Movie Reviews - 1930s postsSaturday July 06, 2013
Movie Review: Gangster Squad (2013)
“Gangster Squad” isn’t a bad movie but given the talent involved, and the story told, you can imagine better—a movie, say, shot in the manner of “Zodiac.” Something that feels true. Or even possible.
Instead, directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), and written by Will Beall from the book by Paul Lieberman, “Gangster Squad” is quick-paced and broadly drawn and almost cartoonish. Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen, who goes to prison for murder in 1949 rather than for tax evasion in 1951 and 1961, is so encased in makeup and over-the-top mannerisms as to seem like a Dick Tracy villain. Josh Brolin’s Sgt. John O’Mara, the man who brings him to justice, is so cool and calm and expressionless as to seem like Dick Tracy.
The movie opens under the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, with Penn doing Cohen doing Bela Lugosi: “The children of the night. What beautiful music they make.” Is this a commentary on how the movies warp us? How, even in 1949, even gangsters were aping movie roles?
A gangster from Chicago is visiting and Cohen, a former middleweight boxer and current Jewish crime lord, greets him by tying him between two cars and ordering the drivers in opposite directions. Splat. “Welcome to Los Angeles,” he says, rhyming it with sleaze.
Meanwhile, his opposite, O’Mara, with a reluctant partner in tow, rescues a pretty blonde who wants to be the next Lana Turner (movie star, discovered) from the clutches of Cohen’s men. “Don’t you know whose place this is?” he’s asked, numerous times. He doesn’t care. But by the time he brings them to the station they’re already free. The town is bought. The town is dirty. Lawyers, judges, cops.
Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) knows this and likes the cut of O’Mara’s jib. So he asks him to create his own elite, unsullied unit to work behind the scenes to bring down Cohen. He calls them … the Untouchables.
Sorry, no. They’re called the Gangster Squad. But it’s L.A.’s version of the Untouchables. You’ve got the expert shot in Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the intellectual in Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), the ladies man in Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and the black guy in Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie). They’re all tough guys. They all fought in the war. They don’t see the point in fighting for freedom abroad only to run from Cohen in LA.
It’s a nice set-up and we get some nice lines. Wooters, before he’s aboard, warns off O’Mara:
Sarge, the whole town’s underwater. You're grabbing a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit.
But given the chance, the movie goes for the broad rather than fine stroke. It falls too easily into the grooves of its genre. Here’s the montage of the good guys ruining the bad guy’s operations. Here’s the bad guy fulminating. Here’s the good guys celebrating too early. Here’s the serious conversation before the good guys are set-up and one of them dies. (As in “Untouchables,” it’s the intellectual.) Here’s the bad guy triumphant and the good guys at a loss. But wait! Here’s the final chance! Here’s the showdown! Here’s the guns blazing! Here’s our main hero and our main villain going toe-to-toe!
And here’s the final comeuppance: Cohen in prison for murder and dying by lead pipe in 1949.
Except it’s a lie. Cohen went to prison for tax evasion twice, became a national celebrity, and died of stomach cancer in 1976.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Movie Review: G-Men (1935)
WARNING: SPOILERS, SEE?
With a movie like “‘G’-Men,” one of the top-grossing films of 1935, and an early attempt to deglorify gangsters by turning James Cagney, the most glorious of cinematic gangsters, into a lawman, a government man, a ‘G’-man, you hold out hope that something besides Cagney is worthwhile. You know the movie won’t be “Angels with Dirty Faces” but you wouldn’t mind a plot twist that resonates, a shot that illuminates, a forgotten colloquialism that amuses. You want a scene like in “Blonde Crazy,” where Cagney meets a grifter selling charm bracelets. The charm? A swastika. A good-luck symbol that quickly turned into the ultimate bad-luck symbol.
