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10 Classic Gangster Movies Better Than ‘Gangster Squad’

10 Classic Gangster Movies Better Than 'Gangster Squad'

This weekend, a heinous crime is committed in the release of “Gangster Squad.” At one time a hot prospect at Warner Bros, attracting an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Mireille Enos, many had high hopes for it, but the writing has been on the wall for a while. For instance, some claim that the film’s January release date was only a side-effect of reshoots ordered after the Aurora shootings, but the film’s original slot — the second weekend in September, one of the quietest moviegoing weekends of the year — suggested that Warners never had all that much faith in the finished product.

And it’s easy to see why, as we can absolutely back up our review from earlier in the week: “Gangster Squad” is a train wreck. It’s directed by Ruben Fleischer in a way that vacillates between gory Zack Snyder-ish cartoon stylization and po-faced seriousness, all through the lens of genuinely ugly digital cinematography that makes “Public Enemies” look like a pre-Raphaelite painting. It’s written by future “Justice League” writer Will Beall as a mix of cliches and nonsensical plot developments. And it’s acted, for the most part (Ryan Gosling‘s watchable, once you realize that he seems to be doing some kind of performance art homage to co-star Giovanni Ribisi in “The Other Sister“) by an ensemble who are either miscast (Emma Stone), wildly overacting (Sean Penn), boring (Josh Brolin) or entirely wasted (everybody else).

Frankly, the whole thing made us very, very sad, not least because we love the period and promise of the set-up: there’s nothing like a great cops vs. gangsters movie set in post-war L.A. But unfortunately, “Gangster Squad” is nothing like a great cops vs. gangster movie set in post-war L.A. So, to wash the taste out of our mouths, and to give you some alternate options to watch over the weekend, we’ve picked out ten great gangster pictures from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that do a much better job of the kind of thing that Fleischer and co set out to do. Check them out below, and let us know your own favorites too. 

“Little Caesar”  (1931)
While Josef von Sternberg‘s 1927 silent crime film “Underworld” (also released as “Paying the Penalty“) was the blueprint for many of the now-iconic, Pre-Code 1930s gangster films, Warner Bros.’ crime film, “Little Caesar,” released at the very beginning of 1931, was the first gangster “talkie” to truly capture that public’s fascination with a genre that has never really gone out of vogue since. The template for the classic gangster film is generally the rise and fall of the criminal and “Little Caesar” sticks to that script closely, telling the story of Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), a small-time hoodlum who rose up the ranks of the crime echelons in Chicago. Robinson, (Romanian-born Emanuel Goldenberg originally) was one of Hollywood’s unlikeliest leading men, but thanks to that unforgettable Romanian-Jewish mug (it certainly didn’t hurt that he had a similar kisser to Al Capone) he would go on to become one of Tinseltown’s greatest villains in the heyday of the gangster picture.“Little Caesar” (along with “Five Star Final”) launched that career, and when the film arrived in 1931, just two years before prohibition ended, it also launched the type of Bugsy Malone-like gangster that Hollywood would be fascinated with for decades to come. Unlike other classic gangster movies like “White Heat” or “G-Men,” however, this Mervyn LeRoy-directed film still had many leftover vestiges from the silent era — title cards explaining the action between scenes or when time spanned — and the soft-lit, soft-focused close-ups that defined that era. Still, don’t get it too twisted, “Little Caesar” is as gangsta as they come and charts the rise and fall of a self-made man who grew too big for his britches and was ultimately done in by the cops thanks to his own easily exploitable hubris. The picture also starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 4th Annual Academy Awards and has been been cemented in classic status by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute several times over.

