Category Archives: Gangster

Tight Spot (1955)

“Whenever I deal with something dirty, I always get a little soiled.”

Tight Spot AKA Dead Pigeon is a little known but surprisingly good crime film, loaded with excellent performances, strong dialogue, and a very tight script. If you’re a fan of 50s gangster films, then there’s a good chance you may enjoy this one

The film begins with the murder of a snitch–would-be government witness Tonelli is assassinated before he can start singing in the courtroom. With the government case against mobster Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene) weakening, district attorney Lloyd Hallett (Edward G Robinson) arranges for the transportation of the only remaining possible witness, good-time girl Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) from the state prison to a swanky hotel room. Here Hallett hopes to convince Sherry to get up into that witness stand and testify against the brutal Costain. Hallett has two carrots to help entice Sherry to testify: he promises to cut the remaining eleven months of her original 5 year sentence, and he also lectures her about her “debt to society.”

Costain’s trial is due to begin Monday morning, and on Saturday Sherry is transferred without a word of explanation from the prison to the fancy hotel. Her escorts are a prison guard, Willoughby (Katherine Anderson), and a hardened cop Vince Striker (Brian Keith).

The film is based on a play and the film certainly maintains a tense claustrophobic atmosphere with its limited, mainly interior scenes and very controlled situations. Over the course of the weekend, Sherry is pressured to comply with Hallett’s request to testify, but wise-cracking, tough-talking Sherry has learned all about self-preservation. She’s not about to put her life on the line to ‘protect’ a society that’s largely screwed her over, and when it comes to the idea that she owes a debt to society, Sherry doesn’t see it that way at all. Sherry is portrayed by Ginger Rogers as a basically decent person whose Achilles’ Heel just happens to be men. As far as I’m concerned, Ginger Rogers stole the film from her very first scene when she lectures a new prison inmate about how to slack off inside (“See if you can’t think about this joint as a training ground for future life”). This is an important character-setting scene as it establishes that Sherry is no dummy, and she’s not a pushover either. She’s not about to break her back working in the prison to help facilitate a system she despises.

Locked in the hotel room, Sherry begins to build relationships with Willoughby and Striker. While Willoughby treats Sherry with compassion, natural adversaries Sherry and Striker eyeball each other warily. To Striker, Sherry is just a gangster’s dame, and to Sherry, Striker is another no-good cop put on the planet to harass her. As Sherry’s story becomes clear, she earns grudging respect from Striker, and they begin to see each other as three-dimensional human beings. When Sherry’s sister arrives on the scene, even the DA begins to feel sorry for his potential star witness.

One very clever element used in the film is the concurrent television charity marathon, which features a soulful, annoying crooner. Just as the crooner is locked into the weekend’s action, Sherry and her protectors are stuck too. Sherry, however, is fully aware that she’s a sitting duck, and she’s not about to let herself be used in anyone’s game–no matter the bribes she’s offered. Alienated from a society that’s taught her to be wary of any government offers, she’s interested in self-preservation–until caring about other people finally breaks through her brittle veneer. From director Phil Karlson.

Some lines from the film:

“You mean you brought me up here to let me be insulted by some cheap dame even if she is my sister.”

“I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask if my civil rights is being violated.”

“Look sister, I wouldn’t know styles if you shoved ’em down my throat.”

“Men–they ought to trade themselves in for something a girl really needs.”

“And being a cop, you can’t imagine it might be a phony rap, could you?”

“I thought newspaper reporters were supposed to be drunk by this time on Saturday night.”

“Here’s to the men who blow up prisons.”

“You’ve no idea how utterly desirable you are to a girl.”

“Government officials bribing people. I thought it was the other way around.”

“Maybe it doesn’t pay to be an honest hardworking woman.”

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Brother (1997)

“What’s good for the Russian is death for the German.”

The late Sergei Bodrov Jr. stars in the gripping Russian gangster film Brother (Brat). And don’t let the title fool you–there’s no filial affection here between the two brothers, Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) and his older sibling Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov). When the film begins, Danila has just left the army and with a brutal skirmish en route, he returns home to his mother. His mother takes one look at Danila and advises him to leave their village and join Viktor, who leads a successful life in St. Petersburg. Danila arrives in St Petersburg but doesn’t seek out his brother immediately. Instead he hangs around a music shop indulging his obsession, and he also intervenes in between a German street seller and a brutal street thug.

