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Ozu’s Gangster Films

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I have a new review in Film International on Yasujiro Ozu’s “gangster” films.

As I note in the essay, “Yasujiro Ozu is no longer a name unknown in the Western world; for a long time, this ‘most Japanese’ of directors was overshadowed on the international scene by Akira Kurosawa, whose flashier, more action oriented style translated much more easily to 1950s American culture, and paved the way for a series of remakes of his films – even now, almost 15 years after his death, Kurosawa’s estate is overseeing Hollywood remakes of many of his original films.

By contrast, Ozu was almost unknown outside Japan until the 1960s. When his sublime later films, such as Tokyo Story (1953), finally became publicly available in 16mm prints for university and museum screenings, Ozu’s reputation soared to new heights, easily eclipsing Kurosawa’s dwindling critical reputation. Now, at last, we have this superb collection of three of his earlier, formative films, The Gangster Films in a 2-DVD set from the British Film Institute (as their new motto notes, ‘Film Forever,’ a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree), and it’s a must for cineastes, collectors, and all lovers of cinema.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here, or on the image above.

Classic Cinema: The Public Enemy

Monday, August 1st, 2011

The Public Enemy (1931), directed by William (“Wild Bill”) Wellman, is not only a classic Depression-era American gangster film; it is also the film that propelled James Cagney to overnight stardom. The Public Enemy chronicles the rise of a street tough and hired gun to the top of the mob, and then dispassionately depicts his inevitable downfall and death. It does so in a brutal, unflinching manner, typical of Wellman, who often carried a loaded gun on the set, and thought nothing of using live ammunition in some scenes where it would give added realism to the film.

Tom Powers (Cagney) and his brother Mike (Donald Cook) come from a poor but honest family; in fact, their father is a policeman, who pounds his beat each day with dogged dedication. The film follows Tom and Mike from childhood; Mike is an eager, bookish sort who will obviously make something out of himself, but Tom and his pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) begin lives of petty thievery and robbery that culminate in their rise to the top of the underworld. At first they throw in with the double-crossing Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who sets Tom and Matt up in their first real job; a fur heist that goes horribly wrong, and leaves them on the run, wanted by the law.

When the heat dies down, Tom and Matt find work with crime boss Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a tough bootlegger who takes advantage of Prohibition to sell cheap beer to a strong of speakeasies. Tom and Matt are the “enforcers” who strong-arm the reluctant owners of the illicit taverns to take Paddy’s beer, or else. But rival mobs are soon trying to muscle in on Paddy’s racket, and Tom is kidnapped by Paddy’s competition. In the film’s justly famous final sequence, Paddy negotiates Tom’s “release” and his return home; not alive, however, but as a bloodied corpse, falling over the family doorstep like a package of day old meat, as his mother makes his bed upstairs.

Cagney almost didn’t get the part that made him a star. Filming started with Donald Cook in the role of Tom, and Cagney as the straight-arrow Mike, but within days, Wellman realized that the small, tough Cagney was much better suited to the role, and reshot the scenes to make the switch. In one scene, in which Tom is nearly killed in a machine gun ambush by members of a rival mob, Wellman did in fact use a sharp shooter with a real Tommy gun to shoot bullets at a brick wall, just second after Cagney dodged around the corner. That wall still stands on the Warner Bros. back lot to this day, bullet holes and all.

Shot quickly on a tight budget of roughly $150,000, The Public Enemy defined the gangster film for a rough, violent era in American society, and clicked resoundingly with audiences of the era, who saw the film as a modern morality tale, once again proving that in the end, “crime does not pay.”

Classic Cinema: Little Caesar

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Little Caesar (1931) is one of the most violent gangster films that came out in the darkest days of the Depression, and the film that shot Edward G. Robinson to international fame as the vicious and seemingly unstoppable Caesar Enrico Bandello, who gains the nickname Little Caesar on his rise to the top of the underworld. Directed by the efficiently workmanlike Mervyn LeRoy, Little Caesar spoke to Depression-era audiences in a language they could understand; that in a world without hope, only violence would get you ahead in the world.

While MGM offered glossy, escapist entertainments, Paramount frothy exoticism, and Universal the first major cycle of American horror films, Warner Bros. concentrated on topical, gritty dramas torn from the headlines. Rico rises to the top of heap through sheer brutality alone.  When he takes control of the gang he’s been running with, he tells his former boss, Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), “you’re getting so you can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” Rico can do both; the only thing stopping him is his clearly homoerotic attachment to his one-time partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who wants to me a dancer, not a gangster, and who takes up with a young woman, Olga (Glenda Farrell), despite Rico’s warnings that “dames” don’t mix with business.

Scared that Joe is “going soft” and will double-cross him, Rico tries to threaten Joe, who nevertheless “turns copper” and gives him up to the police. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Rico barges into Joe’s apartment, intent on killing him, but in a stunning close-up, Rico finds he simply can’t pull the trigger on his ex-pal. Forced into hiding, Rico discovers he has no friends left, and winds up a filthy flophouse.

But his massive ego finally proves his undoing; when the papers brand him a coward, Rico phones up his nemesis Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) and threatens him with death. Instead, Flaherty and his men track Rico down and blast him with a tommy gun, leaving him to die in the dirt. Rico’s last words, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” have become one of the cinema’s most famous taglines. Little Caesar is thus the archetype of the American gangster film; the rise and fall of a criminal as a moral lesson for the public.

Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, Little Caesar gave Robinson a role that any actor would have relished; he is center stage for most of the film’s action, he commands a certain amount of audience respect for his criminal exploits, and the success of the film typed him for life a movie tough guy, much to Robinson’s chagrin. In real life, Robinson was an art collector and connoisseur, with none of the “tough guy” attitude he displays in the film. But so effective was his portrayal that up until he death, he was still being cast in gangster roles of one sort of another in a multitude of films.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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