Category Archives: Gangster

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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Lady Gangster (1942)

“I like women who ain’t all sawdust inside.”

Dorothy Burton (Faye Emerson), a failed actress, is hired by a gang of bank robbers. Her job is to get inside the bank before it opens–with the gang following closely behind. Dorothy certainly looks respectable enough, but the robbery goes wrong, and Dorothy is left to take the rap. The police don’t believe Dorothy’s protestations that she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Radio personality, Kenneth Phillips comes to Dorothy’s rescue, and he negotiates a good behaviour release. Dorothy’s tentative release goes wrong and she ends up in the slammer.

Lady Gangster is a B-film. The title and the plot seem attractive, but the film is mediocre. The strongest character here is Dorothy, but unfortunately the script doesn’t make her wicked enough, and moments of remorse weaken the plot. At times, she’s as hard as nails, and she manages to fool Phillips–but not the police or the prison warden. Jackie Gleason appears in a small role as Wilson, one of the bank robbers. Some of the best scenes take place in the women’s prison–with female prisoners coming to blows over the ironing board. There’s also a cross-dressing gang member who adds to the fun. For gangster film fans, Lady Gangster is a decent way to spend an evening, but the lack of dramatic tension weakens the film. From director Robert Florey.

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Marked Woman (1937)

“The law isn’t for people like us.”

Bette Davis stars as Mary Dwight, a hostess at a New York nightclub. When the club is bought out by mobster, Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), Mary thinks she’s intelligent enough to cope with the new rules and keep out of trouble. But when Mary’s innocent sister, Betty comes to visit, she gets mixed up with Vanning’s crowd and goes missing. After Betty’s disappearance, Mary swears she’ll “get even if I have to crawl back from the grave to do it.”

The role of Mary Dwight shows another side of Bette Davis. She’s tough, with a huge chip on her shoulder, and obviously from the wrong side of the tracks. Mary rooms with several other “hostesses”, and there are all sorts here–including one girl who knows first hand how ruthless Vanning can be. The realistic portrayal of the girls adds to the film’s authenticity. Note hostess Estelle Porter (Mayo Methot) who became Bogart’s wife after making the film. Humphrey Bogart costars as David Graham–the man determined to put Vanning behind bars. Marked Woman is loosely based on the true story of Lucky Luciano’s conviction following the testimony of several prostitutes. Bette Davis fans, and anyone interested in gangster films, should find Marked Woman, from director Lloyd Bacon riveting entertainment.

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Ma Barker’s Killer Brood/Gangbusters (1960 & 1955)

“I’m about to divorce you the quick way.”

Something Weird Video put together this 2-film package–both directed by Bill Karn–and the DVD a great find if you’re into low-budget, tawdry old gangster films. First there’s Ma Barker’s Killer Brood–the title film, and the bigger title of the two films packaged here. The second feature–Gangbusters–isn’t as well known, but it’s entertaining nonetheless, and both films are over-the-top, campy cheesy fun.

The film Ma Barker’s Killer Brood follows the myth that Ma Barker (Lurene Tuttle) raised her four sons to a life of crime. The film begins with Ma Barker organizing local, petty crime sprees that lead to them being thrown out of town. Ma Barker–whose childhood was “too much bible and too little beef”–is depicted as the evil genius behind the Barker gang–whacking her sons around if they show any hesitation or the slightest shred of humanity. She even outfoxes Machine Gun Kelly (Victor Lundin) and his moll, Lou (Myrna Dell) while sealing Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson’s loyalty to her through her home cooked cherry pies. The film is great lurid fun–even though it takes huge liberties with the facts and basically repeats the popular mythic version of Ma Barker as the criminal mastermind behind the gang–a myth that was supposedly encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover to justify her death after a big shootout with the FBI. In spite of the fact the story takes great liberties with the truth, there are still some correct elements here–including the kidnapping of a banker and the murder of Doc Moran who performed plastic surgery on Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis.

The second film, Gangbusters is about “Public Enemy number 4” John Omar Pinson (Myron Healey)–master criminal and escape artist. Pinson often masquerades as a one-armed man (and this really looks ridiculous). The film begins with a depiction of Oregon as a state horribly overrun by crime–and the watchtowers of the Oregon State Prison seem to loom over the entire state. The film’s intro includes a heavy moral message that we viewers mustn’t admire Pinson’s exploits, and this is particularly funny since the entire film makes the point that Pinson has remarkable talent when it comes to eluding the police, breaking out of jail and inspiring loyalty from his fellow thugs. The plot follows Pinson’s crimes and his elaborate jail breaks. Gangbusters is flawed in spots, and words skip at several points in the film.

Special features include trailers and Gun Girls–a 30 minute short film that’s great fun. It’s one of those delinquent ‘bad girl’ features, and if you enjoy those, then you’ll love Gun Girls.

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Hoodlum Empire (1952)

“When he gets nervous, he develops bad tendencies.”

Hoodlum Empire is a mediocre crime drama that centres on the idea that once you’re involved with organized crime, it’s not that easy to escape. When the film begins, a Senate committee is investigating the criminal underworld with a focus on the bribes made towards public officials. According to the committee–led by Senator Stephens (Brian Donlevy), Joe Gray (John Russell) is a major kingpin of crime running gambling houses, rackets and slot machines all over the country. But Joe Gray tells a different story. He’s the nephew of gangster Nick Mansani (Luther Adler), and he swears the only business he runs is a small petrol station.

Just who is telling the truth and who is lying is gradually revealed through the flashbacks of those at the committee hearings. Flashbacks reveal that Gray is a WWII veteran who was once part of the mob. Claire Trevor plays the role of wisecracking moll, Connie Williams, a woman who remains devoted to Gray even while she tries to play both sides of the game.

Directed by Joseph Kane, Hoodlum Empire carries the label of film noir and tries to cash in on this genre’s growing popularity. Unfortunately, Hoodlum Empire just doesn’t make the grade as a noir film. It’s not gritty enough, and it’s not dark enough. There are some terribly cheesy, cliched moments in the film. These are mainly the WWII flashbacks, although the domestic scenes between Gray and his French wife, Marte Dufour (Vera Ralston) and his friend the blind preacher Rev. Simon Andrews are also cliched and sentimental. The character of Andrews seems created just to absorb all the tragedy engineered by the plot, but then none of the characters are particularly well developed. The best part of the film remains the senators grandstanding and making pompous speeches that go nowhere. In one great line, one senator complains that “children lost their lunch money” to the illegal slots, and while he states this with a straight face, it produced a few laughs from me. A great deal of the action takes place inside Mansani’s high-rise New York apartment, and the skyline visible from the large windows looks like it’s painted on plasterboard.

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