Viktor, as it turns out is a hit man known as the Tartar (the subtitles: Tatar), and at first Viktor seems to want to help Danila, giving him money to find a place to live. It soon becomes quite clear, however, that Viktor is in some considerable trouble with the gangsters he works for, and he’s quite ready to use Danila to save his own skin.

Danila is a fascinating, complex character. Throughout the film, he insists that he spent his time in the army as clerk in HQ, but his considerable assassination skills put a lie to the theory that he was a pencil pusher. Danila is a stone cold killer, but there’s something more afoot. Does he also possess a streak of the avenging angel? It’s a possibility–especially when we see Danila act with a tad more mercy than his brutal counterparts. But on the other hand, I think it can also be argued that Danila is even more brutal than those he’s up against. While some of the other killers he runs across take a sadistic pleasure in their work, in Danila a dark void fills the space explaining his actions. There’s one scene in the film when Danila ‘saves’ an innocent bystander who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but then he expects this person to help him clean up after a messy job. In another brilliant scene, Danila hangs out at a party as an uninvited guest, attracted to the music, the mood and the camaraderie, and it could be interpreted that he has a glimpse of the sort of life that he never had a chance to enjoy, but does this even occur to Danila in his morally disconnected brain? Does he show humanity in his friendships with a motley assortment of downtrodden street characters, or are they just useful tools? Directed by Aleksei Balabanov, Brother is in Russian with subtitles.

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Party Girl (1958)

“When you sell your pride, it’s tough to put a price on it.”

In 1930s Chicago, Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is a showgirl at the Golden Rooster nightclub when gangster Louis Canetto (John Ireland) offers her $100 to attend a party thrown by head mobster Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb). Angelo has just heard the disappointing news that his screen heartthrob, Jean Harlow got married, and the party is to help him ‘cope’ with the news. At the party, Vicki meets mob lawyer Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor). An unhealed leg fracture has left him with a permanent limp, and a huge chip on his shoulder. Farrell is an excellent lawyer and is much prized by the oafish Angelo. After questioning each other’s ethics, Vicki and Farrell begin an on-and-off again relationship.

While Party Girl is a fairly typical mob scenario film, it’s extremely well done, and has some excellent touches. Both Vicki and Farrell are part of Angelo’s criminal empire, and yet they initially both criticize each other for being involved with a crook. Both Vicki and Farrell are very talented people–one scene shows Farrell in action in the courtroom, and Vicki has two solo dance numbers at the Golden Rooster. Similarly, both Vicki and Farrell, while employed by Angelo, don’t hide their distaste for some aspects of the business, and they try to maintain a type of integrity in the face of massive corruption. Farrell maintains his independence by insulting Angelo and getting away with it. Vicki repulses the attentions of one of Angelo’s chief hoods.

Directed by Nicholas Ray, Party Girl is certain to please fans of gangster film–although the gangster mayhem is really at a minimum here. The story focuses instead on the prickly relationship between Vicki and Farrell as they question each other’s morality and struggle against ultimate corruption in Angelo’s world.

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A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

“I was much better when I was illegitimate.”

A Slight Case of Murder is a very funny and affectionate treatment of post-prohibition gangster life. When prohibition is repealed, bootlegger and gang boss Remy Marco (Edward G. Robinson) decides to go ‘legit’ and open a brewery. Unfortunately, what Marco fails to realize is that his rotgut beer–dubbed Goldvelvet–may have sold during prohibition, but once alcohol becomes legal and customers have choices, sales plummet.

After an opening sequence covering Marco’s decision to go ‘legit’, the film picks up several years later. Marco is now leading the honest life of a brewery owner, but he’s struggling with mounting debts and a failing business. Unfortunately, Marco isn’t much of an honest businessman, and he’s shocked when he learns that the bank is about to call in an outstanding half a million-dollar loan.

