The Finger Points (1931)

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In order for gangsters to thrive,three forms of corruption are required; the corruption of politicians, the police and finally the press. Unlike the newspaper in Warner Bros’ Five Star Final (also released in 1931) the paper of The Finger Points known simply as The Press are proud to be socially responsible and even calling themselves “the world’s best newspaper”. However the paper’s employee’s don’t entirely relish in this corny mentality as seen when the editor gives a speech at the end of the working day on what he calls the paper’s crusade, yet afterwards the employees just laugh it up. Likewise we also discover that reporters for The Press often just avoid on reporting on the activity of gangsters in order to avoid the consequences.

Breckenridge Lee (Richard Barthelmess) on the other hand goes on step further and takes bribes from gangsters in order to supress stories. The plot of The Finger Points was inspired by the true story of Alfred “Jake” Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune whom had been supressing stories for $60,000 a year from Al Capone. Lingle was shot to death on June 9th, 1930, a day before he was to testify against Capone.

Richard Barthelmess was an actor with a gentle and sensitive nature that had a lot going on behind his deep set brooding eyes. I don’t think any other actor could have performed the role of the naïve but eager go-getting southerner Breckenridge “Breck” Lee. At the beginning of the film he gives a letter to the managing editor of The Press from his former editor of the Savannah Constitution,calling Breckenridge Lee “one of the best reporter I’ve ever had” and “He’s got the stuff. All he needs is a chance to show it. Give him a break into the big league”. Breckenridge mentions he only did general reporting although can I assume Savannah isn’t as tough as New York City in a movie which showcases the divide between northerners and southerners. Likewise Breck’s group of friends along with Marcia (Fray Wray) and Charlie (Regis Toomey) really make for a fun trio.

I’ve read a number of reviews calling Breck’s transition to corruption unconvincing – I must disagree. I find the film makes this transition convincing in several ways; the pressure he’s under from the hospital bills he has to pay, his general naivety plus it is evident from his previous journalistic success that the recognition is slightly going to his head.

The Finger Points opens with an impressive, showy shot of a moving train as the camera pans from one side of it to another, once again disproving the notion that films from the early 30’s where largely static. This is also exemplified with a number of long panning shots of the expansive and busy newspaper office with the sound of typewriters going on non-stop in the background; I never tire of classic atmosphere of a newspaper office.

My main reason for seeking out this obscurity was for a certain Clark Gable in an early supporting role while on loan to Warner Bros from MGM. Along with Warner’s Night Nurse released the same year, Gable is the show stealer. He is nowhere near as overtly evil than his role in Night Nurse, instead playing a sympathetic but still manipulative gangster in The Finger Points. He is also given more screen time than in Night Nurse, in this one of his best early screen roles.

The crime boss in The Finger Points is simply referred to as “Number 1” and during his one scene in the movie he is only scene sitting from behind a desk with his back to the camera with a face which is never seen like Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget.There is even a shot which visualises the title of the movie in which we see a close up of Number 1’s hand holding a cigar and pointing his finger towards the camera. I love this whole sequence as it leans towards being a live action cartoon but doesn’t take away from the serious nature of the film.

The Finger Points has never seen the light of day on home video. As I’ve said before, no other decade seems to have as many hidden gems as the 1930’s; a real archaeological site of cinema.

The Yakuza (1974)

Perhaps You’ve Heard of the Yakuza, the Poison Fists of the Pacific Rim. The Japanese Mafia!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the heart of The Yakuza’s theme of the clash between eastern and western cultures, is that of the two’s opposing views on forgiveness. In Japanese culture forgiveness is something you must earn. In western culture as preached though Christianity, any action can be forgiven regardless of how heinous;go to a confession box at a church and your sins will be wiped away. The Japanese don’t understand this; as a westerner don’t understand it ether. Only towards the end of the film does Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) become fully assimilated into another culture, and truly realise so much pain he has caused to Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), and performs the Yakuza ritual of Yubitsume, cutting off his little finger.

I can’t imagine a better choice for the role of Harry Kilmer than Robert Mitchum. I believe his acting experience and background is what brings a great level of sincerity to the role. Throughout his career he appeared in a number of World War II films, including those about the war in the pacific and featuring the use of the racial slur “Jap”. It can be an interesting experience seeing classic era actors in roles after the 1960’s that weren’t ensemble disaster movies; movies which contrast the attitudes of their ’golden age’ work. I’ve read Robert Redford was considered for the role but I believe the role was suited for an older, world weary actor like Mitchum; plus it’s an apt choice casting one of the icons of film noir in this neo noir. What I also love about the film is the touching love story between Harry and his Japanese love Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), a love of two people from different worlds made forbidden due to family ties, made all the more poignant with Mitchum being superb at portraying characters who are tough yet also tender.