Nothing like that in “G-Men.” Well, there’s that moment when luggage is loaded into the nose of a plane. Didn’t know they did that. There’s a good shot as crime boss Collins (Barton MacLane) makes a getaway via a fire escape that is lit from below:
Collins makes his escape in “G-Men” (1935)
Otherwise it’s a Cagney vehicle with Cagney finally on the right side of the law. His character, ‘Brick’ Davis, is still from the Lower East Side, as Cagney was, and rough-and-tumble, as Cagney was; but he’s saved from a life of crime (and from the Hays Code) by a benevolent bootlegger, ‘Mac’ Mckay (William Harrigan), who sends Davis through college and law school.
As the movie begins, Davis realizes that maybe he’s not cut out to be a sit-behind-a-desk lawyer. A friend, Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), then encourages him to join the nascent Bureau of Investigation, which would be federalized into the FBI before filming was through. When Buchanan dies at the hands of gangsters, that seals the deal. Davis gets the OK from his mentor, who’s getting out of the gangster business anyway to run a lodge in Wisconsin, and joins up.
Does that lodge in Wisconsin sound vaguely familiar? It should.
At the Bureau, Davis runs into two mentors: Hugh Farrell (Lloyd Nolan), an expert at wrestling who is fairly benevolent, and who sees the value and toughness of the new recruit; and Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong of “King Kong” fame), who starts out bitching about all the lawyers joining the Bureau, and who has it in for the smart-alecky Davis from the get-go. When Davis demonstrates his toughness by giving McCord a black eye in a boxing match, McCord resents it. When Davis demonstrates his value by correctly identifying the gardenia killer as Danny Leggett (Edward Pawley), McCord resents it. It takes him the entire movie to warm up to Davis, by which point he’s willing to welcome him into the family via his sister, Kay McCord (Margaret Lindsay), whom Cagney romances, or at least smooth-talks, throughout.
Two of the big shoot-outs in the film are based upon real incidents. When the mob springs Leggett in Kansas City, killing several officers including an unarmed Hugh Farrell, the screenwriter was adapting from the “Kansas City Massacre,” from June 1933, in which Frank “Jelly” Nash was sprung from federal custody while three police officers and an unarmed federal agent lost their lives. Later in the film, the remnants of the Collins gang hole up in ‘Mac’ Mckay’s Wisconsin lodge; and it’s there that they’re surrounded by, and shoot it out with, federal agents, in a scene reminiscent of the 1934 Little Bohemia Lodge shoot-out between federal agents and Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. With a twist. In the movie, no agent dies and all gangsters but Collins are caught or killed. In real life, despite having the element of surprise, the federal agents managed to kill several innocent bystanders but captured not one mobster. So it goes.
That takes us to the final act, where Jean Morgan (Ann Dvorak) is killed because she’s the bad girl, Kay is captured but freed because she’s the good girl (and a pain in the ass), and we get our happy Hays-Code ending with intimations of a wedding.
Again, it’s Cagney who recommends the movie. When mobsters pick a fight with him, his face lights up. When McCord dismisses him, his face lights up. When his sister sobs into his arms for fear for her brother, his face lights up mischievously rather than sympathetically. He’s got energy, a dancer’s posture, a joie de vivre.
I only decided to see “‘G’-Men” because it was referenced in Clint Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar.” Interestingly, much of what Hoover lobbies for in that film, this film lobbies for: making kidnapping a federal offense; making crossing state lines a federal offense; allowing federal agents to arm themselves. We see the experts at Bureau headquarters use forensic science—examining wood paneling and fingerprints—which is both the image and reality Hoover wanted for his bureau. According to some, Hoover even approved the script and assigned federal agents to monitor production. Even so, according to others, he disliked the final product. He couldn’t get past Davis’ insubordination—as if he were Jeff McCord himself. Once the movie became a hit, though, he used it, along with comic books and radio shows, to help promote the Bureau.
