#133 The Big Combo

Watched: September 16 2017

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Helen Walker

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 27min

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Leonard Diamond (Wilde) is a police lieutenant with a vendetta against crime lord Mr Brown (Conte). Despite warnings from his superiors and a distinct lack of evidence, he is hell-bent on bringing the gangster down and to save Mr Brown’s girl Susan Lowell (Wallace), with whom he is a bit obsessed.

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And who can blame him, with her face always being perfectly lit, even in shadows

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When Lowell tries to kill herself, Diamond finally has an opportunity to talk to her in her hospital bed. Not entirely conscious, she keeps muttering about someone named “Alicia,” but when she regains consciousness, she cannot say who Alicia is (or was).

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To the investigation-mobile!

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Mr Brown does not take kindly to Diamond’s interest in him, or his experiments with a lie-detector, so he kidnaps his nemesis, tortures him, and then pours him full of alcohol.

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Pictured: fun new ways of using a hearing aid!

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However, inventive torture devices do nothing to dissuade the investigator, who only increases his efforts to put the criminal behind bars. Following a hunch, Diamond goes out to prove that Brown is a killer, but what he finds is not quite what he expected.

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He does find time to snuggle with dancer Rita – an unlucky Dame with perfect make-up and low standards

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The Big Combo is dark and atmospheric, with great lighting and music. The characters are taken to the extreme; Diamond is exceedingly righteous and stubborn, while Brown is a sadistic psychopath with few redeeming features, apart from maybe his tongue, judging from the look on Susan’s face in one infamous scene.

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Her heart may regret getting involved with a gangster, but her body thinks otherwise…

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We loved the lighting, the smoke and the angles, the jazzy music and the use of sound around a pivotal moment in McClure’s life (which we will not spoil). The Big Combo is also surprisingly progressive sexually, with the aforementioned scene with Susan and Brown, as well as the heavily implied relationship between henchmen Fante and Mingo both being unusually explicit for the time.

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It’s (more than) guy love between two guuuuys

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Definitely worth watching, especially if you’re into noir films with lots of sexual undertones.

What we learned: Even gangster henchmen can find love in each other.

Next time: The Court Jester (1955)

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#129 It’s Always Fair Weather

Watched: August 21 2017

Director: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly

Starring: Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Dolores Gray

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 41min

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Three friends, Ted Riley (Kelly), Doug Hallerton (Dailey), and Angie Valentine (Kidd), return to New York from World War II. They get drunk, engage in a stomp-style dance routine and promise each other (and bartender Tim) to meet up again in ten years.

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“We’ll totally be this happy and optimistic for the rest of our lives, and we’ll never grow apart, and we’ll live up to all our potential, and never fail, and everything will be awesome forever!”

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The ten years pass, and would-be lawyer Ted is a gambler, aspiring artist Doug is an ad-man, and ambitious chef Angie is the owner of a hamburger stand. They meet up, but are disappointed in each other, their once great friendship, and themselves.

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“Well, weren’t we overly optimistic annoying little gits in that last scene..?”

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As they are stewing in their resentment in a fancy restaurant, Jackie Leighton (Charisse), who is also in advertising, is introduced to them by an associate of Doug.

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They’re shielding their eyes because her dressed ripped in the last scene. They’re gentlemen. Except for dude on the left.

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She fends off Ted’s advances at first, but then comes up with the idea to show the three men’s reunion on a TV show hosted by (the glorious) Madeline (Gray). Also, there are gangsters.

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Nothing like a bit of violence to rekindle an old friendship

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We’re suckers for Gene Kelly musicals, and so naturally we enjoyed this one. We loved the time lapse showing how their careers developed over the years; the thoughts they have about each other to the tune of The Blue Danube; the boxers in Stillman’s Gym (very Bugsy Malone!); the roller blade tap routine; the dresses and Madeline. Funny yet slightly moody and depressing at times – great stuff!

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It might be the gloomiest Kelly-musical, but it’s not all dark and serious

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What we learned: K-L-E-N-Z-R-I-T-E spells Klenzrite – the only washing soap for us. Also, how to scare men off with facts. As if we needed more help in that department…

Next time: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

#95 White Heat

Watched: April 02 2017

Director: Raoul Walsh

Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly

Year: 1949

Runtime: 1h 54min

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After ten years, and 48 entries, James Cagney is back, and we’re thrilled. Cody Jarrett (Cagney) leads a gang of hoodlums with the help of his Ma (Wycherly) with whom he has a relationship worthy of a Freudian study. After several deaths during a train robbery perpetrated by him and his gang, Cody decides to take the rap for another, less violent crime committed at the same time to avoid a life and/or death sentence.

