Thursday, November 20, 2008

Regeneration (1915)

  During film's infancy there were countless individuals that helped to elevate the medium from novelty act to legitimate art form. The techniques and devices that go into making a movie took years to develop. One person, now sidelined for better known film innovators, is Raoul Walsh. Trained as an actor, Walsh made a name for himself on the New York stage. Although his good looks could have led him to a very comfortable life, his path would be to work behind the camera instead of in front of it.

  When Walsh started out New York was still the hub of the film industry and he made money by starring in several Westerns for a small production company in New Jersey. Eventually Walsh made the move to California and became an assistant director to D.W. Griffith. Walsh's apprenticeship to Griffith taught him how to utilize film's then untapped potential to tell epic stories about ordinary people. When Griffith's The Birth of a Nation went into production not only did Walsh serve as assistant director, but he also played John Wilkes Booth.
  After the completion of Griffith's film, Raoul Walsh took crew and equipment back to New York and started production on Regeneration. The script was adapted from a play that was itself based on a book, the gangster autobiography of Owen Kildare.
  The film is considered the first feature length gangster movie. Yet the gangsters in the movie are not the flashy well-groomed characters that are now commonplace in articles, movies, and television shows. The gangsters in this film are neighborhood toughs. Their days aren't consumed though by street fights and turf battles, but rather on the relief of boredom. Several scenes within the film consist of characters just drinking beer, enjoying a cigarette, or standing on a street corner. There is nothing about the gangster lifestyle portrayed in this film that a contemporary movie audience would consider as exciting.
  As a student of Griffith's the film cares more about the social circumstances that create the type of desperation that turns boys into crooks. Walsh does not clean up the urban squalor. The muck and grime of the streets is a very tangible reality. Even the casting is authentic; most of the extras were real locals from the Bowery area as well as from Hell's Kitchen. Gangsters in this film come in all shapes, sizes, and defects.
  Another technique that Walsh borrowed from Griffith was the use of cross-cutting. By taking two separate events occurring at the same time and selectively ordering the shots in a specific way a director could invariably break the barrier between time and space, construct their own timeline, and have a more assured control over the pace and rhythm of their film.
  The title of the film speaks to the protagonist of the story, Owen Conway, and his transition from street thug to functional member of society. Walsh establishes at the start of the film that Owen is a victim of tenement living; after his parents die he practically becomes a slave to an old couple. He survives by using his fists and although hardened by the callousness of the streets there is a tiny part of him that believes something better is out there. That thing for Owen comes in the form of Marie Deering, his Mamie Rose. Marie is a social worker and unlike many later women characters in a Walsh film she embodies sincere proper goodness. Her love for Owen is what redeems him at the end.
  Although the film has been relegated as an artifact of the 1910's a careful look at it will surprise many with just how contemporary this story is; and in some ways this film is more daring than the typical gangster stories that we see now. This movie does not look away from the denizens of the street. While many directors may try to create a reality that they believe an audience might find palatable, Raoul Walsh was confident that what was already in front of his camera was all he needed to tell his story. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

  During his days as a journalist in New York Damon Runyon crafted the myth of Broadway. He spent his days writing articles about the people that populated New York City's night life. He was known for juxtaposing the respectable law-abiding citizen with the mugs, hoodlums, and dolls that trafficked Times Square. When the english language did not have the appropriate word or phrase to capture the feeling of the streets Runyon didn't think twice about inventing them from everyday words. In Runyon's world a roscoe is a gun, a shiv is a knife, and if you were smart you knew to keep your snoot out of a mug's business when he was packing either of them.
  As Runyon became more and more popular he started to turn his attention away from documenting the real-life travails of New York's gamblers, gangsters, and ever-loving louts and put his energy towards creating original work based on characters he knew quite well.
  A Slight Case of Murder started out as a play but with the help of Lloyd Bacon, the director, Edward G. Robinson, the star, and a cast packed with the decade's best character actors a gangster comedy classic was created.
  Edward G. Robinson plays good guy bootlegger Remy Marco; a character who takes several cues from previous tough guy protagonists that Robinson has played. With the repeal of Prohibition Marco decides to go legit and start a brewery so that he can provide the entire country with beer legally. Marco's desire for respectability almost does him in several times during the story though. As in most gangster stories the stench of the streets is a stink that doesn't easily go away.
  The comedy within the movie is rooted in the audience being well aware of the conventions of the gangster story. It is to the entire casts credit that every actor in the story doesn't overdo the comedic elements of the characters they are portraying, because with just one wrong note the entire movie could have collapsed into a dramatic mess. The level of violence in the movie is ramped up due to the fact that the story is about gangsters, but one never feels the anxiety of the violence being enacted on the screen. You don't believe that the victims of violence within the movie are really human. Not to say that the characters are mere caricature's, but that unlike dramatic gangster movies that had to cater to the whims of the Hays Code, making sure to never show a gangster enjoying or getting away with breaking the law, the comedic gangster movie could get away with most things as long as it was for a laugh.
  With this movie an audience can root for the gangster and not feel guilty for siding with the bad guys. The gangsters in the story are neither good or bad; in fact as you watch the movie it is quite easy to even forget that these characters are gangsters. By treating the characters as people first and gangsters second the movie creates a believable reality that still gets plenty of laughs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

