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Archive for the ‘Gangster Comedy’ Category

Smart Money

20 Apr

Smart Money – directed by Alfred E. Green. Crime Comedy. 81 minutes Black And White 1931.
★★★★★
The Story: A small-town barber with a lucky streak heads for the big-time and succeeds in all his dreams but that of a lady to kiss.
~
He is my favorite actor. Edward G. Robinson. I love to watch him. I never tire – even though his effects linger from film to film. Richard Burton said of him that if he were on the screen with the most beautiful man alive, you would not watch that man, you would watch Robinson.

More alive as an actor than any other!

James Cagney made seven films in 1931, and The Public Enemy hadn’t come out yet, and Robinson, after Little Caesar, has the lead. They both started in New York Yiddish theater, and were friends, but this was their only film together.

It’s fun to see that Cagney could just as easily have played the part, or at least part of the part. The difference between them is this.

Robinson’s acts a character who is full of himself. But Cagney never played a character who was not full of himself. Robinson had to act it. But for Cagney being full of himself was the basis of his craft. It made him the schoolyard bully his entire career. It was not the basis of Robinson’s craft. Robinson has to summon hubris into the role. So Robinson is more appealing in the part than Cagney would have been. And role has another part to it: Robinson is big-time, he is generous, kind, gallant, but no woman loves him. What would Cagney have done with that!

Perfect part for Robinson, and he played it more than once. Rather than romantic leads, who got the girl, Robinson often played professionals – such as the detectives he played in Orson Welles’ The Stranger or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Absolute authority of attack is his genius. And, boy oh boy, does he know his lines!

The film was directed by a studio work-horse, Alfred E. Green. Green, an admirable director, knows exactly how to tell a story with a camera, exactly where to put the camera to do it, exactly what value to give a scene. He directed more Bette Davis films than another director. She learned her craft under him. I always welcome his name on the credits and know I am in good hands..

I have never before seen Evalyn Knapp, marvelous as the most important of the many blondes Robinson is drawn to. She is touching and real from the time she first appears till the time she withdraws. Not much of a career; one wonders why. Still, she is lovely. And all the blondes are lovely and good in their parts. Robinsons’ tremendous ebullience and bonhomie carry the film, which dates no more than anything well-made dates, which is to say no further than our affection for a bygone era.

 

Picture Snatcher

10 Aug

Picture Snatcher – directed by Lloyd Bacon. Newsroom Comedy. 87 minutes Black And White 1933.
★★★★★
The Story: A crime lord goes straight to a newspaper to go straight, leading to his becoming an ambulance chaser-photographer which is almost as bad as being a crime lord.
~
Picture Snatcher is the key to Cagney. If it is not the best performance he ever gave in movies, I haven’t seen a better.

It’s perfectly directed by Bacon and shot by Sol Polito and edited by Bill Holmes. top craftsmen at Warners. Warners made pictures about low-life, and this is one, but that didn’t mean those films didn’t get Waldorf-Astoria treatment.

You’ve got to see the film, because Cagney is just so good. I didn’t like him as a kid. It felt like I was growing up with a bully. And there is that element in him. But essentially, Cagney’s technique is grounded in fear, by which I mean the automatic defensiveness of the little man with a Thompson Machine Gun personality. You can see it melt from time to time as he meets up with this or that honey or hitch.

Cagney’s fear gave him technical confidence, and from that springs his awareness to improvise physically – so you never know what he is going to do next! This makes him interestingly dangerous. It also makes his technique reliable and at the same time fresh. For instance, watch for the moment when he dashes into a telephone booth to call his girl. The instant before he dials, he scoops the coin return to scarf a forgotten dime. Only Geraldine Page had this capacity for detail in running performance.

Cagney’s musical theater technique, which was the ground for what he did in films, may have originally been learned on the streets of New York. It was so installed in him that it prevented him from playing his parts in any other way. He had only this explosive technique to stand on. Playing a priest, you could always sense the Tommy Gun under the aub. I feel it’s rather tragic, because he wanted to play different roles. He could not do it. He couldn’t play them differently.

