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Ultimate Gangsters
Collection: Classics

Little Caesar, The Public Enemy,
The Petrified Forest, White Heat
Savant Blu-ray Review

Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics
Little Caesar, The Public Enemy,
The Petrified Forest, White Heat

Warner Home Video
1931-1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 78, 83, 83, 114 min. / Street Date May 21, 2013 / 49.99
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell; James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke; Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Joe Sawyer, Porter Hall, Charley Grapewin.

Cinematography Tony Gaudio; Devereaux Jennings; Sol Polito; Sid Hickox
Original Music none; none; none; Max Steiner.
Written by Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee, Robert Lord from the novel by W.R. Burnett; Harvey Thew from the story Beer and Blood by Kubec Glasmon & John Bright; Charles Kenyon, Delmer Daves from the play by Robert E. Sherwood; Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts story by Virginia Kellogg.
Produced by Hal B. Wallis; Darryl F. Zanuck; ?; Louis F. Edelman.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy; William A. Wellman; Archie L. Mayo; Raoul Walsh

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The original Warners gangster pictures launched the genre into the talkie era and remain a dynamic reflection of social unrest during the Great Depression. The disparity between the rich and the poor reached absurd extremes, with a third of the workforce idle as the rich indulged in ever-greater luxury. The selfish screen bandits that took what they wanted had an alarming public appeal. They served as a warning of how society could crumble, yet also allowed have-nots to indulge violent fantasies of conspicuous success.

Starting perhaps around 2001, Warner Home Video surprised disc collectors by releasing boxed sets of DVDs themed by subject or star. One of their biggest hits was a set of gangster films. After a few years in which older B&W pictures didn't seem to be doing well on HD, Warners is again out front with the first multiple title Blu-ray set of vintage winners. The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics gathers key titles with Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. All look fantastic in HD, and thanks to a restoration from a few years back, one is not only rejuvenated but has had some cut material reinstated.

As with the earlier DVD set, Warners has appointed the Blu-rays with a number of special extras. The majority of today's kids have had little if any contact with these great pictures, which are still packed with dangerous ideas, alarming violence and high drama.

Thanks to a restored copy, 1930's Little Caesar looks much more modern than it did when we watched murky, hard-to-hear 16mm prints on TV. There had been popular silent gangster films (a couple by Josef von Sternberg among them) but the realism of this show struck a nerve. It made Edward G. Robinson into a huge star. A line of his dialogue became one of the earliest 'unforgettable' bits of talkie history: "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

The story sets the formula for a hoodlum's rise and fall. Stick-up man Cesare Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his best friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) find positions in the gang of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields). Rico eventually becomes boss, going especially hard on 'yellow' gang members. Teaming up with Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer), they pull off robberies and create havoc, while Sgt Tom Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) waits for his chance to end Rico's career. It comes when Joe loses his nerve and wants to go state's evidence; he's fallen in love with his dancing partner Olga Strassoff (Glenda Farrell). Rico arrives to murder yet another squealer, but for the first time can't go through with it.

Little Caesar establishes the template for every urban gangland bio to come. Punk hoodlum Rico has ambition and drive but little judgment. He fastidiously refuses to drink but cannot resist the temptation of power. Whether it be taking over his little gang or hurrying to rub out a squealer, all of Rico's moves have an impatient, urgent quality that accelerates the story tempo far faster than the typical talkie of the day ... remember, in 1930 the studios were barely beyond the "talk into the bush" stage.

Rico's delusions of grandeur take him high into the rackets but he succumbs to a classic gangster flaw -- a streak of human feeling that betrays his credo of absolute ruthlessness. When survival depends on killing his old pal Joe Massara, he can't do it. Little Caesar shows its Pre-code willingness to be adult by hinting that Rico may have an unacknowledged homosexual attraction to Joe, the stick-up criminal who (rather unlikely) is also a cultured, refined exhibition dancer. When Rico objects to Joe's romance with a female dance partner, we don't know if Joe is incensed for business reasons or jealousy.

Savant hasn't seen all of the gangster films of this period but most of the silent antecedents pictured their criminal protagonists as chivalric heroes that partially redeem themselves through a noble sacrifice -- going to prison, confessing, etc. -- so that some more deserving buddy can get the girl. Rico Bandello is as nasty on the way down as he was at the top, and so cocky that the crafty policeman Flaherty can easily goad him into showing himself. Rico's dishonorable demise is the classic gangster's death in a gutter, overseen by a poster of the lovers who are now free (at least we hope so, as they didn't make any immunity deal). He wails "Mother of Mercy" and goes out like the rat he is. Note: I've read that the line is actually a censored redub of "Mother of God", but in the film we can see, Rico's lips seem to say "Mercy."