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He seems sadder about leaving his Ma for two years than about leaving his hot wife. See “Freud” above.

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Meanwhile, the man in charge of investigating the train robbery decides to put one of his men, Hank (O’Brien), undercover in Cody’s prison cell to get to the bottom of the case since he knows it was Cody’s doing. Hank’s task is to gain Cody’s trust and get a confession. Or, as it turns out, join him in a prison break and become his right hand man after unfortunate events and treacherous gang members throw Cody’s world off balance.

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“It’s guy love between two guuuuys”

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White Heat is an action-packed noir-thriller-prison break-heist-crime-gangster-film with all the elements we still see in the genre(s). The Cagney Charisma makes you sort of root for him a bit no matter how amoral and unscrupulous his character may be, although in this case it could be partly because the people with which he surrounds himself are pretty much as bad as he is.

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Examples include, but are not limited to, his beautiful but duplicitous wife Verna (Mayo)

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Cagney’s undeniable charm aside, we found ourselves rooting more and more for Hank as the story progressed, and we were really impressed with the often sophisticated investigative and forensic tools employed by the police in this film – they felt very modern to us. We also kind of loved Ma Jarrett although, like her son, she’s a bit of a manipulative sociopath.

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Cody is deliciously insane though, so Ma may have been a stabilizing influence in his life

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It’s a dramatic film with a dramatic score. The storyline is one which would probably have been stretched into an entire season of a TV show nowadays, so with a run time of under two hours, it never gets dull. Very good indeed, and we loved being back in the company of James Cagney.

What we learned: We might all profit from a closer study of classic literature.

Next time: All About Eve (1950)

#80 Brighton Rock

Watched: January 29 2017

Director: John Boulting

Starring: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh, Wylie Watson

Year: 1947

Runtime: 1h 32min

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Brighton. A cesspool of crime, run by gangsters and desperation. On top of the ladder following the death of old kingpin Kite: Pinkie Brown (Attenborough), a young but ruthless man. As newly appointed leader it is his duty to avenge the death of his former boss, and he blames reporter Fred Hale. So he disposes of him.

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Fred wasn’t the only victim. Those glasses had once offended his mother so were also promptly disposed of.

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While there are no witnesses to the actual disposing (which by the way was an excellent scene), Ida Arnold (Baddeley) who had spent most of the day with Fred, gets suspicious and starts her own investigation. At the same time, Pinkie’s associate Spicer (Watson) royally messes up while trying to establish an alibi for the gangsters, and accidentally leaves behind a potential witness – 17 year old waitress Rose (Marsh).

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Luckily, Rose is a mature, intelligent woman, not easily manipulated or an easy victim, and she brings the gangsters down. Just kidding!

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To stop Rose talking, Pinkie starts dating her, and while he may very well be the worst, broodiest date ever, she is an inexperienced, naïve Catholic girl and she falls for him. Silly child.

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She even tends to his battle wounds, that sweet summer child

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Their (insanely wrong) romance blossoms, but that is about the only thing going right in Pinkie’s life. Ida continues her investigation and stumbles across Rose who accidentally reveals a crucial piece of information. Meanwhile, Pinkie’s business is under threat from Colleoni, a rival “businessman,” which puts another cog in his wheels.

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Later, his rival also puts a scar on his face and fear in his eyes

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As his story progresses, Pinkie gets more desperate and more violent and it all builds towards an inevitably bleak ending, particularly as he introduces some Romeo and Juliet-type scenario to his new, doting wife. We’re not entirely sure she paid attention in English class, or perhaps she is still so young she thought it all romantic.

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Then again, who could resist these loving eyes?

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We’ve heard the end referred to as fairly “happy”, but we cannot help but think Rose would be better off knowing the truth about her marriage as it would at least leave her with a chance to move on. As it stands, she may be lost forever.

