Saturday, March 3, 2012
My Gangster Flick Top Twenty, Part 1
Last night I was talking to my firned Nick Prata, who was complaining that he couldn't find Part One of my Top Twenty Gangster list...well, it turned out that I wrote the damn thing, but forgot to post it, so I'm posting it now. If you want to go looking for Part Two, it's way back in the archives, October 12, 2010...the archives thing is down on the right in the sidebar, by the way. I just noticed it, duh.
Anyway, here's Part One.
Howard Hughes made some real badass movies. Hell's Angels might be ill-constructed and thoroughly obsolete in a lot of ways, but it's full of aerial-combat stuff that nobody ever saw before, and no one's seen since, a screen swarming with actual WWI fighters, which are actually crashed, after being sprayed with actual bullets...there's even a scene where Hughes seems to have talked one of his actors to take an actual bullet in the back (I presume the guy was wearing a vest). Well, the approach in Scarface was similar...Thompson submachine artistes hosing things down with real bullets, just missing the actors, splintering glass and tearing walls right the hell up. The whole thing is much more violent than other gangster films of the period, and features some pretty funky subject matter, such as incest...the movie was made (I think) in 1930, but wasn't released till '32, because of censorship issues...even so, this was pre-code, and it's pretty strong stuff. Paul Muni is sly, charismatic, and frightening as Tony Camonte, a hood loosely based on Al Capone...the supporting cast includes Ann Dvorak, George Raft (whose coin-flipping because iconic gangster behavior), and Boris Karloff. Howard Hawks was the director, and really made his mark...he's the guy who said, of Sam Peckinpah, "Hell, I can kill ten guys in the time it takes him to kill one." That mindset is very much in evidence through most of Scarface...the movie's fast, efficient, and does everything it needs to do in about ninety minutes. It only falls down at the very end...Camonte wusses out after his sister, who he's in love with, is shot by cops. In that respect, the '32 version is inferior to the Pacino Scarface. But up till then, it's all gold, with lots of real bullets doing what they really do...
2.High Sierra 1941
Humphrey Bogart had been on everybody's radar since Petrified Forest, and got a lot of gangster work with Warner Brothers, usually playing second-fiddle to Jimmy Cagney, but with High Sierra, he really came into his own, cementing his reputation with Maltese Falcon later in 1941, and ultimately, Casablanca. Sierra was co-written by John Huston, one of his drinking buddies, working from a novel by W.R. Burnett, who'd also written a lot of Scarface. Raoul Walsh, who went on to helm White Heat, which I've already cited in my villains list, was the director, and the whole thing benefited from his characteristic brisk professionalism. Add in a bunch of great California scenery along the east wall of the Sierras, and you have a big stick of cinematic dynamite.
Story is classic sympathetic badman stuff...Bogart plays Roy Earle, a Dillinger-like Indiana bankrobber (they even make him look like Dillinger) who's served his time, and heads west at the behest of "Big Mack," a gangster kingpin who's relocated in California. Mack wants Bogie to sign up for a heist in some fictitious resort that's based on Tahoe or Palm Springs or someplace. Anyway, while Bogart's setting up the robbery, he falls in love with a pretty crippled girl (Joan Leslie) who strings him along until he provides her with enough ill-gotten gains to get her an operation. When he realizes he's been had by her (she's got a slimy boyfriend who isn't a lovable criminal like Bogie), and finds out he's been slapped with the nickname "Mad Dog," (you feel genuinely bad for him) he pretty much decides he's had enough of life. Refusing to be comforted by poor Ida Lupino, who truly loves him, he heads for the hills with every cop in California on his trail, and finds himself way up in the white jagged granite, pinned against the cliffs of Mount Whitney, barking defiance and spraying typewriter slugs at the fuzz as sharpshooters close in from above and behind. By the time a bullet sends him sliding hundreds of feet to his death, you really care about the luckless doomed bastard...and Ida lupino...and even the dopey little poochie who eventually precipitates Bogie's gruesome end...
Actually, maybe not the pooch.