Mervyn Leroy's direction is on the static side, but the camera effectively tells his story, pointing out important details like the fancy jewelry that so impresses Rico. Edward G. Robinson has to carry the entire show as none of the other actors seem particularly comfortable in their roles, especially the miscast Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.. Glenda Farrell hasn't yet hit her wisecracking pace and doesn't draw much attention. Still playing to the Vitaphone microphones, actors like Thomas E. Jackson and Stanley Fields seem mostly interested in talking slowly and enunciating their lines clearly.

The print on view of Little Caesar looks great, adding more detail and stability to the already good earlier DVD. If I'm praising the quality so highly, it's that I've passed most of a lifetime watching these pictures in borderline terrible condition. We were always told that they'd been printed to death, that better elements no longer existed.

Each of the titles in this collection retains the list of extras from the earlier DVD sets, including their Leonard Maltin-hosted introductions that precede a "night at the movies" slate of short subjects. A feature trailer is included for each title as well. Little Caesar's "night at the movies" extras include a trailer (Five Star Final), the brain-altering Merrie Melodie cartoon Lady Play Your Mandolin and a lame but amusing dramatic short with Spencer Tracy, The Hard Guy. On the academic side of things is a commentary by the knowledgeable Richard B. Jewell, and a featurette that gathers a number of authors of genre criticism, End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero. There's also the censor-mandated text crawl that preceded the film's 1954 reissue. Twenty years later, and the Production Code is still worried about corrupting the Yutes uh Humerica.

Made not long after Little Caesar, The Public Enemy is far more advanced in direction, storytelling technique and acting. The emerging Warner house style is more evident. This time the 'rise and fall' story arc starts in childhood, showing how the morals of its hoodlum hero were partly formed by societal conditions, namely, the corrupting influence of the saloon trade.

In pre-Prohibition days Chicago is one huge booze town. Tom Powers and Matt Doyle (James Cagney and Edward Woods) start as boyhood delinquents but soon become hardened gangsters, hired thugs for a string of bosses and bootleggers. As they move up in the crime world they acquire fancy clothes, cars and fast women like Mamie (Joan Blondell), Kitty (Mae Clark) and Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). Tom stays in touch with his uncomprehending mother and his disapproving brother but always figures he's tough enough to buck whatever comes along, even a gang war that doesn't go favorably for his side.

The script puts a strong emphasis on environmental factors as the source of crime, a theme that became a cornerstone of Warners' socially conscious '30s outlook. Tom Powers and Matt Doyle spend over a reel as slum kids in the employ of a local fence called Putty Nose, (Murray Kinnell). Tom's stern father, a policeman, beats him regularly. All we see on the boy's face is the desire to strike back at the world.

By the time Tom Powers turns into the immensely magnetic actor James Cagney, he's a budding sociopath and doesn't give a damn what happens to the victims of his crimes. When prohibition hits Tom peddles one gang's brand of beer and uses thug tactics to intimidate barkeeps that won't buy it. The classic scene where Cagney roughs up a speakeasy owner, spits in his face and lets the competitor's beer run on the floor is the perfect distillation of cutthroat business practices in action. Thirty-six years later, George Segal copied the scene exactly in Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. They couldn't improve on director William Wellman's original.

Although given excellent support on both sides of the camera, James Cagney is sensational all on his own. Every scene shows him arrogantly demonstrating his street-smart style, making sly faces at people, doing little punching motions (even at his own clueless mother) and the occasional dance-like pirouette when entering cars or jumping out of trucks. We can't take our eyes off him, as he's just so much more 'real' than anyone else. The bluenoses must have turned purple to see how Cagney made snide, pushy and aggressive behavior look so attractive. We're invited to cheer Tom when he mocks a gay tailor. Basic rules of civilized behavior go out the window when he socks Mae Clarke in the face with a grapefruit.

Tough guy Tom Powers doesn't know his own limitations. He can't deny that his family means something to him, although they're never directly threatened because of his criminality. He's constantly being fooled by his bosses but never thinks to "take over" as would Enrico Bandello. The classier grade of moll represented by Jean Harlow makes him feel sexually insecure. An accident with a horse leads to a bizarre rubout, a revenge echoed much later with a horse's head in The Godfather. Finally, Tom takes the murder of his best buddy -- an efficient slaying carried out with Army-issue machine guns -- as a cue to single-handedly charge into a den of enemies. His act of bravado doesn't work out quite as he hopes, making Tom Powers another candidate for the gutter.