So it’s an ordinary film but consider this: “‘G’-Men” was one of four movies Seton Miller wrote in 1935; it’s one of five movies William Keighley directed in 1935; and it’s one of six movies in which James Cagney starred in 1935. Warners kept these guys busy. Rewrites and retakes weren’t big.
Keighley and Miller, by the way, would reunite two years later for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which almost starred Cagney before the lead went to Errol Flynn. Thankfully. I’m a Cagney fan, but come on.
Review: “The 39 Steps” (1935)
I'm taking a five-week course on Alfred Hitchcock this fall at the Northwest Film Forum so periodically I'll be posting reviews of the films we watch and discuss. Feel free to join the discussion...
WARNING: 39 SPOILERS
Here’s a snatch of dialogue from early in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”:
She: May I come home with you?
He: What’s the idea?
She: Well, I’d like to.
He: It’s your funeral.
He is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London. She is Annabella, (Lucie Mannheim), who, unbeknownst to Hannay, is a secret agent. They’ve just met. They were both in a London music hall watching a man named Mr. Memory perform before a raucus crowd when shots were fired and everyone ran for the nearest exit. At the moment she’s playing the frightened woman even though she’s the one who fired the shots.
I love the economy in these four lines. With only 15 words, she seems to promise easy sex while he responds with a shrug—as if he knows he’s in a 1930s movie, where there is no sex, easy or otherwise. The final line is hilariously self-effacing. It’s also expert foreshadowing. Going home with Hannay will, in fact, be Annabella’s funeral.
“The 39 Steps” was the second of six films Alfred Hitchcock directed for Gaumont British Picture Corporation, films in which he began to perfect what became known as “the Hitchcock thriller,” and there’s something clean and nonchalant about it, the way there’s something clean and nonchalant about “The Great Gatsby” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” There’s no wasted space in the plot even though we go off on tangents with quirky secondary characters, such as, here, the milkman, the underwear salesman, and the crofter and his wife. It feels pure and self-contained.
Hannay is the first great example of Hitchcock’s innocent man on the run. When he and Annabella get back to his flat, he fries her up some haddock while she tells her tale. Yes, she’s a spy. Yes, she fired those shots. There were men she needed to get away from. Those men are now outside. Hannay checks, confirms, and she warns him:
She: Now that they have followed us here, you are in it as much as I am.
He: How do you mean?
Now that’s innocent! Worse, though they seem intimate in the kitchen, always within a whisper of touching each other, the promise of easy sex remains just that: a promise. He gives her his bed while foolishly taking the couch, where, in the middle of the night, she wakes him, gurgling warnings, a knife in her back, a map of Scotland clutched in her dying hand. He backs away, wiping blood from his own hand. Now the men are chasing him. He may not get the sex but he catches the disease.
Annabella was vague about why she was being chased—because spies tend to be vague and because Hitchcock is always vague about his MacGuffin (that element that drives the story but is ultimately meaningless)—but Hannay knows the following: 1) Annabella was working to prevent information from leaving England; 2) there’s an important man to see in Scotland; 3) beware the man missing the top joint of his little finger.
Though Hannay gets away, just barely, from the bad guys, and settles into a train bound for Scotland, Hitchcock immediately lets us know there is no “away.” In the very next shot, a justifiably famous shot, Annabella’s body is discovered by a charwoman, and, as she turns toward the camera to scream, the sound we hear is the train whistle and the shot we see is the train coming out of a tunnel. It’s both humorous and immediately revives our sense of urgency. It’s as if the scream is already part of his getaway train. It’s as if the train now has the disease, too.
This is the second time in the film, by the way, that a face, or faces, have turned toward the camera, and us, in a moment of terror. The first was when shots were fired in the Music Hall.
The second is the charwoman finding the body.
First the gun, then the body. What comes next? Guilt and suspicion. The salesman on the train is actually in his own world of ladies underwear and cricket, yet he still stares with narrowed eyes at Hannay, and us, over the newspaper story of Annabella’s murder as if he knows.