San Quentin (1937)

  The clanging of tin cups on bars, a stampede of inmates marching back and forth inside their cells, and the scared glances from armed guards as the threat of a riot looms; these are the cliches of the prison picture. Yet with San Quentin the aim is not just for cheap entertainment, but also prison reform. The director, Lloyd Bacon, takes all these stock ingredients; brutal prison guards, hardened inmates, a progressive warden, and creates a tight action-packed movie.
  Pat O'Brien stars as Steve Jameson the new captain of the yard for San Quentin and he brings military discipline to the harsh environment of the prison. Like all progressive characters from the 1930's he believes in harsh punishment for those who don't toe the line, but is also capable of giving any man a second chance. Opposing him every step of the way is Lieutenant Druggin, played by Barton MacLane, who would rather knock a man down instead of shake his hand. 
  These two men fight each other for control of the prison, and this film concentrates that battle with Humphrey Bogart's character, 'Red' Kennedy, a fresh fish in a pool of hard-edged criminals. The film makes it very clear that 'Red' is a product of reform schools, but with the right type of treatment he has the capacity to clean up his act and make something of himself. Yet bad habits die-hard when 'Red' finds out that the special treatment he's getting from the captain of the yard has something to do with the fact that Jameson is going out with his sister May, played by Ann Sheridan. 'Red' undoes all the progress he's made by letting his anger take hold of him, but like in all Warner Bros. films from that decade redemption is never impossible to attain as long as you are willing to pay the ultimate price.
  With a 70 minute running time their isn't much space for character development, but everybody involved with the film should be proud for turning out a top notch studio picture that neither wastes time, talent, or intensity.

Monday, November 3, 2008

G Men (1935)

  William Keighley shines a light on the FBI with G Men, and by film's end he not only makes popular a colloquial nickname for the bureau's agents but also charts the mythology for the fledgling agency. The movie can be categorized more specifically as government propaganda then it can as gangster movie now, but nonetheless this movie grabs hold of the audience's eyes and ears from the very first scene and doesn't let go till the end credits.
  Not counting the prologue, tacked on more than a decade after the film's premiere on J. Edgar Hoover's orders, the film opens with 'Brick' Davis, played by James Cagney, looking directly at the camera and expounding on the merits of truth, justice, and "keeping on the level." Of course this type of attitude hasn't left him with many viable clients.
  'Brick' Davis came from the slums and thanks to a less-than reputable benefactor he gets a law degree on gratis. This conflict between where Davis came from and where he wants to go is present throughout every scene in the movie. His benefactor, McKay, is a Prohibition era racketeer and is painted, most likely for the censor's benefit, as an apologetic gangster. With the repeal of Prohibition he can't keep up with the less-than savory rackets that are popping up, making him a powerless figurehead in his own organization.
  The relationship Davis and McKay have with one another is quite complicated. Each man is governed by a different set of rules; McKay rules by exploiting personal vices while 'Brick' believes in the power of the law. The only tangible connection they have with each other is geography; both men grew up in the same slums and had to suffer through the same type of obstacles. McKay looks at Davis as a possible do-over, an opportunity for him to help somebody from his neighborhood achieve success without having to corrupt themselves to attain it; for McKay helping Davis is basically a form of penance for all the laws he's broken.
  When the film shifts its focus to the FBI we are treated to the science of crime fighting; criminal investigation has been elevated from a job reliant on snitches and stool pigeons to an exact science where microscopic evidence can lead to arrests. During his training Davis finds a mentor in Jeff McCord, played by Robert Armstrong. Although both men don't think much of each other when they first meet, Davis gains McCord's respect after successfully taking down a few of the FBI's Most Wanted through a combination of street smarts and familiarity with the use of a gun and his fists.
  The gangsters that Davis and McCord have to collar are amalgamations of real life people during the Great Depression, like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, and were familiar to most audience members when this movie first came out. As characters these gangsters are mostly one-dimensional, merely story devices used to illustrate just how ineffectual local law enforcement was in stopping these bandits until the FBI finally stepped in as the nation's protector.
  A sub-plot develops parallel to the main story where Cagney's character falls head over heels for McCord's sister, Kay. The scenes with Cagney and Margaret Lindsay, who plays Kay, are a great break from all the gun play and this secondary story intersects quite neatly with the main story in the third act.
  Keighley traces the FBI's baptism by fire with a re-enactment of two key events during the bureau's war on crime in the 1930's, the Kansas City Massacre and the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge with John Dillinger's gang. In real life these events were considered embarrassing disasters for the FBI, but within the movie they are used as justification for the arming of the bureau's agents and also for their use of a shoot first talk later strategy when dealing with so-called public enemies. The film may offer a simplistic and exaggerated account of how the FBI came to be born, but due to the film's success with the public the gangster movie had to now make room for the valiant cop protagonist.