Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 17, 2013)
Warner Bros.’ new “Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics” consists of four classic gangster films. Hooray for truth in advertising!
Perhaps someone might argue that one or more of the four don’t qualify as “classics”, but I wouldn’t. In this set, we get legitimate legends: 1931’s Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, 1936’s The Petrified Forest and 1949’s White Heat.
I’ll look at each film with a short synopsis and a link to the individual reviews.
LITTLE CAESAR: "Little Caesar would be pretty forgettable gangster drama without its lead actor. Edward G. Robinson almost single-handedly takes a fairly wooden movie and makes it compelling. He keeps us involved and entertained.”
THE PUBLIC ENEMY: "The Public Enemy suffers from a few more problems than I’d like. Nonetheless, its best elements hold up well after more than 80 years. That span hasn’t diminished the forcefulness of Cagney’s star turn, and the movie’s visual inventiveness allows it to continue to look fresh. This isn’t a great gangster flick, but it’s usually an interesting one.”
THE PETRIFIED FOREST: “The Petrified Forest definitely suffers from some flaws. Most of the personalities fail to develop beyond one dimension, and the tale occasionally drags. However, the film usually overcomes obstacles, and it adds up to an enjoyable and mostly engrossing flick.”
WHITE HEAT: “White Heat offers a consistently satisfying character piece. Granted, I find it hard to accept a thug with such a cute ‘n’ cuddly name like ‘Cody’, but Cagney’s creative performance overcomes that obstacle, and the rest of the movie follows suit. Heat is a firecracker of a gangster flick.”
The package’s bonus disc duplicates a platter originally issued as part of 2010’s GoodFellas 20th Anniversary Blu-ray. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, Public Enemies: The Golden Age of Gangster Flicks runs one hour, 45 minutes, 43 seconds, and it provides notes from writer Nicholas Pileggi, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Royal College of Art author/rector Sir Christopher Frayling, film historian/author Glenn Mitchell, Silent Players author Anthony Slide, Postwar Hollywood: 1946-1962 author Dr. Drew Casper, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood author Mark Vieira, Inside Warner Brothers author Rudy Behlmer, film critic/novelist Kim Newman, The Golden Age of Cinema: 1929-1945 author Dr. Richard B. Jewell, The Gangster Reader author Alain Silver, author/film historian Jeffrey Vance, Sopranos writer/producer Terence Winter, film critic/author Peter Travers, Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson aithor Alan L. Gansberg, actors Joan Blondell and Edward G. Robinson (via archival footage), The Tough Guys author Gregory William Mank, directors William A. Wellman, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks and Mervyn LeRoy (archival), screenwriter John Bright (archival), Donnie Brasco director Mike Newell, Underworld USA author Colin McArthur, The Women of Warner Bros. author Daniel Bubbeo, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies author Molly Haskell, Bonnie and Clyde screenwriter Robert Benton, Mean Streets screenwriter Mardik Martin, The Gangster Reader James Ursini, film critic/author Richard Schickel, The Dark Side of the Screen author Foster Hirsch, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative and the American Cinema author Dana Polan, Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars author Bernard F. Dick, film critic/author Leonard Maltin, film historian Tony Maietta, City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield author Robert Sklar, Bogart author Eric Lax, actors Virginia Mayo and Joan Leslie, Black Out: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir author Sheri Chinen Biesen and author/professor Patricia King Hanson.
“Enemies” looks at the roots of the gangster genre and early examples, social influences and the genre’s heyday in the 1930s, and its subsequent development over the decades. With almost two hours at its disposal, “Enemies” certainly gets a lot of time to explore its subject, and it fills this time well. We get just enough movie footage to flesh out the comments, and those remarks provide a rich history of the gangster films. Yeah, it skimps on info about movies made since the 1940s, but it doesn’t purport to investigate all eras of gangster flicks; as the title notes, it focuses on the “golden age”. “Enemies” becomes a wholly satisfying documentary.
This disc also features four Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes. We find 1933’s I Like Mountain Music (6:59), 1937’s She Was An Acrobat’s Daughter (8:35), 1946’s Racketeer Rabbit (7:52) and 1954’s Bugs and Thugs (7:12). All of these connect to the gangster theme, but they vary in terms of quality. Mountain features magazine subjects who come to life; it appears because it shows a few gangsters. It’s cute and interesting for archival reasons but not actually very entertaining.
Daughter shows a night at the movies and attempts humor via the onscreen material and the antics of the audience. It makes the cut due to its parody of Bogart’s The Petrified Forest. I like it more than Mountain; it’s not a classic, but it amuses well enough.
As for Rabbit and Thugs, both star Bugs Bunny. The former casts Bugs as a wanderer who ends up amidst gangsters; these characters include spoofs of Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre. Thugs places Bugs among bank robbers, neither of whom appears to have a clear cinematic antecedent. Both are entertaining, though I prefer Rabbit; its Robinson/Lorre parodies add kick to it.
Finally, we locate a hardcover book. It includes an overview of the genre, short essays about each of the four films, and various photos. Nothing exceptional appears here, but it becomes a nice addition to the set.
Though some entertain more than others, all four of the films in the “Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics” deserve to be regarded as such. They’re true milestones of the genre and important movies. The Blu-rays generally look and sound quite good, and they come with a nice allotment of informative bonus materials. At $50, the “Ultimate Gangsters Collection” is a steal; you can buy the titles individually if you want, but I suspect most fans will want them all, and the “Collection” is the smart way to do so.