“The Public Enemy” (1931)
Well, if one guy is going to dominate this list it’s going to be a certain James Francis Cagney, so we really have to include his 1931 breakout, directed by William Wellman. Famous now for many reasons, not least of which is the notorious, frequently parodied breakfast scene during which Cagney shoves half a grapefruit into uncredited actress Mae Clarke’s face (it even gets a nod in “Some Like It Hot”), what’s impressive to a modern eye is just how many of the hallmarks of the evergreen gangster genre are already in evidence here, fully formed and as sophisticated as you’d see in any episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” Cagney, playing way younger than he was (as he so often did,) is Tom Powers, a no-good kid who, along with his buddy Matt, graduates from petty crime to grand larceny and murder in the heady, Wild-West atmosphere of the early Prohibition days (the film’s depiction of the near-riots during the last hours of legal alcohol sales is another highlight). He trades up suits, cars and dames along the way, upgrading in the latter case from ol’ citrus face to Jean Harlow, who has maybe two scenes, but one cracking speech that distills the essence of her own star persona (the bad girl bored with being good) and in so doing gently undercuts the film’s casual misogyny. But otherwise it’s Cagney all the way. It’s really not hard to see why this film made him a star — his particular volatile, bristly energy and unpredictable but thoroughly sold shifts in mood are a natural fit for this character (which he apparently based on real-life mobster and ‘Boardwalk’ regular Deanie O’Bannion) and would define a lot of his subsequent appeal throughout a brilliantly diverse career — hard to believe he was originally cast in the best friend role. And so, despite heavily moralising texts at the beginning and the close (you’d think it was a Code requirement, except the film came out before the Code was being actually enforced), and Powers’ sticky end (his body delivered, trussed like a parcel to his dear old ma’s house, just as he was on the point of rehabilitation) the film is in fact as fascinated by the glamor and personality of its central character as it finger-waggingly warns us not to be. It’s a prime early artefact in the long, long debate about the depiction of crime and criminals onscreen and the effect that empathy or admiration with these dangerous individuals can have on the viewer’s morality; a narrative that would continue throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, including many of the other films on this list, and continues still today. Now, on a rewatch, “The Public Enemy” can feel almost cliché in parts, but if it does, that’s because it was the one to establish the clichés in the first place. And as soon as it does, Cagney swaggers and crackles his way onscreen and all thoughts of overfamiliarity are blown away. There really has never been anyone quite like him.

“Scarface” (1932)
With “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” proving hits, plenty of imitators lined up and one of the first, and best, came from producer Howard Hughes, who lined up an impressive roster of talent for his cautionary crime tale “Scarface” (sometimes subtitled “The Shame Of A Nation“). Writer Ben Hecht was underway on the script when he received a visit from a couple of Al Capone’s men, who were ‘checking’ that he wasn’t basing his script on Capone — he was, but managed to convince the hoodlums otherwise, and even got them to consult on the film. And Howard Hawks ended helming this tale of the rise — and inevitable fall — of Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), who goes from low-level enforcer to running Chicago, only to fall foul of the law. Muni makes a charismatic lead figure — even if he’s given the sexual dysfunction common to most of the protagonists of this era, in this case a faintly incestuous relationship with his sister — and while it’s a familiar story now, the rags-to-riches crime story was pretty much a new invention (it mirrors “Little Caesar,” certainly, but the source novel, by Armitage Trail, was published in the same year as the book on which the earlier film was based), and there’s still a lot of appeal to it, especially given the care and character with which Hawks directs. Brian De Palma‘s 1980s remake is the better known version these days, but we’d certainly take the original over the bloated Miami-set re-do.

“G-Men” (1935)
Bad boy James Cagney obviously played one of the best and most memorable psychotic gangsters ever in “White Heat,” but the actor also spent plenty of time on the right side of the law too. One of the most memorable and engaging films where that was the case was “G-Men,” that had all the intrigue, drama and dynamic layers of a modern-day dramatic thriller. James “Brick” Davis, a young, righteous lawyer (Cagney) is put through law school by his mentor, a mobster with a conscience (Willliam Harrigan). Brick resists being recruited into the G-Men, but when a friend is killed, he vows to avenge him, quits his law practice and joins the justice department, softly warning his mentor he may need to take him down one day (the man, coincidentally is getting out of the game). Brash and confident, while in Washington D.C. for his training, Brick butts heads with his instructor Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong) who’s constantly breaking his balls and giving him a rough go of things. Complicating matters, Brick takes a shine to McCord’s sister Kay (Margaret Lindsay), and one of his former paramours, Jean Morgan (Ann Dvorak), marries a mobster he’s after. With the G-Men tied up by antiquated laws (not being able to carry guns, or indict over state laws), the gangsters bloody up the lawmen for half the picture, but with laws overturned, McCord and Brick finally squash their beef and the two men acting together in tandem makes for an enormously thrilling climax. Directed by William Keighley, “G-Men” was re-released in 1949 with a new prologue, featuring a FBI trainer screening the film to a group of FBI recruits so that they may learn about the Bureau’s history. He warns the students (and therefore the audience) to not laugh at the antiquated look and feel of the picture, but ironically, the prologue is certainly the most dated part of what is a terrifically entertaining and completely engaging gangster picture.

“Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938)
You can trace a straight line from 1931’s “The Public Enemy” to this Michael Curtiz classic of later that same decade (an incredibly prolific one for star James Cagney), right down to the “two young friends getting into petty crime together and being mean to girls” opening, and the fact that the same pub gets bombed in both films (they used an alternate angle on the same action). However here the worry about the effect of the glamor of the criminal lifestyle is not relegated to title cards, but forms the central thrust of the plot, and crucially the two friends (Cagney and real-life best pal and frequent collaborator Pat O’Brien) end up pursuing very different paths in life, even as their friendship survives. Rocky (Cagney) and Jerry (O’Brien) are spotted trying to steal fountain pens from a freight train, and while Jerry gets away, Rocky is caught and sent to juvie, taking the rap for them both. Years later, Rocky has been in and out of prison and has fallen in with a smooth, corrupt lawyer (a pre-bigtime Humphrey Bogart) while Jerry has taken to the priesthood and is trying to save a gang of local youths from the life of crime that awaits them. The set up is there for something unbearably mawkish and sentimental, but in Curtiz’s expert hands (he would pull off the same trick of adding depth through restraint in “Casablanca”), instead the film is a hugely involving and ultimately moving story of loyalty, redemption and the nature of true sacrifice.The relationship between Rocky and Jerry is as tenderly drawn as any love affair (indeed it’s more dwelled upon than the rather snatched-together romance subplot), and Rocky’s relationship with the gang of kids, whereby he feeds off their admiration as much as they feed off his bravado, is an unusual touch that requires the character to display a certain likeable vulnerability, even while punching skulls and delivering wisecracks. Which is where Cagney comes in. Which is to say, everywhere. “White Heat” may be his towering gangster performance, in incandescent psycho Cody Jarrett, but Rocky Sullivan is a more complex, rounded creation, someone we know is not bad at heart, who has a splinter of vulnerability lodged deep inside, yet who still manages to use up all the oxygen in the room just by walking in. And Cagney treads this line magnificently finding subtler shades of stunted but steadfast goodness (“the boy who couldn’t run as fast”) beneath his usual snapping, fizzing energy. And therein lies the film’s ultimate paradox, one we can’t really believe Mr Hayes and his Code let pass: the arrogant, glamorous Rocky self-sacrifices so the kids in the film no longer worship him, but we know the truth of it, so what’s to stop our morals from being seduced to the… Yeah, screw this blogging, I’m off to rob a bank and whistle at a dame.

“The Roaring Twenties ” (1939)
Something of a mid-point of the classic era of the gangster picture (eight years after “Little Caesar,” ten years before “White Heat“), “The Roaring Twenties” sees Raoul Walsh take an epic, almost novelistic look at the crime-filled decade that was at that time still in recent memory. It’s a film that, while perhaps not as successful as some of its tighter, more specific competition, has much to recommend it. Based, like “Gangster Squad,” on articles by a journalist (in this case Mark Hellinger), it starts off in the trenches of World War One, as Eddie (James Cagney), George (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn) meet in a foxhole. They return home, where Eddie and George become bootleggers, while Lloyd is a successful lawyer. Lloyd marries the girl (Priscilla Lane) that Eddie loves, but becomes a target for the increasingly ruthless George, causing Eddie to step up and do the right thing. In its grand sociological sweep (set over a period of years) and divided loyalties, it’s a precursor to later flicks like “Mean Streets” and “Once Upon A Time In America,” and the pairing of Cagney and Bogart — in their last on-screen team up — has plenty of fireworks, even if Lynn is a dull straight-arrow foil for them. In fact, you can sense that director Raoul Walsh is barely interested in him at all; he’s having more fun with his faux newsreels and light-footed camerawork. “The Roaring Twenties” doesn’t quite match the iconic value of some of those that came before and after it, but it’s still absorbing stuff nevertheless.

“Dillinger” (1945)
By 1945, with the Second World War still underway, the studios had mostly turned away from the gangster genre in favor of more comforting, patriotic fare. This left a gap in the market, a gap that B-movie experts Monogram Studios were more than happy to fill. Given the paucity of similar films, and a bigger-than-usual budget for the company (though still small change compared to a studio picture), they were able to attract a decent amount of talent, including screenwriter Philip Yordan (who won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, the only time that Monogram ever won a nod from the Academy), and familiar faces like Elisha Cook Jr and Edmund Lowe. But in the lead role for their factually fast-and-loose biopic of the legendary bank robber, they went for the imposing figure of Lawrence Tierney, who half-a-century later would get a new lease of life as Joe in Quentin Tarantino‘s “Reservoir Dogs.” And he’s kind of perfect for the lean, pulpy, grimy take on Dillinger’s tale that Yordan and director Max Nosseck came up with, leading a film with few ambitions to be anything other than an unpretentious B-movie, which rattles along being exactly that. That said, it’s also an interesting exercise in resource management (with only $60,000 to spend, Nosseck cannily uses stock footage to add production value), and it ladles on enough atmosphere and quirky character touches that it’ll happily stand alongside any of the other films on this list.