Most of the film takes place in Marco’s large home in the country. Marco’s daughter Mary (Jane Bryan) has just returned from a posh European finishing school as Marco can no longer pay the bills. Marco, his wife Nora (Ruth Donnelly) and daughter travel to the country home–along with a delinquent from Marco’s “alma mater”–the city orphanage. It’s Marco’s tradition to take an orphan to his home for the summer, and this year, he has requested the worst one of the bunch so that he can reform the lad.

Also converging on Marco’s home is Mary’s new fiance, Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), his snobby, blueblood father (Paul Harvey), and a gang hotfoot from an armored car robbery. All these forces combine to make a very funny, entertaining film, and if you’re a fan of Edward G. Robinson, you’ll find A Slight Case of Murder delightful. Most of the fun comes from the way in which the film, directed by Lloyd Bacon, depicts the criminal element attempting to go straight. Marco’s former gang members are now all part of his entourage and this works with varying degrees of success. Marco’s wife–a former gang moll–shifts back and forth between accents as she slips in and out of her roles as society wife and tough broad. Meanwhile, there’s Marco, who was a successful bootlegger, and now finds himself outmaneuvered by predatory bank officials. Some of the very funniest scenes occur when Mr. Whitewood goes to meet the Marco family. Whitewood’s priceless reactions to his soon-to be new in-laws reflect shock and horror.

The DVD print looks good, and there are no problems with it. Extras include: vintage newsreel, the short feature Declaration of Independence, the classic cartoon The Night Watchman, original trailers, commentary by film historian Robert Sklar, and a featurette: Prohibition Opens the Floodgates.

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Dillinger (1945)

The film Dillinger charts the rise and fall of notorious gangster John Dillinger. The story presented distills his elaborate career, but some of the salient details are included. Dillinger’s involvement with Baby Face Nelson, for example, is not mentioned once, but that is probably due to the fact that we are supposed to concentrate on the story of Dillinger and not suffer distraction with the crimes of another notorious gangster. In the film, John Dillinger (Lawrence Tierney) begins his criminal career as a petty crook, but a botched robbery sends him to prison. Here, Dillinger connects with career criminals, and he’s admitted to their gang. Dillinger is released and then plans a bold jailbreak for the rest of the gang. Now on the loose, the gang begins a series of bank robberies. Soon Dillinger is on the FBI’s most wanted list …

When the film begins, Tierney plays Dillinger as not very bright, but he soon shifts into the seasoned stone-cold killer whose methodical violence created headline after headline. Dillinger’s character–as defined by the film–does not permit any explosive scenes. So Tierney’s performance can’t match–let’s say–Paul Muni in Scarface or Richard Widmark as Tommy Ugo in Kiss of Death. A fascinating character here is Helen Rogers (Anne Jeffreys), Dillinger’s girlfriend–the gangster’s moll who loads up on expensive gee-gaws while conveniently ignoring the source. From director Max Nosseck.

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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

“Only Capone kills like that.”

The film, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is a docudrama–with heavy use of narration similar in style to the television series The Untouchables. This lends an aura of authenticy to the tale of rival gangsters who think that Chicago isn’t big enough for two gangs. It’s the 1920s, and it’s prohibition. Bootleg alcohol was the name of the game in speakeasys all over Chicago, and two gangs fight for turf and the total control of the bootleg business. Capone (Jason Robards) decides to wipe out rival gang leader Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker) on Feb 14th 1929. The film covers the lead-up to the crime, the crime, and its aftermath.

Fans of gangster films will want to catch The St Valentine’s Day Massacre for sheer notoriety alone. Unfortunately, the film is in colour, and that spoils the film’s mood. Director Roger Corman is best known for his B horror films, and Corman’s touches are evident here–especially in Robards’ over-the-top characterization of Capone. George Segal appears in a role as gangster Peter Gusenberg, and one of the best scenes occurs with Segal fighting with his moll, Myrtle (Jean Hale) over an expensive fur coat.

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Brother Orchid (1940)

“Yeah, I know all about probation.”