Certain artists can do practically anything: Schubert and Mozart. Other artists find their niche and mine it. Chopin, for instance or Piazzolla. Nothing wrong with it. Wonderful, in fact. Cagney: in his vein. See him here at his best in it.

 

The Ladykillers

26 Aug

The Ladykillers – directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Gangster Comedy. 91 minutes Color 1955.

★★★★★

You gather your friends about you, and you set them up with some shortbread and whisky or a spot of brandy or something convivial, and you watch this gooseberry pie of a comedy together, for you don’t want your neighbors to hear you guffaw alone. It stars Katie Johnson, a tiny little actress who steals every scene she appears in with Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Jack Warner, Peter Sellers, and Alex Guinness. They don’t have a chance, because she keeps everything she does as small as toast and jam. If you watch her analytically, you see a performance of such subtlety, experience, and skill that it forces you to eat out its hand handily. She’d been acting since 1894. She is 77 years old and pretty and her cheeks are pink as a rose teacup. She is well spoken and has beautiful manners. She presents her character as perfectly intelligent and considerate to a fault. But she is more than beautifully cast. She plays the part as a miniature Napoleon hiding in a rose. Not one of these gangsters dare disobey her. The story is beautifully set up by the writer and director with scenes in her local police station, whose chief pacifies her reports of a friend’s sightings of alien invaders, and she goes back to her lopsided house and rents out one of its rooms to a weird lodger played by Alec Guinness, who is clearly doing an imitation of Alastair Sim. This is disconcertingly funny at first because of the match of Sim’s buck teeth, watery eyes, sleazy hair, and drooling, delirious starvation, but Guinness’s performance fades somewhat as the film progresses because it is an imposture facing off against the real thing, Katie Johnson’s Mrs Wilberforce. The same is true of the others, who tend toward the cartoon. They are all entertaining, of course, except perhaps for Peter Sellers, an actor who was not inherently funny, whose comedy depended upon prop gags. You’d rather watch Katie Johnson sleep than watch him fumble with a gun. The only one who matches Johnson shot for shot is Danny Green as One-Round, the ignorant palooka strongman, because what he is doing as an actor is real. The look on Katie Johnson’s face as it dawns with the truth of what these bums are up to in her house is a sight to rejoice in. So gather your friends around like a tea cozy. You will all be pleased to be pleased. This film is vacation from the crude, a recess from the explicit. And when it is over you will have a discussion on what the word “entertainment” actually means. Although, of course, you don’t have to, because as with this film, entertainment frees us for a time into Liberty Hall, where, as Sean Kelly once told me, nothing is forbidden and nothing is required.

 

 

 

Big Brown Eyes

20 Apr

Big Brown Eyes — directed by Raoul Walsh. Comedy. A NYC cop and a manicurist turned reporter foil a Chopin-playing jewel fence. 77 minutes Black and White 1936.

★★★★

You like fast-talking dames? Check out Joan Bennett as the gum snapping, dialogue snapping manicurist that Cary Grant can’t stop chasing. She can’t stop mistrusting him, and it’s no wonder: Cary Grant as a New York City flatfoot? – never! He is both very good in the part and also quite unbelievable. Why? I don’t know. It’s not his accent, which is maybe lower class Bristol and maybe not, and at least is he is never in uniform. In fact, he is a plainclothesman, in really beautiful suits in which his figure looks great. No, it’s hard to pinpoint it, except there is that about Cary Grant which suggests a man who even when taking a bath wears a tuxedo. The dialogue is rich with comebacks, wise-cracks, and quick-draw ripostes – very much in the style of the 30s, and is really a style that has gone out of style, but in its heyday, here is a great example of its fun. They spray the picture faster than a tommy gun. If you like smart talk, alà His Gal Friday, take a gander at this gander and his goose. Bennett is terrific as a classic Walsh heroine, testy and full of personal ability and wit. Walter Pidgeon plays the smarmy sophisticated fence, and he is just wonderful. Unequalled in savoire faire, Pidgeon was released here and in Dark Command to play villains, not what we remember him for, but here he is just grand. Lloyd Nolan is a gun-crazy henchman devoted to cut flowers, and Walsh’s scene with him in a luxe bathroom arranging American Beauty Roses as he gets murdered is heaven-sent. But I say too much. If I don’t watch my lip, Nolan will come alive and gun me down too. But I aint no squelch, I ain’t I tell ya, I’d never rat on nobody. Don’t shoot, I didn’t mean it. Bang. Argh. Crash. I’m under da daisies. And if you watch Lloyd Nolan closely, so is he.