3.White Heat, 1949
As I said, another Raoul Walsh gangster classic.Standout performance by Jimmy Cagney, which I go on and on about in the villains' list. But what struck me the last time I saw it was the tone...we're past WW II now, the Cold War's already on, and Warner Brothers has gone from propaganda to some pretty noirish stuff. Cagney's Cody Jarrett ain't Roy Earle...he's a profoundly twisted man who loves his mom way too much, and he gives the very real sense that all the evil in the world hasn't been vanquished, even if Hitler has. In fact, the movie closes with a mushroom-cloud oiltank apocalpyse which seems to suggests where the world might be headed. Certainly the meanest gangster movie since the Muni Scarface, and it ends on a much stronger note.
4.The St. Valentine's Day Massacre 1967
Just recently they had a slew of Roger Corman movies on the pay-per-view, and I wound up watching every one. I saw most of them in the theaters when they first came out,and the rest I caught up with fairly shortly on TV; I remember seeing St. Valentine's Day massacre at the Arnold Theater in Pt. Pleasant Beach, NJ, and me and my teenage buds were just thrilled with it, afterwards putting on our dads' hats and carrying black Thompson squirtguns, and pretending to be gangsters. Later on, while my wife was going to grad school at Notre Dame, and we were getting Chicago TV, we watched the movie one Valentine's Day (they always show it on Valentine's Day in Shytown) and we decided we would eat our February 14 chocolates and watch SVDM ever afterwards...
Like most movies that Corman actually directed, it's really quite a good job, and its presentation of the massacre and the events leading up to it is pretty close to the facts, although the movie leaves you with the impression that the Northside Gang was finished when it really wasn't---they answered right back with the Northside Massacre, among other things. Jason Robards hams it up something awful as Al Capone, and doesn't look anything like him---Capone was really porky, and in his late twenties at the time. But the movie has a wonderful supporting cast including Ralph Meeker, George Segal, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson (he's such a wop bastard that he rubs garlic on his bullets!), and Dick Miller, and it zips right along. For the first fifteen minutes, it's non-stop murder and bullet-holes, including John Agar as Dion O'Banion getting popped in the head right in his flower shop! The massacre's pretty satisfactory too, and is followed by the banquet where Capone gives double-crossing Valentine gunmen Anselmi and Scalisi a baseball bat dessert.
What more could you ask?
5.Get Carter 1971
I grew up on dingy, nasty British movies about everything in life utterly sucking, and Get Carter is a frontrunner in the UK shittiness sweepstakes, as well as being one of the truly great Limey gangster movies. It's got Michael Caine (one of my favorite actors)as a venemous London hood who finds out his brother has been murdered in grey, grimy, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and decides to find out whodunnit, and settle 'em. In the process, he uncovers some awful truths that just make him meaner...and heaven help the hapless blokes who get in his way. Carter describes one of these fellows as having eyes like "piss-holes in the snow," just before he bashes the guy's brains out with the buttstock of his shotgun. The movie's vastly superior to the Sylvester Stallone remake, by the way. Directed (very effectively) by Mike Hodges, the guy who did the De Laurentiis Flash Gordon.
See Harry Brown by the way. It's somewhat like Gran Torino, but much much uglier. There will always be a shitty England, thank God!
I've made no secret of my admiration for John Milius's work, and here you have him as screenwriter and director. American International had been having quite a bit of luck with gangster flicks, some of which had been directed by vets like Roger Corman (Bloody Mama), others by newcomers like Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha). Milius was selling scripts at the time to the likes of John Huston and Sidney Pollack, so AIP decided to let him do this Dillinger movie. It features god-man Warren Oates (if you haven't seen Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, drop everything and do it this instant)as the master bank-robber, and the equally godlike Ben Johnson as his FBI nemesis Melvin Purvis. Purvis was actually a youngish guy then, not a rugged ole John Ford regular, but what the hell; Johnson lends so much gravitas and sheer awesomeness to his role that he actually manages to counterbalance Oates's work.
Story covers Dillinger's capture and imprisonment, breakout, and his formation of the "Super Gang," which includes Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton) and Harry Pierpont(Geoffery Lewis). Everybody's armed with wonderful guns and vintage Milius dialogue, and when the shootin' starts, it's vicious and choice. These are some of the best-staged gun-battles Hollywood's ever turned out, and as it just so happens, there's a bunch of genuine history sprinkled in, including the last words of pretty Boy Floyd. For what it's worth, the demise of Baby face Nelson is a tad toned down...you should look up the real story on the web. In short, though, Dillinger is a wild, hilarious, blood-drenched celebration of bank-robbers and the guys who kill them...forget about that solemn, mournful Johnny Depp thing. How on earth do you manage to make a boring John Dillinger movie?