Hollywood has had a long fascination with the Far East, producing movies which aren’t entirely very thoughtful or sensitive; The Yakuza is the more well-researched effort to say the least. Yet I could still see the modern day PC patrol will still find something to uproar about.Cultural appropriation is apparent throughout the film. Westerners Harry Kilmer and his friend Wheat (Herb Edelman) are so engaged with Japanese culture and customs to the point that it is second nature to them; while the Japanese display westernised trends such as the wearing of western clothes, or take the scene in the nightclub in which My Darling Clementine being sung.

The appropriation just doesn’t extend to the characters; the 1970’s Hollywood aesthetic and music is combined with Japanese iconography. Dave Grusin’s score is superb, creating a world alien to westerners and also contributing to one of the classiest films of the 1970’s.The violence is portrayed in a classy, arty tone and not coming of gratuitous with an effective combination of gun fire and katana duels. Also can a gun still remain in a person’s hand and fire after their arm has been chopped off? Either way, it looks cool.

The Yakuza acts like a time capsule of 1970’s urban Japan, just take the scene in which Harry walks through the streets of Tokyo at night to meet his old love after 20 years. The filmmakers clearly took full advantage of the Japanese locations at their disposal; the Kyoto International Conference Centre in which Harry meets ken’s brother is an incredible piece of architecture and that public bathing room, dam, I want to go there!

Larceny Inc. (1942)

Under Pressure

How can you resist a film like Larceny Inc once you’ve heard the plot? It’s one of those quirky film concepts I just love. A cocky criminal and his two buffoons buy a luggage store to they can dig their way into the bank next door. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is how it plays out like a live action cartoon. Nothing ever goes beyond the scene in the moment; for example in one scene a set of oil pipes are burst during the digging process and the basement from which they are digging from is drenched in oil and yet this is never mentioned again. Even as one character who is not involved in the ban heist comes across the two drenched in the oil he bizarrely does not comment on their appearance; that’s the twisted cartoon world Larceny Inc incorporates. I’ve always thought actors from the 1930’s resembled cartoon characters with their exaggerated facial features and distinctive accents; very true with this cast including Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson and even a young Jackie Gleason; all live action caricatures.  Actors who emerged after the war generally didn’t have this and instead were actually more lifelike. You really get a sense of the world the movie takes place in with a street populated with such memorable and mostly ethnic characters giving the movie that Shop Around the Corner edge to it.

Maxwell aka Pressure’s gift wrapping has to be the comedic highlight of Robinson’s career; a comedy moment which couldn’t be timed more perfectly. His uttering of “$9:75”  is funny enough as it is but his pathetic attempt at gifting wrapping which follows had me in stitches. I also love Jack Carson’s attempt at hitting on Jane Wyman. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but has got to be the ultimate “skipping the pleasantries” monologue I’ve ever heard.

There are so many layers within Larceny Inc. Is the movie a celebration or an indictment on capitalism? The gangsters involvement in legitimate business is what makes them renounce their past ways but only after they’ve essentially been seduced and consumed by the capitalist system. Larceny Inc was released in 1942 just months after the US got involved in the war but the film’s production began prior to that with its themes of business and consumerism are completely counterproductive to the war effort, something I’ve noticed with many films released in 1942. There is also the irony that the gangster is the one who brings the community together and the authority figures in the movie are played as fools.

Larceny Inc can also join films like Rocky IV and Die Hard as Christmas movies which aren’t about Christmas; and Edward G Robinson dressed as Santa Claus? Sold!

White Heat (1949)

Get Up Stand Tall, Put Your Back Up Against the Wall

To date White Heat remains the only instance in which my first encounter with an actor instantly turned me into fan. Typically for me I become a fan of a performer over a period of time and after seeing a number of their films. Not James Cagney though. The scene early during White Heat in which Cody Jarrett gets a headache and needs to be comforted by his mother, my instant reaction was, “I need to watch any movie with this guy I can get my hands on”. I have no hesitation putting Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in my ten favourite movie performance of all time. At this point in my movie watching life I had never seen an actor so on fire, so electrifying. His twitchy mannerisms, machine gun way of speaking his violence against women and possibly above all, his mother complex, exposing a unsettling, adorable side. Like wow, you do not want to be stuck in elevator with this guy. I would later discover White Heat came after the classic Warner Bros cycle of gangster movies, making White Heat a nostalgic revival of the genre, making Cody and his mother products of a different age. Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the next great stand out performance for me, a character who appears as the stereotypical “aw shucks” mother common in classic Hollywood, but her attitude could not be more different.

Boy is this movie fast paced. White Heat is one of the few times my heart my beating so much out of how exciting the movie was. When the film was over I had the closest I could fell to that sense you get after coming of a rollercoaster, expect getting it from watching a movie. I feel that’s the best way to sum up White Heat, a rollercoaster of violence and emotions. Even the scenes of police officers discussing Cody’s psychological tendencies and the examination of their late 1940’s tracking techniques are riveting, but they do save the best for last. The Warner gangster movies ended with incredible final scenes with brilliant closing lines, White Heat’s may be the best of them all. I question if I’ll ever experience such a high level of movie watching euphoria on a first time viewing again.