 

 

Up The River

11 Mar

Up The River — directed by John Ford. Farce. A swaggering con and his moron sidekick bust out of the slammer to help a pal with his goil. 92 minutes Black and White 1930.

★★★

Fox had to make a gangster picture fast, so they sent John Ford to look for a new face in New York, giving him tickets to five Broadway plays. The first one he saw was The Last Mile, and instead of going to the other four, he went back four times to see Spencer Tracy who was the star of it. Ford caught a matinee of another play while he was there, and found his supporting player. So both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart make their screen debuts in this film — which is not a gangster film at all but a comedy set in and out of a Utopian prison, where all the inmates are gutter roses and weep when reminded of their mothers and whence Spencer Tracy may make a break whenever he likes. The problem with the film is that its director celebrates what is dumb – and this seems to be the basis of Ford’s popularity. Ward Bond, uncredited turns up as a dummy bully, and all the prisoners are witless. Tracy’s sidekick, Dannemora Dan, played by Warren Hymer, is so stupid that when he comes out of an IQ test listed as “moron,” he is proud of the denomination, and we are supposed to think this is funny. This prison has females in it, and one of them falls for Bogie, who is a society boy who accidentally got on the wrong side of the law. Actually Bogie was a society boy, and it’s also interesting to see three other things one was not often to see from him again. One was how tiny he was, short and slight. This feature was adjusted by not shooting him in full in future films, or not shooting him in contrast with much taller people and things. He makes the mistake of chewing gum in his opening scene, but stops it soon. And he walks with that bowed-arms stride of his already. And when he is angry he is really frightening, Duke Mantee in the making. The second thing is that his basket shows, as does that of Hymer. Well, these are pre-code films and the guys hung loose, I guess. The third thing is his sunny smile. It’s radiant – who’d a thunk it? Tracy plays the know-in-all BMOC, smug and deceptive, and honest to his marrow. It fit right in with Ford’s Irishness in all things. Ford talked down to all his characters and to his audiences, just as much as those do-gooder society matrons distributing the benison of their contempt do. Everyone in Ford films is treated as dumb. The least common denominator is Ford’s whole orchestra, both on the screen and in his audience. I am not fooled: I do not mistake it for the common touch. Everything Ford does is backed by the inherent bully in him. The film was a big hit, and Fox signed Tracy to five-year contract, and he was on his way.

 

 

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

20 Jan

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Action Adventure Comedy. 108 minutes Color 1998.

* * * * *

Bob Hope isn’t in it, but this is a Bop Hope film with his character divvied up into twenty parts. Bob Hope Meets Scarface it would be called if he were in it. Instead it’s a mixed salad full of various greens and surprising veggies and terrific vinaigrette holding the whole collation together. The quality of the humor lies in the plot and the plot lies in the hands of the camera work. It is a story that cannot be told without a camera because the camera is the secret screwball agent of the plot. It is a hugely mixed up mélange of betrayals and deceptions and deals and masterful meanness and young dumb luck. It never drops its comic spectacles from its nose. Even with the corpses decorating every divan, you will see that they do so with a vaudeville gesture of stage exit. Even the Cockney accents are fun, the more so when you can’t tell what they are saying — fun because the posture they assume to say it is so absurdly readable. When perversion takes its final twist it straightens up and flies right. Watch and see if aint so, corblimey.