7.The Long Good Friday 1980
Another top-notch English gangster movie...strikes a very different note from Get Carter. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London hood who's got a lot of money sunk into riverside development along the Thames...he also wants to encourage foreign investment, and to that end, he's invited a bunch of American mobsters to scope the situation out and see if they want to lay down some greenbacks. But just as he's preparing to receive the Yanks, his men start dying and his pubs start exploding. Before long, he's completely at wit's end...nobody seems to know where all this is coming from, especially since London's crime scene was well under his control,or so he thought. He pays some visits, hauls some guys in and hangs 'em from meathooks...nothing. But it turns out a creepy little lieutenant of his, who's in charge of his Belfast operations, decided to double-cross the IRA...and they assume Harold was behind it all, hence the carnage. Pretty sure the Provos won't accept his excuses no matter what, he decides to take them on, even as he's squiring the Americans around London...ultimately, he sets up a sit-down with the bog-trotters at a demolition derby, then fills 'em full of shotgun pellets...problem solved.
Or so he thinks.
The Americans don't like what they've seen...they pronounce Britain to be a Third World nation, and tell Harold that london is "fuckin Beirut." As they're heading out the door, he blusters about the Dunkirk Spirit, then shortly afterwards, gets into his limo, only to discover that his driver (and the guy on the seat next to him) have been replaced by Belfast boys. The final minute and a half, with Hoskins squirming and thinking about what he might've done different and what's going to happen to him, under the flinty gaze of a young Pierce Brosnan, is one of the most chilling sequences in film history, ever. Friday was directed by one John McKenzie who I don't know anything about...Hoskins receives tremendous support from Helen Mirren, who's as sexy as all get-out and plays his mistress, who's smarter than his character by a long shot. At any rate, it's rather a pity that they replaced Mr. Hoskins with Robert De Niro in The Untouchables...Hoskins looks a lot more like Capone, and in my opinion, would've been a shitload more believable.
8.The Godfather Saga 1981
You may have wondered where my head was at when we got through the 70's without me mentioning Godfather and Godfather 2. After all, they're most everybody's favorite gangster epics. Well, the 1981 version of the Godfather Saga is the way I prefer them...this is the edition where the two movies are combined, everything in chronological order. It's also, unlike the previous network TV version, uncensored. And even though I liked Godfather 2 better than Godfather, I could never get quite comfortable with the intercutting between the Michael Corleone 1950's stuff and the young Vito material. Yeah, I know that the two strands are supposed to comment on each other, with Vito's relatively-sympathetic exploits casting a harsh light on Michael's progressively more awful descent into evil. But it's hard to keep the first film out of your mind...and part 2, in its original form, is kinda bisected by it, even though the first movie isn't really there. It just hampers the flow.
It's all very cool looking...wonderful use of chiaroscuro. The performances are uniformly great, and it's easy to see why the films were such a springboard for Pacino, DeNiro,Caan, and Duvall (although Duvall had been doing wonderful work at least as early as To Kill a Mockingbird). I'm not the world's biggest Brando fan, but he's just what was required as the older Vito. Francis Ford Coppola's direction is masterful, Mario Puzo's screenplay from his own novel (with an assist from Coppola and an uncredited Robert Towne) is one of the best adaptations ever, and Nino Rota's score is pretty damn haunting.
I do have some gripes though. The movie's legendary violence is rather ineptly handled in spots...the makeup effects by Dick Smith are fantastic, but Coppola tried to do some very complicated stuff, couldn't figure it all out, and it shows. You'll notice that in the scene where Sonny gets riddled, you don't see many squibs going off on him...that's because, without CGI, it was damn hard to synchronize entrance and exit wounds, let alone bullet-hits where the shots went through and hit something else. They also tried the sequence with blood-pellets...I saw pictures of this...didn't work either. The synchronization in the scene with the guy in the revolving door is also terminally messed up, because they're trying to line up squibs on the victim with holes in the door, and all the effects are mis-timed. Also, in the scene where the guy and the girl are machine-gunned under the sheets, there are quite a few very gory squibs that don't have anybody's body under them.
An interesting side-note...there's this French gangster movie called Borsalino (with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon) which attempts similar very complicated stuff, particularly in a revolving-door machine-gunning, and does it very very successfully.
