Tag 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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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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Night After Night (1932)


night after night“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

Ex-Boxer Joe Anton (George Raft) runs a successful speakeasy. Now that he’s hit the good times, he’s turned his ambitions towards high society. Joe is captivated by a lonely, high class woman named Jerry Healey (Constance Cummings) who sits alone at his speakeasy night after night. In order to impress Jerry, Joe employs a teacher to educate him, teach him good manners, and improve his speech.

Joe’s life is complicated by current and former relationships. Iris (Wynne Gibson) is his current jealous flame, and he can’t wait to get rid of her. Maudie (Mae West) is a former good-natured flame who blows into town and into the speakeasy.

Night after Night has a flimsy, romantic plot that puts George Raft in the amusing and slightly whimsical role of being a man whose grammar has to be corrected in order to impress a ‘lady’. The film’s laughs come from teacher, Miss Mabel Jellyman (Alison Skipworth) and Maudie. When these two women get together, the situation loosens up. A subplot concerning a gangster and the sale of the speakeasy runs throughout the film.

Night after Night gave Mae West her first film role. It’s a fairly small part (she appears in only four scenes), but she steals the film. The romance between Joe and Miss Healey seems tepid and misguided at best, but when Maudie shows up at the speakeasy, the fun begins. She immediately strikes up an unlikely friendship with Miss Jellyman, and the pair of them get drunk. Night after Night was made in 1932–and with Hays Code was not yet enforced, Joe’s great line remains in the film: “if I was a pirate and I had you on my ship, I wouldn’t toss you to my crew.” From director Archie Mayo.

Mae West: “You stick with me dearie, and I’ll make you platinum blonde.”

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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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The American Soldier (1970)

 “Get me a woman.”

american-soldierThe American Soldier is an early film from German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and it is also the last of his gangster films. Set in Munich, the film begins in a cellar as three off-duty policemen play a tense game of cards. These three rogue policemen have arranged contracts with hired killer–German-American Ricky (Karl Scheydt). Ricky–a Vietnam veteran–arrives in Munich and cold-bloodedly executes his victims. Ricky makes a side trip from business to meet an old friend Franz Walsch (played by Fassbinder) and also visits his mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) and effete brother (Kurt Raab). German director Margarethe von Trotta plays a hotel maid (she recounts the plot of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in one scene), and the lead female role–the hollow-eyed Rosa–is played by Elga Sorbas.

The plot doesn’t concern itself much about the details, so it’s vague exactly why Ricky is hired to kill two seemingly unimportant victims who are involved in some unspecified crime. But what is stressed is the idea that the policemen are little different from the criminal element they are paid to supervise, so employing a hired killer for the extra dirty work seems an extension of the role of the police. Avoiding plot intricacies, the film’s emphasis is on style and cliche, and the film is loaded with both. This minimalist film doesn’t waste a prop or a line while presenting a story that emphasizes Ricky’s emotionless existence. Any emotion exhibited in the film is entirely inappropriate–Ricky’s reunion with his family for example. His relationship with his mother is fraught with sexual tension while his brother crushes a glass into his hand at the news that Ricky has returned.

Fassbinder had definite ideas about Hollywood, and it shows here in The American Soldier where his use of cliche underscores the action. Fassbinder deliberately overuses cliches–often in extended sequences–to emphasize his theories about Hollywood. According to author Christian Braad Thomsen in the book Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius, Fassbinder used cliches to emphasis the hollowness of the Hollywood film industry. There are some great scenes here in this moody gangster film–one of the best occurs when Ricky goes to find a man known as “the gypsy.” When Ricky finds the gypsy, he is in a bar drinking with his two bodyguards. One of the drunken bodyguards collapses on the table, knocking his drink onto the floor. The newly spilled alcohol joins a considerable stain that’s already evident. This is Fassbinder’s gangster world of worn-out women, grotty bars, and corrupt authorities, and for Fassbinder fans, The American Soldier is a delirious, nightmarish journey into the mind of one of the world’s most innovative filmmakers. Note: the lead female character’s name–Rosa von Praunheim is also the name of another German director–surely an ironic joke on the part of Fassbinder who must have been aware that the controversial Rosa von Praunheim received many death threats. With a soundtrack from Peer Raben (who also appears in a small role), the black and white film is in German with English subtitles.

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Night Nurse (1931)

“Don’t think you can muzzle me.”

Night Nurse directed by William Wellman, is an extremely entertaining film, and it’s also a marvelous vehicle for the talented Barbara Stanwyck. When the film begins, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is trying to get a job as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s hampered by her lack of high school diploma. A kind and widely respected doctor takes up Lora’s cause, and she’s added to the student nursing staff at the hospital. The plot follows Lora’s training, and while some emphasis is placed on Lora and fellow fun-loving student Maloney’s (Joan Blondell) attempts to circumvent curfew, it’s also clear that Lora takes her chosen career very seriously.

night-nurseOne evening, Lora is working in the emergency room, and she meets a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon). A moment of kindness seals their friendship, and it also raises the film’s major theme–medical ethics. Mortie tells Lora that doctors and nurses cover things up at the hospital, and his comment makes an impact.

Lora’s first assignment following graduation is to care for two little girls in their home. The children are suffering from malnutrition and anemia, yet the family is wealthy. There’s obviously something very peculiar afoot–the children’s mother, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam) is drunk most of the time and hosts wild parties, an acidic housekeeper spies on the nurses, the children complain of hunger, and Nick (Clark Gable), the sinister chauffeur lurks in the background. When the situation at the Ritchey home deteriorates one evening, Lora’s medical ethics are tested, and she must chose between the care of her young patients or take a chance that may wreck her career.

Night Nurse is a powerful pre-code drama. Yes, there are lots of fluffy, enjoyable scenes that involve Stanwyck running around in her undies a great deal (check out the VHS cover), but the core of the film covers some serious material. This is a marvelous role for Stanwyck, and her character has a spine of steel that refuses to bend. There are many great scenes in the film–Nora facing down the drunken Mrs. Ritchey, and Nora arguing with the slimy Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde), for example. But the very best scene occurs between Nick and Lora–she confronts him, and he tries to bully her. Lora doesn’t back down–in fact she gets right in his face, and the camera is angled just perfectly to catch the unflinching eye contact between these two characters. If you are a Stanwyck fan, don’t miss this one.

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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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