 

A Song Is Born

08 Oct

A Song Is Born – Directed by Howard Hawks. A musical academic researching jazz falls foul of manipulative nightclub singer. 117 minutes Color 1948.

* *

You will have the memorable chance to hear Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnett, Louis Bellson, and Louis Armstrong jam together in a picture which you will find impossible to remember otherwise. Goldwyn paid Hawks a quarter of a million to direct it and it cost well over two million and it resembles a high school varsity show. Hawks jammed it between Red River and I Was A Male War Bride, and to film it we have the man who filmed Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland no less, but the picture is nothing other than a series of gaudy setups, which is what Goldwyn liked for his Danny Kaye series. Production stopped every day so Hawks could listen to the boys play, and so Kaye could go to his psychiatrist, which is perhaps why in this picture, except for a few facial gesticulations, he is not funny once. His voice is placed just under his nasal passages and is perpetually plaintive. Of course, Danny Kaye was not an actor at all, but an entertainer, a zany in the line of The Marx Brothers, Jonathan Winters, and Robin Williams, He was separated from his wife at the time this was made, and she, Sylvia Fine, wrote all his riffs. The writing seems astoundingly dull, although by Brackett and Wilder, although it didn’t when it fueled  Hawks’ Ball of Fire of which this is a remake..  But the War had intervened, and that changed everything. This sort of naive hokum was passé. It’s a lazy film, using the exact same script, set, setups, cameraman, and even Mary Field, excellent as Miss Totten once again. One can only talk around this movie; it defies criticism. Except perhaps to say that Steve Cochran and Virginia Mayo, neither of whom Hawks wanted, do just fine in it. Hawks made Mayo go to a warehouse and yell to lower her voice, which didn’t work, but she is dressed up and hair-doed as a Hawks woman, and she gives us a dame of fine sexual insolence such as we have come to rely on from Hawks. She watched Stanwyck’s performance in the earlier film over and over, but she does just fine on her own; it’s one of her best screen performances. A cast of brilliant supporting players, Felix Bressart and F. Hugh Herbert among others, founder when they are acting, and the musicians founder when they are not playing, but when they are you will hear Lionel Hampton do duets with Armstrong and with the redoubtable Goodman, and for a moment things almost seem worthwhile. For a short time, it was the number one box office draw in the nation. The Death Valley of the 50s was about to begin.

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Find Me Guilty

13 Sep

Find Me Guilty – Directed by Sidney Lumet. Courtoom Drama. The longest criminal trial in U.S. history is derailed by one of the 20 gangster defendants.125 minutes Color 2006.

* * * * *

I sought out this picture because the director has entertained me for years: The Fugitive Kind, Long Days Journey Into Night, Network, Running On Empty, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, 12 Angry Men. What I love about Lumet is his respect for the spectacle inherent in the human comedy being photographed at all – and so offering it up in a style which is not two dimensional, not cinematic, but three dimensional, that is to say, theatrical. Time and again the human activity taking place here is given point and honor by an angle the camera takes to report it. Nothing is sensationalized or emotionalized; rather we see the man with the chair on his head bump comedically more than once trying to enter a space not tall enough for it, but we see it at the far end of a very long corridor and at deep focus – so the joke on him is not diverted into Laurel and Hardy but simply noticed. We appreciate the director for the taste he ascribes to us and for the aesthetic common sense we have to distinguish truth in its proper treatment. This gift of his extends to the actors as well, and they are often superb. Brando’s opening scene is Fugitive Kind is the greatest piece of film acting I have ever seen, and, here, Linus Roache is given full latitude to go nuts over this unimaginably huge two year court case. We also see the beautiful Peter Dinklage take just the right size and attack in his role as the principal defense lawyer (his speaking voice alone!). Lumet is a master of courtroom drama (12 Angry Men, he Verdict), and this his penultimate picture is a masterpiece of the genre, an impression that might be overlooked because of the peculiar story it tells and the character responsible for the story’s outcome. Vin Diesel is an actor I had never seen before because he appears in the sort of film I never see –violent action films – but he is a wonderful actor entirely. He plays the a gangster who takes on his own self defense, and proves himself to be a disruptive Merry Andrew before a judge excellently played by Ron Silver. He is entirely appealing as a man whose love of his gang family retains its hold in him against the truth of its not being returned. Vin Diesel, Annabella Sciorra as his wife, Linus Roache, and Peter Dinklage give Oscar-level performances. The movie is mistitled, but marvelous! Don’t miss it.