Brighton Rock is suspenseful to the point of being stressful, and it’s a very good watch. The performances in the film are great, and we really enjoyed it. Definitely worth watching. We will leave you with a picture featuring Ida and Dallow (Hartnell – aka The Doctor), as we have not managed to squeeze them in anywhere else.

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We threw in a couple of police officers for good measure. Enjoy!

What we learned: if a shady character indirectly sort of threatens your life, don’t marry him.

Next time: Nightmare Alley (1947)

#78 The Killers

Watched: January 22 2017

Director: Robert Siodmak

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien

Year: 1946

Runtime: 1h 37min

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Two shady characters enter a diner, accompanied by a dramatic opening score. After intimidating the owner, the cook, and the lone guest, they set up for a hit on regular customer Swede (Lancaster). Who fails to show. Rude.

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They also start a time honoured tradition of people in films who order food in diners and proceed not to eat it. Seems very wasteful.

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When it becomes clear that their target won’t show up, the hitmen leave to track him down, and the diner guest, Nick, runs to warn the Swede, hopping fences on the way like an old-timey Simon Pegg. However, when he reaches the soon-to-be victim, the Swede refuses to do anything, stating he deserves his fate because he “once did something wrong”. Nick leaves and soon the hitmen finish their business. True to his word, the Swede does not defend himself. But why not? It is up to insurance investigator Jim Reardon (O’Brien) to figure everything out.

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Guess what? A Dame is involved!

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Reardon starts interviewing old friends and accomplices of Swede and the story of his life is told through flashbacks (naturally, as Lancaster would have ridiculously high billing if he had been killed in the first five minutes, never to be seen again). His first stop is the beneficiary of the Swede’s life insurance policy, an old lady running a hotel in which he once stayed. While she has no idea why he would leave her money, she does remember witnessing some erratic and self-destructive behaviour during his time in the hotel, as well as ramblings about a woman who is gone.

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It becomes clear that the man had some anger issues

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What Reardon finds is an ex-boxer who, when out on a date with another girl, falls in love with a Dame called Kitty Collins (Gardner). Kitty is involved in some shady business, and Swede takes the fall for one transgression, landing him in jail for three years. When released, he gets into even shadier stuff, leading him on a path of crime and destruction, much to the chagrin of his childhood friend who became a police officer.

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The police equivalent of a clown car. We love it!

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The Killers has more investigating and less action than some of the noir films we’ve watched, but it is intriguing and suspenseful. Ava Gardner is great as the double-crossing Dame, and the fact that this was Lancaster’s first film role is very impressive. As is common in film-noir, there’s great use of light and shadow, and the mood throughout the film is bleak and menacing. It’s a great watch for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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We’re going to leave you with this awesome image.

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What we learned: Don’t hit on other girls while you’re on a date. It’s just not classy. Also, there’s no honour among thieves. And Kitty’s got claws!

Next time: Black Narcissus (1947)

#47 The Roaring Twenties

Watched: October 17 2016

Director: Raoul Walsh

Starring: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George, Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh

Year: 1939

Runtime: 1h 46min

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It’s World War One and two guys are doing their best to smoke a cigarette in a shell hole during the fighting. A third guy joins them and they gradually strike up a friendship despite being from very different walks of life; Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) is a mechanic, George Hally (Bogart) is the son of a bar owner, and Lloyd Hart (Lynn) is a lawyer.

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Sharing a smoke and a shell hole in WWI = best friends forever!

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Upon returning home after the war, the three go their seperate ways and we follow Bartlett as he goes back to his old friend and his old job only to find that the world has moved on and there’s no work for him. To make matters even worse, Eddie decides to look up his old penpal from the war, Jean (the ridiculously gorgeous Priscilla Lane), and discovers she’s a school kid. To his credit, he walks away.

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“I’ll just look you up in three years, dollface!”

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He moves in with his friend Danny Green (McHugh) and they take turns driving Danny’s taxi to make a living. After Eddie is arrested for unwittingly smuggling rum into a bar, he realises that there’s money in illegal alcohol and he starts producing and delivering his own, with the help of Danny, the fabulous Panama Smith (George) and his old lawyer friend from the war. He makes it big, runs into (the now legal) Jean again and starts to pursue her, with varied success. She tries, but fails, to fall in love with Eddie.

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“I appreciate the job and the pressies, but I think I’m just gonna fuck your friend instead. #friendzone!”