Yeah, yeah, I've got too much time on my hands.
But back to The Godfather...
I also think that the movies invest the gangsters with way too much sinister glamor. Yes, in the first flick, a bunch of Michael's murders are intercut with a baptism, and in the second flick, Michael murders his own brother. But you're always rooting for the Corleones, because they're just so effing cool...
9. Scarface 1983
I much prefer Brian DePalma's gangster movies to his Hitchcockian stuff, and this is my favorite DePalma, although Carlito's Way comes in a close second. This movie is kind of the anti-Godfather. Just look at the differences in the visual style. No shadows here, as I believe DePalma pointed out. Everything is brightly lit, and the color scheme is all hot tropical hues and pastels. Also, the movie isn't somber. It may be nasty, but it isn't somber. It's loud, crazy and funny. It got a lot of bad reviews from critics who just didn't seem to get the vibe...it's a black comedy, even though the color black isn't in much evidence. Yeah, there's some serious stuff, but I was laughing my ass off a lot of the time. If you watch the scene where Manolo sticks his tongue out at the bikini babe, or the Octavio scene, or the "hey meng, you gotta a job" scene, or the Pelican scene, and you don't laugh, there's something wrong with you.
Movie's a remake of the Howard Hawks flick, but it doesn't really have anything to do with Al Capone. The pace is much slower than in the original...it sure isn't crisp. But you spend a lot of time with the characters, and you know what, the characters are better. Pacino's Tony Montana is much more fleshed out than Muni's Camonte, and he goes out in a technicolor blaze of gangster glory that makes the end of the first movie seem really wimpy. Moreover, the De Palma version boasts a very scary new character, the Bolivian druglord Sosa (Paul Shenar), who's much higher up in the food chain than Tony and nearly made my villains list...just didn't have enough screen-time. Both the female leads, Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, are luscious, and Geiorgio Moroder's score is fabulously trashy...I particularly like "Take it to the Limit," the song that's on over the money-counting scene.
Love that damn counting machine!
10. A Better Tomorrow 1986
My favorite John Woo movie is A Bullet in the Head, which seems to have started out as a kind of a prequel to A Better Tomorrow; but even though Bullet's got gangsters, it turns into something rather more like a war movie. On the other hand, ABT is the grandaddy of all the ultraviolent Hong Kong gun flicks, the slaughterfest that put Woo and Chow Yun Fat on the map. Produced by Tsui Hark, it took HK by storm, featuring Chow as "Mark," a gangster who lights his cigarettes with hundred-dollar counterfeit notes...he wears a long trench-coat, and in 1986, every Hong Kong guy and his uncle had to had to have a "Mark Coat." I think it would be fair to say that Woo established his trademark style with ABT; it's an amalgam of Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Jean-Pierre Melville...several of the gunfights, notably the "flower-pot" sequence, are absolute classics.
Story involves double-crossing and mucho gunplay in the funny-money trade. Mark and his friend Ho (the great Ti Lung) work with Shing (Waise Lee), somehow not noticing what a scumbag he is...matters are complicated by the fact that Ho's brother Kit is a cop who doesn't know his sib is a wiseguy. Shing sets up a deal in Taiwan and sells Ho out...Ho winds up in prison...he comes out to find that Mark, who's crippled now, has lost a lot of face, and its working as a mere gofer-gimp for Shing, who's taken over the gang and humiliates him constantly. As should come as no surprise, Mark and Ho team back up to bring Shing down; Kit, whose reputation has been ruined by his relationship with Ho, decides to redeem the family honor by going after Shing too. It all gets resolved with a whole lot of splattery wonderful slo-motion violence down by the waterfront.
Waterfronts really need to be banned.
As I said, the movie was wildly successful, and spawned two follow-ups, three if you want to count Bullet in the head. A Better Tomorrow Two was a profoundly unnecessary and ridiculous sequel in which Mark, who was killed in the first film, is replaced by his twin brother, who's given to tonguelashing gwai-los with bizarre rants about the spiritual importance of rice...the climax is pretty cool, though, one of Woo's best action sequences...it's on a TV in the background in True Romance. Better Tomorrow III was a prequel directed by Tsui Hark, takes place in Vietnam, and stars Chow Yun-Fat and Anita Mui; it seems to have been Hark's version of the material that wound up in Bullet, and while it's better than ABT 2, it's kinda dull.