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.
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.
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.
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.
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.