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George Hally comes back into their lives and the business keeps growing. However, Hally’s ruthlessness and tendency towards violence push Lloyd away and drive Eddie to become more violent himself. When prohibition ends, Eddie has lost it all – his business, his girl, his best friends and his sobriety. Panama stands by him, but he becomes a drunk and reverts to taxi driving again.

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While Hally keeps up his violent criminal career with considerable more success.

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Eddie is short tempered, proud and impulsive, but he’s not a really bad guy, more a victim of circumstance and his own ambition. Hally is more the psychopath – the one who delights in violence and excessive force. Panama and Danny are easily the most likable characters, and in many ways the most innocent victims of Eddie and Hally.

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She’s also the most fabulous character. You can’t go wrong with polka dots and feathers!

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We loved the voice-over and the documentary feel of The Roaring Twenties. The plot and the characters are intriguing and the film was strangely educational, like a very engaging history lesson. Our love for James Cagney is still going strong – whether he’s playing a gangster or he’s dancing and singing, he is mesmerizing.

What we learned: don’t drink and drive, kids! Also, we learned a lot of stuff about the USA between 1920 and 1939. Thank you, voice-over dude!

Next time: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

#43 Angels with Dirty Faces

Watched: September 20 2016

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart

Year: 1938

Runtime: 1h 37min

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It is laundry day in downtown New York (we think?), and friends Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are up to no good. After bullying some passing girls, they decide to steal some fountain pens (cause that’s what bad boys did in the ’20s) and Rocky is caught. He goes to juvenile detention where he learns to be an even better criminal and spends the next 13 years in and out of prison.

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In between stints in prison, he stays busy coaching basketball, as one does

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After being released a final time, Rocky (Cagney) goes back to his old neighbourhood and meets up again with childhood cohort Jerry (O’Brien) who is now a priest. Despite their different lifestyles, their old friendship stays strong and the gangster even helps the priest with some of the “dead end kids” who Jerry is trying to save from a life of crime.

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He also corrupts them of course, but only out of necessity

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While Rocky might initially have tried to get back on the right track, it doesn’t take him long to return to a life of crime, partly due to local crime kingpin Frazier (Bogart) who tries to have him killed. He does not take kindly to this and exacts his revenge by kidnapping Frazier and forcing him into a partnership.

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“Whadda ya mean taking the money and leaving would be smarter than getting into business with the man who tried to have me killed?”

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Eventually, Rocky’s escapades threaten not only his relationship with his girl Laury (Sheridan) but also the one with Jerry, who launches his own campaign to overthrow the corrupt officials and the gangsters who secretly run the town. After a shootout with the police, Rocky is arrested again and sentenced to death. Jerry comes to see him before the execution and begs him to sacrifice his ego and pride to save the dead end boys, which leads to one of the most emotionally devastating scenes we’ve ever seen (possibly worse than the Tramp’s New Year’s dinner in The Gold Rush).

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Will he or won’t he do his old friend one last favour? The results might shock you!

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Angels With Dirty Faces is in a way an early condamnation of the American justice system, and the arguments (nor the realities of the system) haven’t changed much over the years. It’s a beautiful, gripping gangster film with excellent performances and a truly heartbreaking ending. Even though we were both in tears in the end, we loved it.

What we learned: Whadda ya hear, whadda ya say?

Next time: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

#24 Scarface

Watched: August 23 2016

Director: Howard Hawks

Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff

Year: 1932

Runtime: 1h 30min

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“This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: “What are you going to do about it?”. The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?” So opens the most violent PSA of the ’30s, Scarface.

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“I’m gonna f**k some s**t up, is what I’m gonna do!”

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The man f’ing things up is Tony Camonte (Muni), ambitious strong-arm for the mafia and part-time overprotective brother. After being interrogated for the murder of his old boss, he teams up with new boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) to run the Chicago underworld. Tony is simultaneously very smart and very stupid, and his ruthlessness, charm and excellent beer ordering system help him climb to the top, gradually taking over the territory as well as the boss’ girl.

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To be fair, she comes with the territory

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Gang war ensues and Tony spirals and grows gradually more insane, more ambitious and more ruthless. Despite everything though, he is very charismatic and strangely likeable at times, up until the point he completely ruins his sister’s life which effectively ends his operation.