The script avoids directly showing gunplay, and The Public Enemy's chilling ending is bolstered by William Wellman's macabre but restrained staging. This conclusion is like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. Wellman cannily sets us up by showing Tom's mother happily changing the bed sheets in preparation for her boy coming home, the boy who has already admitted to himself that he "ain't so tough" and is perhaps genuinely ready to reform. It's a great and uncompromised ending to one of the best movies of the thirties.

Jean Harlow's performance is almost entirely her zowie looks, as she barely gets through her coached dialogue. Edward Woods is good as Tom's buddy and Joan Blondell makes a winning impression as a gangster's wife. Mae Clark's bimbo moll has been the butt of grapefruit jokes ever since. I believe that Cagney socked her for real, as she seems truly surprised. I'm less certain that a real marksman with a loaded Thompson submachine gun did any shooting with Cagney or Woods for the rub-out scene, as claimed in some books. The famous photo of that setup is probably just that - a setup.

The picture quality of The Public Enemy is a true revelation. Ten years ago Warners lucked on to a forgotten, surviving good element for the film. The title had been reissued and printed so many times that the standard elements must have been bad copies of bad dupes. Television copies and even archival prints were simply terrible - blurry and mis-framed dupes with scratchy audio. There are a few scenes here that revert to poorer quality but at least 95% of the presentation looks like it was filmed yesterday. We can see that Cagney appears to wear lipstick and eye shadow makeup.

Leonard Maltin is back to introduce more vault goodies. The Eyes Have It is an early Edgar Bergen-Charlie comedy short and Smile, Darn Ya another surreal cartoon set to a quirky pop tune of the day. The commentary this time is by Robert Sklar, who also appears in the featurette Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public, along with a particularly entertaining Martin Scorsese and Alain Silver, Savant's inspiration in film noir writing. We see a vintage newsreel and a trailer for another Cagney film, Blonde Crazy. And whatever you do, don't pass up the 1954 censor text scroll.

Thrill-seeking gangster fans aren't always charmed by The Petrified Forest, a talkfest that spends more time on philosophical poetics than gritty action. But it introduced Humphrey Bogart as potential star material and is a masterful example of a stage play adapted to the screen. It's at least as effective as Key Largo, which in retrospect plays like a postwar remake.

As might be expected of a stage adaptation, the action of The Petrified Forest is limited to one location. The Black Mesa Café in Arizona greets a series of unusual guests one hot afternoon. Owner Jason Maple (Porter Hall) goes off to a meeting while his daughter Gabby (Bette Davis) dreams of escaping to France. Instead she has to parry the advances of the gas pump boy, football player Boze (Dick Foran). Then vagabond writer Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) arrives, Alan has thumbed his way across America, and gives Gabby a hint of more exciting things in life. When Alan leaves Gabby thinks it is forever, but he soon returns along with some other guests ... all at the gunpoint of the gang of rural stickup men led by the ruthless escaped killer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart).

Self-styled intellectual Alan Squier (who claims not to be English) runs up against killer-diller John Dillinger substitute Humphrey Bogart, who we're told affects the same dress and some of the mannerisms of the famous bank robber. A nicely orchestrated cross section of supporting players allows playwright Sherwood to score some unflattering points about American attitudes. The wife of a banker turns virtuous under the siege; the pushy football player makes a dumb try at heroism, and the old codger (Charley Grapewin at his best) loves Duke Mantee because he has fond memories of Billy the Kid! Bette Davis' father Porter Hall belongs to a sinister-sounding paramilitary group called The Black Horse Troopers. Sherwood even reserves good dialogue exchanges for two black characters, outlaw and chauffeur, a rare thing in movies of the day.

Leslie Howard is too earnest to seem effete as he rattles on poetically about fate and courage. It's easy to see why both Bette Davis' Gabby and the female public at large adored this fantastic dreamboat Englishman not likely to be found in real life. Under the truth serum alcohol, both Squier and Mantee bring their feelings out in the open. Mantee is revealed as a kindred lost soul working his way toward the same grave Squier sees in his own future. Squier has a death wish and makes a deal for Mantee to shoot him dead on his way out the door ... giving the players two or three varieties of nobility and poetic irony to chew on. It's the kind of slightly delirious play in which average-looking people make stylized speeches about abstract concepts. Howard's character blabs a lot, and Bogart communicates his feelings in a few terse statements.