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A Slight Case Of Murder

30 Mar

A Slight Case of Murder — directed by Lloyd Bacon — a comedy about a gang lord and his wife striving for upper middle class tone. — 1938 black and white

* * * * *

Well, Edward G. Robinson is a master actor. What is the invisible quality that makes him so? (The G. in his names stands for nothing. There was already an Edward Robinson in Equity when he took the name, so he just added a G.) Complete conviction? Always being at home in his Anger? I can’t answer it, but here he plays the part he often played of a boss gangster tough-guy. He never plays it with his tongue in his cheek. He plays it exactly as he would if it were a gangster movie. He simply plays the script. He plays it exactly as he plays it in Key Largo. One cannot take one’s eyes off him. Even to watch Ruth Donnelly who is wonderful as his wife. She is so well cast. She is courageously cast because she is no beauty — but boy can she act the part of the loyal lower class dame getting slightly above herself when her husband’s business goes legit: just delightful. All the characters in this piece are Damon Runyan cartoons, of the sort we see in Capra films and in “Guys and Dolls” and so forth — created in the era of the funny papers, when the mayor of New York actually read them to us of a Sunday. Things were different then. People ate pot roast. This is pot roast. Very tasty. A perfect family meal.

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Plan B

22 Nov

Plan B –– directed by Greg Vaitanes –– broad gangster-comedy in which an ordinary woman is forced to be a mob assassin –– 96 minutes color 2002.

* * * * *

A good example of an actress destroying a film. First, Diane Keaton should never be allowed to choose her own wardrobe for a movie. In this one she starts as awoman roped into being a hit-lady, and her clothes are fairly nondescript. But Keaton refuses to play a drab woman –– ever –– and it’s a mistake, for she is essentially a master of her craft and a great comedienne. So presently she tosses on an Annie Hall rig that Chaplinifies the part on the one hand, that has nothing to do with the character on the other hand, and, on the third hand, disguises a third of her face and often her eyes with the brim of a bowler and various glasses. The wreckage of her attempt to make her quirky and endearing might be corrected had her performance been gauged to fit the story, but she allows her character to become broader, less confident, and more physically improbable as she gains experience with her new job, instead of less foolish, less frantic, and more contained as she gained experience with her various hand guns. Thus the comedy of character, which this performance needed to be, might have emerged from her nervous realization that she was becoming more like the mobster she was being asked to be. Very well written by Lisa Lutz, beautifully filmed by John Peters, with a superb sound track by Brian Tyler, and great set decoration by Debbie de Villa, and, for the most part, directed with such perfect visual pitch by Greg Vaitanes that at times we seem to be looking at Danny Kaye comedy directed by Kurosawa. A magnificent supporting cast carries the comic load of this film —  whose first third is top drawer until Keaton dresses up in male clothing –– Paul Sorvino, Bob Balaban, Maury Chaykin, Burt Young, John Ventimiglia, Nick Sandow, Natasha Lyonne, and an Oscar to Anthony de Sando, as the Jerry Lewis-moronic thug, who supplies invention upon invention always in character and always funny — a great actor and a jewel of a performance.

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