Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy is Ground Zero for Hollywood gangster films.

This 1931 crime drama from Warner Brothers is a breakthrough for James Cagney, one of the big screen's all-time gangster greats. The Roaring Twenties and White Heat would follow over the next two decades. Here, in only his fourth role, Cagney owns the screen as Tom Powers.


Powers is in trouble with the law even when he's a kid. Even a steady job with a good income isn't enough for Powers to escape crime's lure. When it comes to settling a score, Powers is a killer. This guy is so tough he even shoots a horse when it throws his boss, gangster leader Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), and kills him. That's called following through on anyone who challenges mob rule.

Watch for a scene near the film's end when Cagney offers an early peek at the psychotic Cody Jarrett he'd play in White Heat nearly 20 years later.


The Public Enemy follows Powers, and long-time buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), from their childhood through to the 1920s and Prohibition. There's lots of money to be paid in the booze business, but an awful price to be paid in gangland wars.

The Public Enemy was an early showcase for the all-too-brief career of Jean Harlow. Most of her previous work, in efforts such as Bacon Grabbers and New York Nights, were shorts or uncredited roles. She'd be dead six years later at 26.

Here, she's Gwen Allen, the gorgeous dame Powers eyes walking on a downtown street in Chicago.

What may surprise viewers is just how much reference is made to Powers' dealings with the ladies. He's living common-law with one woman he met in a bar, dumps her for Allen and, when drunk, is taken advantage of by another.


Beryl Mercer notched two of the most-famous screen mother roles in back-to-back years. She was Paul's mother in All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930 and appeared as Cagney's mom the next year. Ma Powers loves her son, but never takes him to task for his errant ways. That job falls to his stiff older brother, Mike (Donald Cook). He's a straight-laced First World War veteran who repeatedly urges his sibling to leave the criminal underworld. To this viewer, it looks like Public Enemy suggests Mike might have a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder following his efforts to defeat the German army. He's a killer too, but on behalf of defending the United States.

How interesting that Cagney and Harlow went on to screen stardom, but
Edward Woods only made 13 films and was out of Hollywood before the decade ended. He died in 1989. Robert Emmett O'Connor, who appears as Paddy Ryan, made more than 200 screen appearances before his death in 1962 at 77. Here, he's Paddy Ryan, a mob boss Powers and Doyle follow after getting stiffed by Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). Kinnell's film career was breif too, spanning 1930-1937.

The Public Enemy offers a disturbing finale after Powers is kidnapped from a hospital by a rival gang. Even 80 years later, his fate is unsettling.

If you have time, give a listen to commentary by film historian Robert Sklar. Details about the film's climatic scene, and the importance of family, are fascinating to hear.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Director William Wellman directed the 1937 version of A Star is Born.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Railroaded (1947)

Ward Cleaver, I never knew you.

This movie buff was born after Leave It to Beaver aired. Actually, I've never seen any of the 234 episodes of the family comedy that ran on television between 1957 and 1963.


A decade before Hugh Beaumont appeared in that beloved series, he made this film directed by Anthony Mann (The Glenn Miller Story, Winchester '73).

Railroaded has its moments, including several very fine performances. Beaumont is not one of the reasons why I'd recommend this film.

But, John Ireland is solid as bad guy Duke Martin. He's the best thing in this 76-minute black and white effort.

Duke and his girl, beautician Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph), scheme to rip off a gambling operation in the back of Calhoun's salon. What appears to be a straightforward heist goes awry when Calhoun's co-worker, Marie Weston (Peggy Converse), screams and alerts police. She's not aware of Duke and Clara's scheme. Her version of events doesn't line up with her co-worker's. Will police believe her or think her memory is blurred by trauma from the robbery?


An officer walking the beat is killed, but not before plugging henchman Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle). Cowie fingers innocent Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly) as his accomplice before he dies. Kowalski had a thing for Ryan's sister, see, and Steve told him to buzz off. This is a chance for Kowalski to even the score -- for good.

Steve's supposed involvement brings Ferguson to the Ryan household. What a coincidence. The investigator used to live in the neighbourhood. Golly, he has been away from the 'hood for so long he didn't know that Rosie has matured into quite the fine-looking young lady.


The two are at odds. Ferguson wants to put Steve in the slammer. His boss, Capt. McTaggart (Charles Brown) is more direct. "Only the gas chamber will satisfy me." Meanwhile, Rose wants to clear her brother.

"Facts. That's what I'm interested in," he tells Rosie.
"Feelings don't count in my racket."

Meanwhile, Duke keeps killing just about everyone who is somehow tied to the caper. Clara's fondness for the bottle grows as she is tormented by the death of the police officer and Kowalski. Duke casts an eye on Rose, but it's not exactly romance that's on his mind.