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“How dare you fall for men similar to the only male influence in your life!”

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Despite the violence, there’s a lot of comedy in Scarface as well, especially in the form of Tony’s “seckertary” Angelo. There’s great use of shadows and we loved the “shooting the days away”-bit. We also liked the women in this; Poppy and Cesca were great, and Tony’s mother was no fool, unlike some of the other mafia mums we’ve seen.

Another one we’ll recommend if you like action, great clothes, cool characters and the absence of father figures (seriously – none of these gangster types in any of these movies have (good) fathers). The ending made us sad, though not so much for Tony as the ones around him. We’re now looking forward to rewatching the 1983 film of the same name!

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“I’m shooting in the rain, just shooting in the rain!”

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What we learned: Killers sure liked to whistle back in the day. Also, never get attached to the comic relief.

Next time: The Mummy (1932)

#20 The Public Enemy

Watched: August 21 2016

Director: William A. Wellman

Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook

Year: 1931

Runtime: 1h 23min

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This gangster classic follows the lives of two friends growing up in Chicago and rising through the ranks of the local crime syndicate. Tom Powers (Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Woods) start off with petty theft as kids and gradually move up and onward to bigger things, such as fur stealing, cop killing and fornication.

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“Dames and Dolls are just a perk – we’re really in it for the fashion”

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Like Little Caesar, Tommy moves up in the criminal world, but he is infinitely more likable. Sure, he’s a bastard, but he is a cheeky bastard and one of the sassiest sassies that ever sassed.

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Just look at his little face!

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Tom’s increasingly violent behaviour, together with the freak death of one of his strongest allies and his revenge on an old employer, lead to Tom and Matt moving to the top of a rival gang’s kill list and they go into hiding. After his boss’ girlfriend rapes him (there’s no other way to describe getting someone drunk and having sex with them despite their protests), Tom flees from his refuge unarmed and with a target on his back. The ending is heartbreaking and shocking.

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It then turns into an After School Special

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The Public Enemy has it all. Beer drinking kids, old-timey flirting (the best kind!), love, friendship, loyalty, gun fights, dysfunctional families, gorgeous clothes, Jimmy Cagney, betrayal, murder and mayhem, as well as the aforementioned female-on-male rape. We loved it and are now developing a tiny (or not so tiny) crush on James Cagney.

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The face of a man who has seen some shit. And been raped.

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What we learned: for siblings, we slap each other around way too little. Also, if you kill someone’s best friend, expect repercussions.

Next time: Freaks (1932)

#17 Little Caesar

Watched: August 15 2016

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Glenda Farrell

Year: 1931

Runtime: 1h 18min

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The first gangster film on the list, and what a film! The lingo! The voices! The faces! The incredible nicknames! Killer Peppi, Scabby, Diamond Pete, Kid Bean, and of course Little Caesar himself: together they rule the underworld.

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And they look darned dapper when they do

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The plot revolves around the titular character (Robinson) – an ambitious young bastard who through hubris and ruthlessness works his way up the ranks of a gang and eventually takes over their operation.

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“What are you talking about, hubris?”

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Through his quest for power, he mows down semi-innocent people and screws over quite a few of his friends (despite his motto becoming “Loyalty & Friendship”). Our hearts go out to poor Tony the Getaway Driver. (Who is referred to as a big baby. Baby Driver..?)

Meanwhile, his old friend Joe (Fairbanks) tries to move away from gangster life and instead works as a dancer with his partner and girlfriend Olga (Farrell).

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A wise career move for the costumes alone

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Little Caesar (aka Rico) will have none of it though, and continuously pressures Joe to return to gangster life. He even ropes him into assisting a robbery at his place of work. Joe, despite wanting very little to do with the newfound crime lord still has some feelings for his old friend, and he tries to warn him when he overhears another criminal plotting his assassination.

In the end, Rico’s hubris and self worship turn out to be his fatal flaws (who could have seen that coming?) and the whole operation goes down. But at least Joe and Olga become stars, which is great.

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Never has the saying “crime doesn’t pay” been illustrated more clearly

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This is a quick paced gangster film with drive by shootings, very good costumes, amazing lingo, lots of drama and great performances. And now we can’t wait to rewatch Bugsy Malone (1976) once we get to the seventies.

Things we learned: we need new nicknames.

Next time: M (1931)