#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)

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#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)