I’m sure books have been written about this Hitchcockian perspective. But at its most base level it helps us identify with Hannay. We are the ones people are frightened and suspicious of. We’ve caught the disease, too.
Soon the police, who are remarkably efficient when the story needs them to be, board the train searching for Hannay. Trapped, Hannay barges into the compartment of a pretty blonde, calls out “Darling!” and kisses her as the police, clucking to themselves wistfully, pass; then he tries to get her, this stranger, on his side. It’s a key moment. The Hitchcock story isn’t just about the innocent person caught in a web of intrigue; it’s about the innocent person who can’t get anyone to believe their story. It’s the stuff of nightmares: I have the answer but no one believes me! The milkman—a great secondary character—was the first charcter who didn’t believe Hannay, and the pretty blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who will be a primary character, is the second.
Pamela not only disbelieves him, and not only gives him up to the cops, but she does it with a kind of vindictiveness. When you contrast it with Hannay’s nurturing quality with Annabella in the kitchen, fixing her a meal, it seems not only unfair but unfeminine. Something more seems going on. One wonders if her anger stems from the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss or the fact that she enjoyed the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss.
Contrast her reaction, too, with the reaction of Margaret, the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft). Hannay escapes the cops on the train and makes his way across the moors of Scotland, where he chances upon an old scabby farm, run by an old scabby man, John (John Laurie), with whom he bargains for a room for the evening. Though John is suspicious by nature, it’s his wife, Margaret, who figures out why Hannay’s running, and who believes him, and who helps him escape and ultimately saves his life (with the hymnbook in the breastpocket). What does she get for it? An off-screen slap, and possibly worse, from her husband. Pamela, the ice queen, gets Hannay.
We get more caught/escape cycles. The important man from Scotland, Prof. Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), no. 2 from above, turns out to be no. 3 from above, the man missing the top joint of his little finger. Bad luck. The hymnbook saves Hannay there, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, he’s in the local police station, where the police finally believe him. Except they don’t. So he escapes again, this time through a political parade and into a political rally, where he’s on stage, and in the the midst of charmingly winning over the rowdy crowd (and anticipating Hugh Grant’s entire career), when he’s spotted by, whaddayaknow, Pamela, who promptly, and icily, gives him up a second time. Problem? She gives him up to the bad guys. And she’s brought along for the ride.
She gets hers, though. After he escapes again—this time handcuffed to Pamela—the two take a room at the Argyle Arms posing as newlyweds. Pamela is scandalized, you can see it in her pleading eyes, but we remember her previous behavior, so cold and unwomanly, and have no sympathy. Plus, let's face it, we’re titilated by her predicament. There’s a scene where she removes her damp stockings, Hannay’s handcuffed hand bumping along for the joyride, while the camera holds on her exquisite legs and silence—almost like held breath—envelopes everything. It’s one of the sexier 15 seconds in movie history.
The film ends where it began, in the music hall with Mr. Memory, whose rock-solid memory is the key to transporting the stolen information out of the country. On first viewing, this alley-oop seems brilliant. On second viewing, questions arise.
OK, so if Annabella was in the music hall in the beginning, did she know about Mr. Memory? If so, why point to Scotland? And how did those two bad guys kill her with a knife in the back but not get Hannay? Why kill Annabella—presumably inside the flat—and then phone Hannay from outside the flat? That makes no sense. And why phone the night before anyway? Aren’t they alerting both her and him to their presence? They’re not exactly putting the secret into secret agent, are they? Plus a hymnbook in the breast pocket? Come on. And Pamela shows up again at the political rally? In all the political rallies in all of Scotland, she has to walk into mine...
To which Hitchcock, somewhere, harrumphs. “I’m not concerned with plausibility,” he once said. Another time: “Must a picture be logical, when life is not?”
He might as well have said: Must a picture be logical when dreams are not?