Johnny Sarto (Edward G. Robinson) decides to retire to Europe and get some “class.” He leaves behind his loyal girlfriend, Flo Addams (Ann Sothern) and hands his gangster business over to his second-in-command, Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart). Five years later, now penniless, Johnny decides he wants to return to New York and take over his business again. He wires his old gang and heads back home. Johnny is picked up off the ship, and at first, it seems as though the old gang welcomes him back with open arms. Buck, however, makes it clear that the business is now his, and that Johnny had better scram ….

Johnny decides to find Flo (he hasn’t bothered to keep in touch), and he finds that she’s experienced a great change in fortune. She’s now living in a swanky hotel and owns the nightclub she used to work in. Johnny’s plan is to form another gang, but Flo wants Johnny to make peace with Buck and arranges a private meeting ….

Brother Orchid is a great vehicle for Edward G. Robinson, and the role allows him to play the gangster with a comedic element. When the film begins, it’s obvious that Johnny is making a horrible mistake trying to buy “class” through his European travels. It makes perfect sense that once this scheme fails, he’d return to the only thing he’d been good at–a life of crime. Unfortunately, the film’s affectionate treatment of the character of Johnny extends to other aspects of the film. For example, when Johnny returns, he’s embraced (at first) by the gang, and then they play a practical joke on him. The joke is followed by a serious threat from Buck. This swing–from the comic to the serious undermines the film overall. The comedic elements are appropriate and necessary as they lead into Johnny’s sojourn at a monastery, and here his ingrained gangster ethics meet head on with the ethics of the monastery. Edward G. Robinson’s character allows for plenty of comedy–but the film went overboard at a few crucial, serious moments. This serves only to detract from the tension.

While Edward G. Robinson steals the film, there are some great supporting roles here–Ann Sothern as Johnny’s long-suffering, dingy girlfriend is refreshingly delightful (watch for the scene at Fat Duchy’s Tavern). She’s adopted a cowboy, Clarence Fletcher (Ralph Bellamy) who finances her nightclub operation, and she treats him like a much loved pet dog. Johnny, who isn’t exactly known for his subtle thinking, can’t quite fathom the relationship between Flo and Fletcher. Bogart as the rival gangster Buck is suitably convincing and threatening. Brother Orchid is good entertainment, and Edward G. Robinson fans will enjoy this good-natured film from director Lloyd Bacon.

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Scarface (1932)

“They’ll be shooting each other like rabbits.”

Scarface charts the rise and fall of career gangster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). The story includes several incidents from the life of Al Capone (The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, for example), but the film is not the Capone story by any means. Tony Camonte is ambitious, violent, and unbalanced. Paul Muni portrays Camonte as ignorant, animalistic, and exploding with sheer reactive impulse. He’s unpleasant, and even his unquenchable craving for material possessions seems ignorant, pointless greed.

The film begins with Tony murdering one crime boss to make way for a takeover by Johnny Lovo. Prohibition is in full swing, so the gangsters deal in the contraband trafficking of alcohol. Soon Tony and fellow henchman, coin-tossing Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) take over more and more of Chicago’s shady business. Tony understands that Johnny stands in the way of his ruthless ambition–plus Tony covets Johnny’s sarcastic blonde girlfriend, Poppy ….

This original 30s version of Scarface directed by Howard Hawks is fascinating, entertaining stuff with Paul Muni dominating the screen. It’s inevitable that comparisons are made between the Howard Hawks film and De Palma’s 1983 remake, and the two film versions act as companion pieces for one another. Censorship dictated a strong moralistic tone for the 30s viewers just in case they got the wrong idea about a life of crime, so the film begins with a heavy moral message. Muni’s Scarface claws his way to the top, but we don’t really see him in action at the pinnacle of his success. Poppy, Tony’s girlfriend is a fairly minor character, and there’s no real follow-up of their life together. Al Pacino’s Scarface, Cuban Tony Montana, makes it to the top, and a large portion of the film deals with exactly what he does with his success. De Palma’s film gave a much larger role to Tony’s girlfriend, Elvira played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Also in De Palma’s version, Tony’s relationship with his sister lends him some humanity. Paul Muni’s Scarface is much more brutal with his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), and even censorship can’t completely bleach out the obvious overtones of incest. Keep an eye open for the “X” motif which is used to signify a murder throughout the film. Watching this 30s version is a must for all fans of the 1983 version, and creates a clear appreciation for both films.