Beaumont and Ryan have next-to-no-chemistry. This film fan was stunned when they kissed. Really? The script called for it, but there's no believable romance going on with those two.

But, hey, where else can you see a cat fight between Randolph and Ryan?

When was the last time you saw a jail guard check a cake for a hidden handgun?

Savour some classic lines including, "Go peddle your troubles to the fire department," and "Can't you talk without asking questions?" Ireland gets the best line in the film when he tells a piano player, "You with the fingers, go home."

So many of this film's cast did better work elsewhere. It's neat to see them in a movie that just doensn't quite gel.

Ireland earned a best supporting Oscar nomination for All the King's Men a couple of years later. Jane Randolph was in Cat People. She only appeared in 21 films between 1941 and 1955. She died in Switzerland in 2009. What's her story?

Railroaded was Ed Kelly's film debut. What happened to him? He appeared in another film in 1950 then disappeared for 20 years. He returned in the rated X comedy, Miss Nymphet's Zap-In, directed by the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Why?

Charles Brown appeared in some of Hollywood's best films of that era, The Big Sleep, Notorious and The Grapes of Wrath. He's fine as the police boss who wants to find the killer of one of his men.

How many actors can say they appeared in government films warning the troops about sexually transmitted diseases? Well, Keefe Brasselle played Chicken in USS VD: Ship of Shame.

There are so many great stories here. Too bad Railroaded isn't one of them.

RATING: 6/10

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Hurt Locker (2008)

This taut, stomach-churning war film won six Oscars including best picture and director.

Hold off on the popcorn consumption given all of this film's nerve-wracking scenes.

Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is a new member of bomb disposal unit serving in Iraq in 2004. He takes chances that continually put him and his comrades, Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) in danger.

James keeps testing fate even with a wife and baby back home. War gives him experiences that far surpass his humdrum existence stateside cleaning out eavestroughs and shopping for cereal.

"The older you get, the fewer things you love," James tells his son.

James loves war. He has disarmed 873 bombs -- and counting.

His gung-ho approach isn't shared by Sanborn and Eldridge. The latter is still shaken up by a comrade's death. Sanborn wants to keep everybody alive by minimizing risks.

The threat of violence is constant. Improvised explosives are everywhere. The American soldiers don't know who they can trust. Here, cellphones can detonate bombs.

Hollywood has tried other films about the Iraqi war, but nobody watched them. The Hurt Locker offers audiences a gripping look at how war affects soldiers differently under the constant threat of death.

It's a great film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Look quick for cameos by Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes.

Part of The Hurt Locker was shot in British Columbia, Canada.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

This blog always welcomes creative efforts that stand far apart from most of the same-old, same-old Hollywood produces.

Special effects. Explosions. Gross-out jokes. Sequels. Remakes. Blah. Blah. Blah. Yawn.

As good as Stranger Than Fiction is, it's too bad this 2006 effort from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and screenwriter Zach Helm (Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) settles for an ending that just doesn't feel right.

IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) starts to hear a woman's voice narrating his life. How often he brushes his teeth, the route he takes to work and more day-to-day detail about him in the Windy City is described in real time.

When said mystery voice suggests Crick will soon croak, he gets worried fast.

His humdrum life is just starting to look promising. Crick has fallen for bakery owner Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). His interest in her extends beyond her financial documents he is supposed to be auditing.

Sensing he's a character in someone's book, Crick seeks out English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Hilbert lends a hand, even coming up with a series of 20-plus questions to determine what kind of work Crick finds himself in. Has he ever won a whistling contest? Do you have a dream?

The author in question is noted writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Writer's block has kept her from releasing a new work for a decade. Her publisher sends along personal assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to ensure Eiffel's book finally gets done. Crick has his help. Eiffel has hers.

Can Eiffel, known for killing her protagonists, be convinced to change her book so Crick lives in real life? What personal price must be made for great art to be born?

Stranger Than Fiction reminds this moviegoer of other films, such as The Truman Show and Delirious, that explore a character who's trapped in another story. It's a great concept for the movies, just like time travel (see the original Back to the Future).

The cast is solid, with some super cameo appearances by Tom Hulce (Amadeus) and Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously).

Low-brow comedian Adam Sandler showed he could act in Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish. Stranger Than Fiction is a definite creative step up for Ferrell from the comedies he usually makes.

Check out an extended scene on the DVD release that features a full interview between Eiffel and Darlene Sunshine (Kristen Chenoweth). This five-minute segment featuring the clueless television host ("I like to end each interview with a question.") offers plenty of laughs. Watch it.

As for the ending, let me know what you think. Did it work for you or was it a sad effort to put a happy face on what should have been a downer finale?

RATING: 8/10