“Force Of Evil” (1948)
While it’s not the most obvious choice when it comes to the plethora of films filled with fedoras, tommy guns and cars with running boards, Abraham Polonsky’s effort is perhaps a bit more subversive than most. Indeed, very few shots are fired in “Force Of Evil” and most curious of all, the man at the hub of criminal empire, is a legitimate lawyer. John Garfield stars as Joe Morse, the legal representative of Ben Tucker, who fronts a respectable and lucrative but illegal numbers racket. Morse has been instrumental in keeping the operation looking above board, and convincing Tucker to rule his operation without resorting to the kind of violence that grabs headlines and police attention. But when Tucker launches a scheme to take a bigger slice of the gambling pie, Morse gets way in over his head, lured by the money he’ll make, and the power he’ll wield. “Force Of Evil” is a slow-burning look at man whose link with organized crime infects him, eventually turning him into the same kind of threatening, pompous and fearsome player he’s loath to be associated with. Garfield carries Joe Morse with an appropriate swagger that hides a frightened vulnerability and as Tucker’s plans begin to go awry, and the police and politicians close in, he desperately tries to hang on to the hood life he’s built, even as it’s exposed to be as crooked as it really is. “Force Of Evil” operates in a morally grey area rare for this kind of movie, where even the everyday citizen who books a bet, or the middle-aged woman who works for a small-time broker, are implicated as part of a bigger problem. Joe Morse is a cautionary tale of what happens when you try to play the big shot under the delusion you’re doing nothing wrong, and can outsmart (or outlawyer) the law.

“White Heat” (1949)
A decade on from “The Roaring Twenties,” James Cagney and Raoul Walsh reteamed (though 1941’s musical romantic comedy “The Strawberry Blonde” came in between) for the gangster flick that might mark their finest hour. In a swing from the mostly sympathetic protagonist of that earlier film, Cagney plays the positively psychopathic Cody Jarrett, a ruthless gang leader with a semi-Oedipal fixation on his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Busted after a disastrous train robbery, but taking the fall for a lesser crime, he befriends fellow inmate Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), letting him in on his breakout from the joint, without knowing that he’s actually an undercover agent tasked with finding Cody’s fence. While Eddie in “The Roaring Twenties” was redeemed by the end, Cody is an out-and-out monster from the first, executing innocents and allies alike, but Cagney gives him a vulnerability and a psychological realism that’s helped to make him one of the most memorable central characters in the genre (helped, in part, because O’Brien’s something of a blank slate in the film). With the actor turning 50 that year, his age is starting to show, and it makes Cody’s mummy’s boy as pathetic as he is terrifying (the DNA of Norman Bates seems to start here), and it’s the actor’s most iconic turn, not least when it comes to his fiery demise, screaming, famously, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Walsh’s use of sociological subtext is less heavy-handed than it was with “The Roaring Twenties” (perhaps minus the final mushroom cloud…), and a tighter focus makes the film just as gripping, but more satisfying as a rich character study.

“The Big Combo” (1955)
Even among this company, “The Big Combo” is a cop vs. gangster picture that’s mostly familiar to only the most avid film noir fan. Which is a shame, because it’s something of a lost classic, a nifty little B-picture with top-notch craft and an enjoyably twisted, convoluted plot. Cop Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde, who also produced the film, and was an Oscar nominee for playing Chopin in 1944’s “A Song To Remember“) is fixated with bringing down mobster Mr. Brown (Richard Comte, best known for playng Don Barzini in “The Godfather“), and equally fixated on the criminal’s moll, the troubled, suicidal Susan (Jean Wallace, Wilde’s wife at the time). The mention of the name ‘Alicia’ seems to point towards a way to bring down Brown — it seems to be his wife, who he may have disposed of by tying her to an anchor and throwing her in the Mediterranean — but Diamond, and many others, will pay the price before he has Brown at the other end of his gun. The cast aren’t the finest ever assembled for such a film; Conte is great value as the heavy, but Wilde’s pretty bland as the hero. But it’s the filmmaking, by the often undersung Joseph H. Lewis (most famous for “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Badlands” precursor “Gun Crazy“) who is the real star here. Thanks to the help of cinematographer John Alton (“An American In Paris“), the contrasty chiaroscuro of the film makes it one of the best-looking noirs ever made, Lewis throwing out shadows, fog and spotlights to ladle out on the atmosphere. And there’s some cunning formal experimentation too (see the way he drops out the sound when a henchman has his hearing aid taken out to be executed). The whole thing can be viewed on YouTube, so you can catch up with it yourself at your own convenience.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth


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