Many viewers don't think that rural outlaw bandits are real gangsters, but anybody with a gang qualifies, even The Wild Bunch, a western that borrows some potent gangster images for its flashback scenes. As the scholars on this disc's featurette claim, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie & Clyde can be distinguished as second- or third generation Americans. The old codger makes a cogent remark about Mantee being "American" instead of "foreign," by which he means that Mantee's a homegrown menace instead of one of those despised immigrants in the cities. The urban gangsters come from ghettos and are ambitious practitioners of the American way of business, skipping all the rules. Rural bandits like Mantee are the disillusioned product of economic failure, born of the dustbowl and (in a playwright's imagination) righting perceived wrongs by striking back against society.

People who make fun of Bette Davis usually haven't seen her movies. Her acting is always interesting and excellent in thoughtful work like this, playing opposite a worthwhile leading man. In his own way Bogart is another step toward modern screen acting. His imposing presence and craggy face do most of the work; instead of actively emoting he inhabits the character and lets his eyes carry his intent. The opening shots of Bogart walking with his arms in an apelike posture are a bit thick, but beyond that, no complaints.

For 1936, this is an extremely fluid and imaginative staging of what is basically a one-room play. Archie Mayo's name doesn't come up in any lists of great directors but he hit the nail on the head this time.

The new Blu-ray of The Petrified Forest is again a nicely scrubbed restoration. The studio look of the time didn't go in for deep blacks and the image reflects this while giving the stagey sets a dusty look. The sound has been particularly improved from old 16mm TV prints - the movie no longer plays like a fossil.

By now we're used to the convocation of experts that gather to explain the film in the featurette, Menace in the Desert. The commentary is by Eric Lax. An elaborate extra is an entire 1940 radio adaptation with Bogart, Tyrone Power and Joan Bennett.

Leonard Maltin's string of short subjects includes a newsreel, a grating musical short Rhythmitis, the cartoon Coo Coo Nut Grove and a trailer for Bullets or Ballots.

Leaping ahead thirteen years, we come to Raoul Walsh's amazing film White Heat. Gangster pix were specifically suppressed by the Production Code and with few exceptions didn't resurface until the 1950s. This tale expands the genre in all directions. Although technically a garden-variety rural bandit type, James Cagney's Cody Jarrett is a bigger-than-life criminal mastermind who would give Batman pause. He's a complex film noir character who seems to embody all of the out-of-control elements of the postwar years. And he's a raving psycho to boot.

The movie begins in furious action. Psychopath Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang rob a train and kill four railroad employees. They hole up in a mountain cabin with Cody's Ma (Margaret Wycherly), the co-leader of his gang. Ma also ministers to Cody's frequent mental seizures. Cody decides to avoid the murder rap by confessing to a local robbery in another state that he arranged to happen at the same time, but T-Man Phil Evans (John Archer) connives to put a spy, Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), in Jarrett's prison cell. The rest of the gang starts to fall apart when disloyal lieutenant Big Ed (Steve Cochran) moves in on Cody's wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). Even the watchful Ma can't stop the betrayals. Meanwhile, Evans and Fallon's confidence game on Cody seems to be working -- until Cody breaks down under a severe psychotic episode.

White Heat must have been one impressive action film in 1949. Audiences rally behind its out-of-control violence now. It's thrilling to watch Cody Jarrett in action in a story so tightly constructed that it became a model for the studio's heightened cutting style. This isn't the kind of movie that holds shots for emotional effect. Day turns to night during a chase scene in four fast cuts, and the explosive ending rushes past a "the end" card so quickly we don't know what's hit us.

After avoiding gangster roles for a decade James Cagney revived his sagging studio career with a socko updating of the genre. Unlike other films noir the keynote isn't a mood of doomed romance or melancholy; White Heat instead suggests that crime and societal chaos are rushing toward some kind of apocalypse. Clues that the country is fresh from a war are everywhere, and the modern tools of warfare are now being applied to the pursuit of vicious criminals like Cody Jarrett: improved communications, coordinated planning, even radio positioning science. As if acknowledging that the country needs to turn its war machinery loose on domestic problems, an entire army converges on Cody. He's not caught in the familiar 'old warehouse' but in a ridiculously complex oil refinery that looks like a technological maze, a post-modern labyrinth -- the inside of a computer, perhaps.

Cody uses the wiles of a fox to elude the law, even going so far as to serve one prison term to avoid exposure for a more serious crime. He never understands that new technology is tripping him up, along with the classic gangster pitfall, personal betrayal. Despite being a vicious renegade Cody maintains strong personal ties ("What's mine is mine") and a pathological relationship with his mother, a Ma Barker-type psychopath in her own right. Call it Oedipal or whatever, the relationship is outrageous, with Cody sitting on his mother's lap. He suffers from scorching migraines that only Ma can calm, violent seizures that relate to the "white heat" of the title.

