Released simultaneously with Gruesome California, this laughably-named second volume of Great Crimes And Trials Of The 20th Century condenses five more of the era's most notorious subjects into bite-sized video nuggets.
As a whole, this short-lived but memorable A&E documentary series remains consistent in tone and style, serving up a no-frills presentation with efficient narration by English actor Robert Powell and journalist Bill Kurtis. This time, we learn about some of America's most infamous gangsters including John Dillinger, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone...not Ice-T, Body Count or Johnny Cash, as the title implies. Though shorter than Volume 1 by about 30 minutes, The Original Gangstas still contains a solid amount of historical footage that all but the most seasoned history buffs will be seeing for the first time.
The first two episodes (presented under the "American Justice" banner) are narrated by Great Crimes and Trials regular Robert Powell; during "Rise of the Mafia", we're given a condensed history of the Mob from the Prohibition Era through the late 1980s. It also details some of the profiled usual suspects along the way, so the segue into "John Dillinger" feels pretty seamless. This second episode details the bank robber's short life, from his troubled childhood to the incident at Chicago's Biograph Theater, while also entertaining author Jay Robert Nash's theory that the man killed by police was not, in fact, John Dillinger. Both "Al Capone" and "Lucky Luciano" are narrated by American news anchor and journalist Bill Kurtis, likewise offering a condensed version of their lives and infamous events along the way, from the 1929 "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre" to the 1946 Havana Conference. Finally, "Mystery of Jimmy Hoffa" summarizes the life of the infamous Teamster's Union leader, from his early leadership skills to his Mafia involvement and, of course, Hoffa's 1975 disappearance and the fruitless search that followed.
Overall, The Original Gangstas is a decent primer that, at the very least, has merely survived the dated production of these five episodes. 80% are condensed biographies and, with the possible exception of the Hoffa episode, are closed cases with no significant developments during the past 20-odd years. One complaint regarding Gruesome California was that much of the subjects were still somewhat fresh in the early 1990s and, as such, don't feel quite as timeless or definitive at this point. Either way, the strengths (lesser-seen footage, solid narration) and weaknesses (limited visual flair, VHS-grade source material) of Great Crimes and Trials are on display from start to finish, but at least we're used to them by now.
Great Crimes And Trials Of The 20th Century was originally released years ago as an all-inclusive (and long out of print) four-disc collection by Lionsgate; more recently, a similar four-disc collection was made available for those who can play Region 2 discs. While none of these three versions is impressive from a technical standpoint, one thing's for certain: the content is strong enough to warrant a closer look.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Since most of this footage is from vintage newsreels and television broadcasts, The Original Gangstas isn't exactly a feast for the eyes. In fact, it's downright ugly most of the time. But again, Sony should be given the benefit of the doubt here: all of its problems are likely due to source material issues, although I'm positive that a modest amount of edge enhancement was added during portions of extremely soft footage. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the only genuine compliment that I can offer The Original Gangstas is that its gritty, abrasive appearance is strangely appropriate to the subject matter. Like Gruesome California, it's basically a passable presentation of material that will never look pretty.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.
Presented in a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix, The Original Gangstas' audio is a half-step above the video in quality, but still suffers from plenty of source material limitations. The standout here is Robert Powell's authoritative narration, crisply recorded and perfectly clear from start to finish. Most other audio elements, aside from the majority of music cues, are much thinner and less dynamic in direct comparison. Vintage newsreel clips are a little problematic at times, but there's nothing here that can't be understood if you're listening closely. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Caption support are offered.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the static menu has no setup options or chapter divisions, but at least it loads immediately. This burn-on-demand release arrives in a standard keepcase with only the bare minimum of details; then again, it's not like you'll be window shopping for this item. The DVD-R played perfectly in both my regular player and laptop drive, but there's a packaging disclaimer stating that it may not be compatible with all systems...so buy at your own risk, I guess. Not surprisingly, no bonus features have been included.
Although Sony's burn-on-demand Choice Collection is rightfully considered a half-step down from "official" DVD releases, the continued strength of Great Crimes And Trials Of The 20th Century makes The Original Gangstas worth a second look. Even so, the plain A/V presentation, short running time and lack of bonus features are all severe handicaps, which makes existing (and more complete) versions like the Region 2 DVD collection a more satisfying and practical option. Still, this dated but informative assortment of short documentaries should interest those unfamiliar with the source material. Cautiously Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.