BluRay/DVD Reviews

ULTIMATE GANGSTERS COLLECTION – CLASSICS

By • May 27th, 2013 •

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It was a smart and enlightening move to put both LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY together in this dynamic quartet. LITTLE CAESAR was the DRACULA of the Gangster genre. The ills of the sudden Talkie era hung around their necks like albatrosses. LITTLE CAESAR is a terrible film aesthetically. So was Browning’s DRACULA for the Horror genre. It’s an exercise in stage-bound pain to see those actors and feel those technicians struggling with the new technology. But at the same time they’re watermarks in film history, and must be preserved and studied.

Amazingly, within the same year (1931), we had THE PUBLIC ENEMY and FRANKENSTEIN, both of them solving the problems of their predecessors and pushing forward into the new era with liberating creativity. Of course these latter two were helmed by William Wellman and James Whale, primitive proof of the auteur theory at work. These cinematic stylists went straight for the light at the end of the early sound tunnel, whereas LeRoy and Browning wallowed in the mess sound had created. THE PUBLIC ENEMY is also included in this collection, wonderful (and essential) as a companion piece to LITTLE CAESAR.

Perhaps Edward G. Robinson trumps Bela Lugosi. Perhaps LITTLE CAESAR is better than DRACULA. I’ve argued that with my peers. Certainly Robinson enriches several of the film’s scenes. And as with DRACULA, the BluRay treatment brings the film closer to 35mm presentation, which gives it an added historic grandeur.

WHITE HEAT is the gem of the collection. I watched it back to back with the DVD release, and it’s slightly better. Surfaces are more creamily luxurious, and detail is slightly amplified. The sound and music are about the same. But there’s no doubt that the BluRay is preferable. Such is the case with all of the titles in this collection. THE PETRIFIED FOREST, stage-bound and pretentious as it is, still astounds with its gorgeous presentation.

The commentary tracks are provided by four different historians, which is fun. Their schtick fluctuates between enlightened observation and excessive praise.

On a fifth disc is the feature doc, PUBLIC ENEMIES: THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE GANGSTER FILM. Originally made for tv and aired in 2008, I’d never seen it, and put it on to get a sense of how they were covering the genre. I must tell you, I couldn’t stop watching it. Great credit must be given to director/writer Constantine Nasr for conceptualizing the form, and to Carl Jordan’s editorial skill for making it work. One of the historians interviewed in the doc comments that the pacing of the pre-code films was so fast that even Michael Bay couldn’t match their speed. The documentary, in keeping true to the pacing of the films it depicts, is as fast-moving as any one of those hot little flicks from the good old days. It was exhilarating to get caught up in the speed with which the doc unfolded. The way it was analyzed, and the clips chosen to illustrate said analysis, represented a marvelous collection of talking heads both in front of and behind the original cameras (Edward G. Robinson, Virginia Mayo, Joan Blondell, Mervyn LeRoy, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, etc.) and from modern times (Robert Benton, Kim Newman, Martin Scorsese, Eric Lax, Drew Casper, Richard Jewell, Ursini & Silver, etc.). It’s just a plain out terrific piece of work, and a worthy addition to the collection.

As if that weren’t enough, there are cartoons included on the fifth disc that deal either directly or indirectly (via animated impersonations) with the gangster genre. The one I particularly liked was the Merrie Melodies SHE WAS AN ACROBAT’S DAUGHTER, which has spot-on caricatures of Leslie Howard and a Busty Bette Davis from THE PETRIFIED FOREST.

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