Movies have been compared to dreams forever, and Hitchcock’s movies have been compared to nightmares forever, and this implausibility is part of the reason why. One can imagine Hannay waking up back in Canada and telling his friends about the odd dream he had:
I was in ... England, I suppose, and these fellows were after a woman, a beautiful woman, and I was trying to help her; and then they came after me. They thought I had information but I didn’t have information. I think I was charged with murder in there somewhere, too. I just kept running and getting caught, running and getting caught. I was even shot once but didn’t bleed. And there was another woman, another beautiful woman, who wouldn’t believe that I was innocent. No one believed it. So I had to keep running. Anyway, pass the sugar, will you?
Review: “Robin Hood” (1938)
WARNING: ROPE-SWINGING SPOILERS
Whenever the film industry develops a new technology they tend not to scrimp. Sound? How about SONG! Color? We’ll make every red as succulent as a marichino cherry! 3-D? Let’s throw shit in your face for two hours!
“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which was originally to be filmed in black-and-white and star James Cagney, was one of the first films shot with the three-strip technicolor process, and it shows, because the color really, really shows. Robin Hood was never so green, Will Scarlett was never so scarlet, and Sherwood Forest never looked like such a merry place to live.
Why is the movie still so good? Because it lives up to its title. These are adventures. They’re fun. Against a backdrop of oppression and tyranny, famine and regicide, everyone takes things about as seriously as little boys on a neighborhood caper. No one bleeds, the best fights are with friends, and you get to swing on rope swings. Grit hasn’t clogged the works yet.
Then there’s Errol Flynn. Douglas Fairbanks may have been more graceful, and subsequent Robins may have been more realistic, but no Robin Hood was more charming, romantic, or seemed to have more fun. Ironically, it was not the kind of role he wanted. He was after serious drama, Paul Muni roles, such as “The Life of Emile Zola” or “The Good Earth,” that won Academy awards and respect. Instead he got stuck playing the most famous film version of one of the most legendary characters of all time. We should all be so stuck.
There’s no fat here. It takes the Fairbanks version an hour, and the Costner version 45 minutes, to get us where “Adventures” gets us in five minutes: Robin Hood in Sherwood messing with the bad guys.
You know the backstory: King Richard’s away at the Crusades, he’s left Longchamps as Regent, but Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)—with the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) along as comic relief—plot, scheme and steal. When Richard is kidnapped by Leopold of Austria, John and Guy drink to a bright, evil future, then spill the wine and watch the red liquid drip on the floor with metaphoric delight. In quick order their men take meat from Saxon butchers and torture Saxon landowners. Then Sir Guy is about to kill Much, the Miller’s son (Herbert Mundin), for violating Forest law, but Robin of Locksley (Flynn) and his squire, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), appear on horseback and Robin shoots Guy’s mace from his hand. Now Robin has an enemy (Guy) and a follower (Much).
In every film version of the Robin Hood legend, the outlawed “merry men” are already in Sherwood Forest, either leaderless or led nominally by Little John, when Robin finally appears to offer true leadership. Except here. Here Robin appears first. He has a plan. He's so sure of this plan he saunters into the palace with the king’s deer over his shoulders, and, after annoying Sir Guy, amusing Prince John, and flirting with a put-off Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), lays out his entire plan—the entire story, really—before his enemies:
Robin: I’ll organize revolt. Exact a death for a death. And I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.
John: Have you finished?
Robin: I’m only just beginning. From this night on, I’ll use every means in my power to fight you.
Cue swordfight against a multitude, bows and arrows, escape into the night.
Why is this movie still so good? It’s exceptionally well-paced—mixing longer, memorable scenes with shorter, necessary exposition. After the above, for example, we watch the following:
Exposition: Robin is declared outlaw, his lands taken.
Long scene: The introduction of Little John
Exposition: Words spreads among the townspeople: “Robin in Sherwood.” “At the gallows oak.”
Exposition: The merry men, gathered together for the first time, take an oath to fight their oppressors to the death.
