert Mitchum), whose past comes back to haunt him when he is discovered by chance by a former henchman working for a gangster for whom Bailey once was hired. The first part of the story (as with the film) features a retelling of the job he carried out for that gangster, where he was hired to track down the woman who shot him and made away with a hefty sum of cash. Bailey tracks her down in Mexico and, unsurprisingly, falls in love and tries to flee with her, only to find himself betrayed by the same woman. The remainder of the story involves a fairly complex set-up operation with Bailey at the core, resulting in a prolonged game of cross and double-cross before reaching its final blood-soaked climax.

For those familiar with the film, there isn’t a substantial amount of difference between the two story-wise, aside from a bleaker and less redemptive ending which the film softened somewhat. Beyond the addition of a few extra characters and a few name changes (changing the name of the female antagonist from the book’s ‘Mumsie’ to ‘Kathy’ in the film was probably a wise idea), the gist of the plot is pretty much the same. But don’t let that put you off. The book maintains a distinctly dark undertone, perhaps more so than the film, in that you feel throughout the whole thing that Red Bailey is a man heading towards his doom. He himself even says as much. Themes of fate and guilt run high and underpin the overall bulk of the story.

Running at 154 pages, it’s a short and sharp read. Even though it is hard to remove the faces of Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum from your mind, the book is every bit as enjoyable as the film. The story moves at a fast pace and fits in a surprising amount of plot and detail within such a (relatively) short manuscript. Homes’ central character is a cynical detective in the vein of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but his underlying character is brought more into focus than either of these. Rather than a man living in a permanent state of indifference, taking whatever job comes along, Bailey is a man trying to escape from the life he led and wants to leave the world of a private detective behind him. It’s an interesting take on the detective character, and not one which is always given much thought – what does happen to a detective after he retires? It’s hard to believe that they are just left to retire on whatever pension they managed to save up and slowly live to a ripe-old age. Given that their careers have been made in spying and digging up secrets on rather unpleasant people, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to believe that there won’t be a disgruntled client or two somewhere waiting to catch up with them some day. That is the pinpoint behind this story – a man’s past finally catching up with him. It certainly is a unique take on the detective genre of the time.

It’s not the easiest book to get hold of (depending on the quality of the book you want, anyway), but you could do a lot worse than to get a hold of an old copy of this work. I can only hope that eventually, Homes’ work gets picked up again by some of the current printing houses and given another chance at some recognition. If Build my Gallows High is anything to go by, it’s probably a bibliography well worth discovering.

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Film Review – Little Caesar

Little Caesar

1931

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

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So recently I decided to start looking into some of the original gangster films back during their glory years of the 1930s. Little Caesar (a word I have misspelled more times than I care to admit) is pretty universally regarded as one of the milestones of the genre, and so with anticipation I settled on it as my starting point.

Little Caesar stars Edward G Robinson in what was to become his breakout role, playing the title character Enrico Bandello, or Caesar to those who he comes across. It’s a standard crime tale of a young hoodlum attempting to rise to the top of organised crime. Starting out as part of a two-man team holding us gas stations, Rico becomes fascinated by news reports of the bigger players living with wealth and power that others only dream of. Rico is quickly away and making deals to get himself up the ladder of crime, not caring who he has to cross over to get there. A few stick ups later, and his house of cards begins to tumble in a pretty classic fashion. A friend’s betrayal, his own sense of loyalty, and a few determined cops help bring matters to a conclusion in the only way they can.

Robinson himself is pretty much the sole star of the movie, and he certainly portrays the role of an unhinged psychopath well. His portrayal is in some ways an early version of the roles Joe Pesci would come to play sixty years later – the short, loud and violent man who no one could predict, let alone care to trust. The rest of the cast are competent, though none of the other members particularly stand out. That just means that the focus is left on Robinson, who is plenty capable of carrying the film himself.

By today’s standards, it’s a pretty standard affair. But looking at it in the context in which it was filmed and released, 1931 America where prohibition was still in effect, the Depression was in full swing, and gangsters like Al Capone still roamed the streets, the film stands out as a remarkable period-piece and a great portrayal of life at that time in America’s history. This is what makes the film the most interesting to watch – a unique glimpse into an era which influenced so much.

It’s a short film (running at slightly over one and a quarter hours), so it makes for quick entertainment. The plot isn’t particularly sophisticated, but it is a great example of the fledgling gangster genre helped out by a defining performance by Robinson, band helps to set all of the identifying characteristics of gangsters films to follow.

 

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Mildred Pierce – James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce

James M Cain

1941

Okay, it’s not technically ‘crime’, but it fits within the overall noir genre and the 1945 film adaption with Joan Crawford (which I would recommend) includes a murder angle which is absent from the book. And it fits in well with my post about Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress. So there we go.

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Mildred Pierce is, along with The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, one of the main works for which James M. Cain is mostly remembered. I gave it my first reading recently (having already seen the aforementioned film version), and found it to be a surprisingly more engaging read than either of the other two pillars of Cain’s bibliography.

If Postman… is Cain’s masterwork for displaying his skills at portraying a sinister, hardboiled world driven by lust, Mildred Pierce is where he shows he could create characters with psychological depth and a story which doesn’t rely on shock or sensation to keep readers interested.

In short, Mildred Pierce tells the story of a young woman who, after her husband leaves for the comforts of another woman, begins to build up her own business in the Depression-struck era of the 1930s so she can provide the life of luxury and status demanded by her spoiled daughter, Veda. Several men come and go into her life throughout the story, which spans a time frame of several years, each with their own backhand plans and intentions. It ends with a series of betrayals which risks leaving Mildred in a state of permanent financial and emotional ruin.

On summary, it may not sound like the sort of gripping material which Cain was known for, but the devil is, as always, in the detail. Digging a bit deeper into it, it shares a number of traits with Cain’s other works. Lust and desire are still present in spades (Mildred certainly isn’t conservative in her approach to men, who equally share her views on having a good time), and Mildred’s desire to make something of herself rests comfortably next to the character of Cora in Postman…as well as the character of Joan Crawford in Cain’s posthumous work, The Cocktail Waitress (reviewed here). But it’s Mildred’s struggle to thrive legitimately in a bleak world which sets the book apart from the others. A woman who has her husband leave her when the only income she has to make is in making pies to sell to neighbours for a couple dollars at a time, followed by getting a job that she has to keep secret from her eldest daughter for the fear of shame and anger she knows it will bring out from her. The daughter who herself is, for lack of any other suitable words, a bitch. Cain’s antagonist here isn’t a lonely drifter or sophisticated criminal, but is rather the person closest to the lead character. No level of greed or selfishness could really break the emotion that Mildred has for her daughter (even come the ending of the book, there is the sense that it won’t be the end for the two characters), and it completely drives the story upwards, to the point where it becomes frustrating for the readers to see how Mildred continues to indulge and tolerate her daughter. But then that’s probably the point – any other outsider would toss a person like that as far away from them as they could. But as a mother, that is the one option which isn’t available to Mildred.

Mildred Pierce may not sound like the sort of material which might match the shorter, leaner, and nastier works which Cain (not to mention Chandler et al) produced, but it retains a distinctly noir feel and shares all the themes and traits which made Cain the writer he was. A rare level of emotional depth adds to the mixture, and is a surprisingly compelling read.

Oh, and HBO made a 5-part miniseries out of it a few years ago, which wasn’t at all too shabby…

 

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