White Heat revamps the genre with the ruthlessness and sadism seen in the new films noir -- victims are casually executed with pistols and threatened with gruesome industrial accidents. Luckless henchman "Zucky" is scalded practically to death by steam, more 'white heat'. Elsewhere there are brutal beatings, quick-draw reversals and a cold-blooded murder in the trunk of an automobile that still chills ("Okay Parker, I'll give ya a little air!"). The movie's extended prison section outdoes all the earlier Big House epics and the finish is an elaborate caper that looks forward to the multi-climaxed action cinema of today.

White Heat is incredibly influential to the thriller culture, even in unexpected directions. Cody Jarrett takes on a Fantomas-like aura as his own confederates fear him and behave as if he has supernatural powers. When he's caught dead to rights with a shotgun, Jarrett's maniacal laugh makes Pardo unsure if he indeed has the upper hand. Ian Fleming must have been a huge fan of the movie, for he appropriated key material for his 007 super-spy including the idea of a man waiting beside a decoy bed to ambush an assassin (Big Ed and Cody / James Bond and Professor Dent in Dr. No). And White Heat is practically remade in Fleming's book Goldfinger. Undercover operative Vic Pardo goes along with Cody on his big crime, which is even verbally compared to a raid on Fort Knox! At the eleventh hour, the big caper is thwarted when the heroes make desperate attempts to reach the authorities through elaborate radio homing devices. Both Pardo and Bond leave notes behind them, hoping that they'll get to the right people. In both cases the big caper is interrupted by a military assault. Of course, in White Heat Pardo actually has a legitimate reason to be part of Cody's gang for the big heist ... in James Bond the screenwriters must invent an unlikely reason for the arch-criminal to keep 007 alive.

White Heat is forward-looking in other ways too. The law has wised up: crime is no longer an immigrant's game. Getting rich quick has been replaced by an existential quest to beat a system too complicated to figure all the angles. The war is over and hundreds of thousands of trained and qualified ex-soldiers swell the ranks of law enforcement. And there are new anxieties, neuroses and instabilities. The world is heading toward a nervous breakdown right along with Cody Jarrett. He's crazy all right, but there's something grandiosely appropriate about his self-willed immolation atop a million gallons of gasoline. The film ends in a series of conflagrations that poetically bring the gangster film up to date with the atomic age.

Along the way we have plenty of terrific performances to enjoy. Steve Cochran is swarthy and uncouth, Virginia Mayo is delightfully cheap (snoring, spitting out chewing gum) and Margaret Wycherly's daffy old nut is so convincing she's not even funny. It's also fun seeing Mickey Knox, the translator and English version producer of a pair of Sergio Leone films, in an early role as one of Cody's gang.

Although it's much newer than the other pictures White Heat is the most improved title in the set. A new transfer makes it look as sharp as a tack; we immediately see how much the film stock had improved since 1936. The detail in faces is remarkable, and the sharpness is such that we can clearly identify which Jarrett Gang members are getting blasted down in the final battle in the refinery.

The novelty extras are a Joe Doakes comedy short called So You Think You're Not Guilty, the Bugs Bunny cartoon Homeless Hare (not HD), a newsreel and a trailer for The Fountainhead. The featurette docu Top of the World is one of the better in the set, with a contribution from critic Andrew Sarris among the gathered experts. The feature commentary is by Dr. Drew Casper.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray set Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics will be a tempting prize for established fans of crime pix; let's hope that in the intervening ten years another crop of gangster-friendly viewers is ready to be astonished by the daring, edgy thrills that had their grandfathers at the edge of their seats.

The package include a fifth DVD disc containing Warners' long-form docu on the genre" Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. It's an exciting piece with plenty of clips, accessing a few glimpses at Howard Hughes' Scarface where necessary (oh, would that Scarface '32 be restored for Blu-ray). It's informative, a bit on the superficial side and way behind the present day scholarship on the Pre-code era, but it's a good intro. The disc also contains six Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, each with a gangster theme or two. One of the cartoons has a full-on lampoon of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest. A 32-page mini-book recaps some info and quotes from the four pix in question, accompanied by some well-chosen still images.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English, and Spanish, on just a couple of titles
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Supplements: plenty, see individual listings above
Packaging: Four Blu-rays and one DVD in folding plastic disk holder in card sleeve with 32-page hardbound mini-book.
Reviewed: May 11, 2013

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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