Exposition: Three examples of same: oppression of Saxons followed by a black arrow, Robin’s arrow, into the chest or back of a Norman knight.
Long scene: Intro of Friar Tuck.
At the end of Tuck’s intro, Will rides up to inform everyone that Sir Guy and the Sheriff are riding through Sherwood with a caravan of gold. And we’re ready.
The movie was initially directed by William Keighley (“Each Dawn I Die”), but Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. thought the Sherwood scenes, filmed on location in Chico, California, lacked vitality, and they replaced him with Michael Curtiz (“Angels with Dirty Faces”; “Casablanca”), who added just that. He filmed additional scenes of the merry men prepping for and then attacking the caravan, and all of that climbing, running and jumping, sometimes directly at the camera, feel like primers for the masculine energy of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The caravan includes, nonsensically, Maid Marian, which affords Robin the opportunity to woo her. Up to this point she’s believed the Norman lies about Saxons. But when the merry men display loyalty for Richard, and, more, when Robin shows her the Saxon poor and the sick that Prince John’s laws have created—living 10 yards from where his men are feasting and whooping it up—she’s won over. I wasn’t. It’s always dangerous for adults to critique the plot points of children’s stories, but the one thing that never made sense to me watching this movie as a child was this Sherwood Forest segregation. “How come the poor and sick haven’t been invited to the feast?” I thought at age 10. “How come they’re stuck in this cold, dark place, while the merry men are living it up over there? Seems unfair.” Thus are critics born.
Afterwards, the Sheriff, proving he’s not just comic relief, comes up with the plan for the archery contest, Robin Hood splits Philip of Arras’ arrow, and, in winning, is revealed, captured and sentenced to hang. It’s Marian, traveling to Kent Road Tavern, who nonsensically provides the escape plan. Following its success, we get a Romeo-and-Juliet-ish balcony scene between the two. Despite closed-mouth kissing and Hays Code proprieties, Flynn and de Havilland are still able to generate a great deal of heat.
Meanwhile, a disguised King Richard returns to England and allies with Robin even as Prince John tries to coronate himself. Marian is imperiled (though not, for once, her virtue—Hays Code again), and there’s the usual final assault on the castle and a duel between Robin and Sir Guy on the castle steps. Check out the long take, where, with Curtiz’s camera gliding back, the two men duel around a thick column and out of camera range but we continue to see their shadows clashing swords; then they come back on the opposite side of the column, foils still clashing. It’s dynamic and mythic, and surely influenced the light-sabre battles between Luke and Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Not many directors have used shadows better than Curtiz.
Question: Was the Norman-Saxon angle, absent from the Fairbanks version, a comment upon “master race” talk and events already eminating from Nazi Germany? The Crusades, on the other hand, so prominent in the Fairbanks version, are downplayed here, reflecting isolationist sentiment that was popular in the U.S. at the time. When a disguised Richard asks Robin how an outlaw who poaches the King’s deer can be a loyalist, for example, we get the following exchange:
Robin: Those I kill die from misusing the trust that Richard left with them. And the worst of these is Richard’s own brother.
Richard: Oh! Then you blame Prince John.
Robin: No, I blame Richard. His task was here at home defending his own people instead of diverting it to fight in foreign lands.
Richard: You condemn Holy Crusades?
Robin: Aye, I’ll condemn anything that leaves the task of holding England for Richard to outlaws like me.
In the end, with Sir Guy skewered and John and the Sheriff banished, King Richard commands Robin to take the hand of the Lady Marian; their friends all gather round to congratulate them but they slip out of the circle. It’s a replay of Robin slipping out from under a hogpile of Prince John’s men earlier in the movie. Here, he and Marian wind up by the door, where Robin, smiling, shouts: “May I obey all of your commands with equal pleasure, Sire!” Then they leave, the door closes, The End.
It’s what you’d call a Hollywood ending. I wouldn’t have it any other way.