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Little Caesar (1931)

“You can’t go back on a gang.”

Little Caesar is the 1930 gangster film starring Edward G. Robinson as thug Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello. The film was made during the prohibition era and it’s generally agreed that Little Caesar was responsible for generating the popularity of the gangster genre. Little Caesar is a merciless gangster who claws his way to the top of the crime world. He’s initially admitted to crime boss, Sam Palermo’s gang as a henchman, but it’s not long before Little Caesar takes over and starts running things his way.

Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar is electrifying. He’s ruthless and ambitious. Many other Edward G. Robinson roles play with a slight comic effect, but there’s no comedy here. The only human foible Little Caesar suffers from is a slight tendency to vanity. Little Caesar is a sneering, violent punk–a cold killer. Robinson dominates each scene, and his facial expressions reflect with just the movement of an eyelid just what evil things he intends to do next.

The story concerns the rise and fall of Little Caesar, and he makes some fatal errors–most notably his treatment of his loyal friend Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). Joe wants to leave the gangster life and find reputable work as a professional dancer. Little Caesar is mean and petty enough to forbid Joe to lead a crime-free life. The policemen who tirelessly pursue Little Caesar are portrayed as hard-edged, dedicated men who don’t hesitate to joke about neck stretching, and the final scene is memorable. Unfortunately, the film’s other characters all pale in comparison to Little Caesar, and the film suffers as a result. Special note: Art Deco fans will delight in Little Caesar’s swanky apartment.

The quality of the Warner DVD is good. I had a few white vertical lines in a couple of places, and there were a few fuzzy long distance shots of Little Caesar’s face. But when one considers the age of the film, this isn’t bad at all. The DVD also comes with several extras. One segment includes Leonard Maltin hosting Warner Brothers Night at the Movies. This contains some newsreel footage, amongst other things. There’s also a 17 minute documentary Little Caesar: End of Rico beginning of the Anti-hero which includes an interview with Martin Scorsese. From director Mervyn Leroy.

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The Gangster (1947)

“I wasn’t rotten enough.”

Gangster Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) has a long scar on his left cheek and a huge chip on his shoulder. He’s lied, cheated, and killed on his violent way to the top, and now runs a lucrative numbers racket with soda fountain business owner Jammey (Akim Tamaroff) in a small coastal resort. Shubunka receives several warnings that a rival gang headed by gangster Cornell is trying to muscle in on his action, but Shubunka is too distracted by showgirl Nancy Starr (Belita) to pay much attention. He’s jealous and obsessive when it comes to Nancy, and he’s more interested in following her than protecting his business interests.

The Gangster starts out slowly, and doesn’t seem like much of a gangster film until about the halfway point. Then the film turns, and Barry Sullivan as Shubunka delivers a fantastic performance as the driven, cold, tough gangster who’s become a little less than human in the process of becoming a big shot.

Another fascinating aspect of the film is male/female relationships. Shubunka’s relationship with Nancy is based on him stashing her in a fancy apartment and showering her with expensive presents, but the relationship remains unsatisfying to them both. Jammey is a businessman, and the number two person in Shubunka’s racket. He’s also a harried husband subject to the whims of a hypochondriac (and unseen) wife. Shorty (Henry Morgan) plays sleazy soda fountain counter boy who dresses up and takes a woman out to a meal with the assumption the more he spends, the more “obligated” she feels. Another character Karty (John Ireland) is a desperate gambler whose equally desperate wife tries–unsuccessfully–dragging her husband away from the numbers racket. Pretty cashier Dorothy (Joan Lorring) represents the moral centre of the film, and Shubunka seems to realise this–including her at crucial moments for his riveting speeches. From director Gordon Wiles.

Fans of gangster films, stick with this one. It’s not a typical gangster film, but it does cover the standard rise and fall aspects of a life of crime. The Gangster is moody, dramatic, and slow to build, but it’s well worth watching.

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