10 Classic Gangster Movies Better Than 'Gangster Squad'

Features
by The Playlist Staff
January 9, 2013 2:04 PM
8 Comments
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"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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8 Comments

  • John | January 23, 2013 2:47 AMReply

    I think anyone who saw "Gangster Squad" can agree that it can't stand up to a classic.

  • Chris | January 12, 2013 8:17 PMReply

    Angles with Dirty Faces just seems like a porno movie.

  • TheoC | January 10, 2013 8:03 AMReply

    Great work, I love these features.

  • JOE | January 10, 2013 2:10 AMReply

    White Heat is probably one of the three best gangsterfilms ever made. I love how it flawlessly intwines so many gangster/police-sub-genres in 1 film; it's part heist movie/part undercover-cop-flick/part prison-flick and a character study aswell. Cagney is mesmerizing.

  • Alan B | January 9, 2013 7:33 PMReply

    A gangster film BETTER than 'Gangster Squad'? I doubt one exists: where else are you going to see Penn make an idiot of himself (other than the news or in interviews)? Or Gosling give a weird, self-conscious performances that says FU to studios trying to position him as a leading man? Or Will Beall desperately trying to out-Mamet Mamet? Or Rubs try to prove he's more than just the 'Zaombieland' guy?

  • David | January 9, 2013 5:16 PMReply

    Angels with Filthy Souls

  • Wrath of Colin | January 9, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    I would include Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos from 1962 as well.

  • Chr | January 9, 2013 2:31 PMReply

    Love these cinematic gems!

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