 

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life, fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier as failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was, made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) Is a character is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was never more terrifying than the role of Duke Mantee. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary, but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with. Just like the characters in the film, Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point. This likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard of Bogart) gave the better performance. How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters who are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism. Also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers though out the film. Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.

 

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Melodrama’s so much fun, in black and white for everyone to see.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A gangster movie starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, thankfully I was not disappointed. Watching these three titans of classic Hollywood in action (and sadly the only picture in which Gable and Powell appeared together), Manhattan Melodrama not only had me enthralled from beginning to end, its hypnotizingly good. Gangsters, dames, urbanites, class and sophistication, this movie encompasses elements of 1930’s cinema which I’m a sucker for – and yes, the film has the word melodrama in the title, something that would never happen in contemporary cinema.

The Angels With Dirty Faces style plot allows for poignant social commentary, with Powell as a district attorney trying to avoid corruption and not allowing his personal feelings affect his decisions. William Powell’s performance as Jim Wade is the best I’ve seen him deliver; just listen to the emotional plea he gives during the movie’s courtroom scene. His character is essentially a fantasy, an elected member of government who’s entirely honest. When Wade goes against his ethics he tells the truth to the public and resigns from office rather than trying to desperately cling onto power. There’s doubt Powell had a real knack for playing lawyers and elected members of office.

Not to undo Gable as Blackie Gallagher, the manner in which he acts during the film’s final third is simply heartbreaking as he constantly jokes around despite being sentenced to the electric chair in the film’s finale. The ending of this movie just kills me as Wade’s friend since childhood is sentenced to death; it’s near the top of my list of all time tear jerking scenes, pure cinematic tragedy. The lights of prison even dim as the switch is pulled, the ever classic cliché. In real life that doesn’t actually happen but in the film it is the final tug of the heart strings. Also it seems hard to believe now that Mickey Rooney would play a child version of Clark Gable but in 1934 audiences couldn’t have seen what he would turn out to be as an adult.

Does there exist an actress who doesn’t have great chemistry with Clark Gable, or even any actor for that matter? Manhattan Melodrama is the first of fourteen screen pairings of Powell and Loy, and their first scene together couldn’t be more perfect, in which she falls into his lap in the back seat of a car as she starts to deliver exposition in the most adorable manner.

MGM is not generally associated with the gangster genre. Manhattan Melodrama doesn’t have the grit of Warner Gangster films but works in its own style of MGM’s glossy high production values and ranks as one of the best gangster films I’ve seen from the 1930’s. The movie seems to be more famous for being the last movie seen by gangster John Dillinger, who was shot by federal agents as he exited a Chicago movie theater. His reason for going to see the movie, apparently he was a Myrna Loy fan. The love of Loy killed John Dillinger, I guess I can’t blame him.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Filthy Souls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

 

One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that proposes the age old idea of a person’s entire destiny being defined by one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O’Brien) could run faster than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by the police for a petty crime would determine the paths they would take in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have been so much different.

I’m a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930’s and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking “They dealt with that in an old 30’s crime/gangster film”. Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However Pat O’Brien’s role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today’s common place media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.

Even with the religious overtones, the movie still provides one of the most intriguing moral dilemmas ever presented in a movie; Rocky making the ultimate sacrifice. Before his execution Father Connolly asks him to pretend going yellow and show people he was a coward by begging for mercy before being sent to the chair. The only thing Rocky has left is his reputation and he is being asked to throw that away so kids won’t look up to him and his lifestyle. Rocky does just this at the last moment, a complete rejection of the gangster way of life.

While nothing can top the pure electricity that is Cagey in White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces gets my spot as the next most interesting performance in his career. The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express, likewise his real life friendship with Pat O’Brien is easily apparent on screen with their interactions. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly succeeds in upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence. Plus that kid playing a young Cagney at the beginning of the film is very eerily like him.

Socially conscience pictures such as this which came from Warner Bros really give an insight into the lives of common folk of the time. A moment which always stuck out to me in Angels With Dirty Faces is the basketball game because it’s the only classic era film which comes to mind which features a basketball game thus showing an activity from the 1930’s which is still popular today. Likewise the movie also acts as a historical document for the lingo among inner city youths of the time. The performances given by The Dead End Kids feels like an early example of method acting; no surprise when watching this that it was once referred to as Italian street acting.

Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The movie immediately flaunts it’s very handsome production values right from the opening shot. The execution finale of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography with its prominent use of shadows, bright lighting and titled camera angles. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters but we can’t help but be fascinated by them.