Film Review – The Killing

 

The Killing

1956

Director: Stanley Kubrick

“You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”

Known for over-the-top, extravagant (yet inherently brilliant) films such as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it seems strange to think that Stanley Kubrick started out in the world of film noir. Yet that is indeed what he did, and his main contribution, 1956’s The Killing, is one of the highlights of noir’s later years. Continue reading

Film Review – White Heat

White Heat

1949

Director: Raoul Walsh

After a decade of mixed successes and independent ventures, White Heat marks James Cagney’s return to the Warner Brothers’ studio (not his first, mind) and the style of films which made his name through the 1930s. Released ten years after his last big crime picture, 1939’s excellent The Roaring Twenties (reviewed here), and which itself was also directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat shows Cagney giving more heart and soul into a role than any he had played previously. No longer the fresh-faced youngster of The Public Enemy, here he is older, tougher and more outright scary than anyone might have expected from him. Continue reading

Film Review – Key Largo

Key Largo

1948

Director: John Houston

“You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it..”

Key Largo is the fourth and final film starring the legendary ‘Bogart & Bacall’ pairing (both on screen and in life), following on from 1944’s To Have and Have Not,1946’sThe Big Sleep, and 1947’s Dark Passage. Based on a 1939 play, the plot this time round is pretty simple, avoiding the murder-mystery elements of the previous two movies and focusing instead on building up tension between a select group of characters in an enclosed, claustrophobic environment.  Bogart plays the role of Frank McCloud, a WWII veteran vising the father and wife (played by Bacall) of his deceased war buddy. They own a small hotel out on Key Largo, an island located down in the Florida Keys. The only complication he finds upon getting there is that the hotel has been taken over by a small gang of hoodlums, a drunken nightclub crooner, a captured police officer, and an unseen mob boss, later revealed as Johnny Rocco (played by Little Caesar star Edward G. Robinson) – a notorious hoodlum previously deported from American and trying to smuggle his way back in, alongside carrying out a deal with some local crooks for the delivery of counterfeit money. Unfortunately for all involved, a hurricane is making its way to Key Largo that same night, causing the residents to buckle in for the night, hoping for the storm to pass before being (quite literally) blown away – be it from the storm or each other. Continue reading

Film Review – The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties

1939

Director: Raoul Walsh

One of the last of the ‘classic’ era of gangster films to be released, The Roaring Twenties serves as a kind of footnote to 1930s crime cinema – a headstrong act of defiance in a changing world, honouring the films that, at the turn of the decade, had served to reflect the problems of the world they were created in.

The Roaring Twenties stars James Cagney (of The Public Enemy fame) in the role of Eddie Bartlett – a sincere and honest American who, in the aftermath of World War 1, is forced to enter the bootlegging business as a pure and simple means of survival. Continue reading

Film Review – The Godfather

The Godfather

1972

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

There is little to say about The Godfather that hasn’t been said much before. Since its release in 1972, it has gone down as one of the most loved, revered and quoted films of all time. And for good reason. It is one of those rare films which gets everything just…right.

Adapted from Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel (with the author himself co-scripting the film along with Coppola), The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone family – the largest of the five crime families based on New York. Continue reading

Film Review – Scarface (1932)

Scarface

1932

Director: Howard Hawks

 

scarface-1932-726x400

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.

 

Film Review – Little Caesar

Little Caesar

1931

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Little+Caesar+03

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.

 

robinson20edward20g-20little20caesar_01