The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931). 83 minutes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney (as Tom Powers), Jean Harlow (as Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (as Matt Doyle), Joan Blondell (as Mamie), Mae Clarke (as Kitty), Donald Cook (as Michael Powers), Leslie Fenton (as Nails Nathan), Beryl Mercer (as Ma Powers), Robert Emmett O’Connor (as Paddy Ryan), and Murray Kinnell (as Putty Nose).

The Public Enemy is the pre-Code movie that solidified legendary actor James Cagney’s reputation for playing tough-guy criminal types. It made a major contribution to the gangster genre under development in the early sound period, which included such groundbreaking films as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932). Pre-Code gangster films typically feature slick criminal characters who at times are positioned as worthy of our admiration for their personal style, confidence, and strident disregard for authority. One of the wonderful things about the best of those movies, however, is the way that they also provocatively ask us to … Read the rest

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). 97 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring James Cagney (as William “Rocky” Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (as Father Jerry Connolly), the Dead End Kids (as Soapy, Swing, Bim, Pasty, Crab, and Hunky), Humphrey Bogart (as Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (as Laury Martin), and George Bancroft (as Mac Keefer).

Angels with Dirty Faces was famously parodied in the Home Alone franchise as Angels with Filthy Souls, an old violent crime film with an outrageous title that the young protagonist Kevin McCallister watches when his parents are out of town. If you have seen one of the Home Alone movies, you might think that violence and the glorification of the gangster are the defining features of the parody noir’s source material. Yet while Angels with Dirty Faces does depict violence and crime, the movie nevertheless features a complex ending that undermines its gangster protagonist’s rebellious, law-breaking streak, making him appear cowardly and weak. It is an essential … Read the rest

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945). 111 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Joan Crawford (as Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (as Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (as Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (as Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (as Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (as Lottie), Bruce Bennett (as Bert Pierce), Lee Patrick (as Maggie Biederhof), Veda Ann Borg (as Miriam Ellis), Moroni Olsen (as Inspector Peterson), and Jo Ann Marlowe (as Kay Pierce). Music by Max Steiner.

Mildred Pierce is equal parts entrepreneurial narrative, film noir, and melodrama. In some regards, it is an earnestly liberal tale about a hard-working woman who divorces, establishes her own business, and becomes a restaurant mogul. But it is also a lurid and somewhat punishing soap opera about her downfall, which is intertwined with and inseparable from her devotion to her evil young daughter Veda. In the end, in order to get its point across, the movie relies on a fairly conservative understanding of rightful social order and … Read the rest

The Lodger (1927)

The Lodger (1927)

The Lodger (1927). 91 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ivor Novello (as Jonathan Drew/the lodger), Marie Ault (as the landlady), Arthur Chesney (as her husband), June Tripp (as Daisy Bunting), and Malcolm Keen (as Joe Chandler).

Alfred Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger is one of the earliest movies to express some of the director’s deepest preoccupations: the pursuit of an innocent man who is confused with a killer, the intersection of sex and murder, the experience of people who suspect someone in their circle of being a criminal, and the suffocating nature of crowds. As such, The Lodger is a rich repository of trademark Hitchcock elements, including his first cameo, and the director himself called it the first true Hitchcock film. At the same time, and paradoxically, the movie bears the marks of some of the other great European filmmakers of its time, such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The Lodger is best understood as a transitional … Read the rest

The Maltese Falcon (Three Versions, 1931-1941)

The Maltese Falcon

The following article is a review of three film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon: the pre-Code Maltese Falcon (1931), the bizarre comedic Satan Met a Lady (1936), and the superb film noir version (1941).

Synopsis: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Sam Spade is a private detective working in San Francisco. A woman identifying herself as Miss Wonderly appears in his office one day and asks for his help: she claims her sister is visiting the city in the company of a disagreeable man, and Wonderly wants the two separated. Spade’s partner Miles Archer takes over the case and agrees to shadow the man, Thursby, but that evening both Miles and Thursby are shot dead.

The next day, Spade meets up with Wonderly, who explains that she and Thursby were involved in a plot to capture an illusory, legendary, jewel-studded falcon statuette that has been smuggled around the world by treasure hunters through the ages. … Read the rest

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931). 72 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lora Hart), Ben Lyon (as Mortie/Pal), Joan Blondell (as B. Maloney), Clark Gable (as Nick), Blanche Friderici (as Mrs. Maxwell), Charlotte Merriam (as Mrs. Ritchie), Charles Winniger (as Dr. Arthur Bell), Edward J. Nugent (as Eagen), Vera Lewis (as Miss Dillon), and Ralf Harolde (as Dr. Milton A. Ranger).

Night Nurse boasts many attractions: actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in the bloom of youth, an almost baby-faced Clark Gable in one of his earliest speaking roles, and a screenplay based on Grace Perkins’s crime novel of the same name. But the main reason to see Night Nurse is because it is a prime example of the type of kinky movie made during what we now call the pre-Code Hollywood period (1929 to mid-1934), which spanned from the advent of sound films to the creation of the Production Code Administration, the internal censorship office of Hollywood’s … Read the rest

Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar (1931). 79 minutes. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Edward G. Robinson (as Caesar Enrico Bandello/“Little Caesar”), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (as Joe Massara), Glenda Farrell (as Olga Stassoff), William Collier, Jr. (as Tony Passa), Sidney Blackmer (as Big Boy), Ralph Ince (as Diamond Pete Montana), Thomas E. Jackson (as Sergeant Flaherty), Stanley Fields (as Sam Vettori), Maurice Black (as Little Arnie Lorch), and George E. Stone (as Otero).

Little Caesar is a gangster movie from the early days of sound—so early, in fact, that it still includes title cards to announce major transitions in a few scenes. It was made before the Production Code was in place, which means that it is more risqué and more violent than movies produced only a few years later when the Code was enforced. The film made Edward G. Robinson a star, and its influence is wide-ranging. The climactic scene in The Godfather (1972) where Michael Corleone’s men gun down an enemy on … Read the rest

The Fallen Idol (1948)

"The Fallen Idol" (1948)

The Fallen Idol (1948).  95 minutes.  Directed by Carol Reed.  Starring Ralph Richardson (as Baines), Bobby Henrey (as Philippe), Sonia Dresdel (as Mrs. Baines), Michèle Morgan (as Julie), and Denis O’Dea (as Chief Inspector Crowe).  Screenplay by Graham Greene.

The Fallen Idol is a companion piece to the The Third Man, a film that I have often alluded to on this site.  The two movies were released back to back, The Fallen Idol in 1948 and The Third Man in 1949; both were directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene; both explore a male protagonist’s worshipful attitude towards his male companion, which is rooted in childhood; and in both movies, the companion turns out to be more nefarious than the protagonist at first thinks.  But while The Third Man’s childlike Holly Martins is an adult who has yet to let go of his youthful adoration of friend Harry Lime, The Fallen Idol’s main character Phil is … Read the rest

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). 93 minutes. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Paul Muni (as James Allen), Glenda Farrell (as Marie), Helen Vinson (as Helen), Preston Foster (as Pete), and Allen Jenkins (as Barney Sykes). Based on the memoir by Robert Elliott Burns.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is notable for being an early Hollywood social commentary film. Based on the memoir by Robert Elliott Burns, it tells the story of Burns (called James Allen in the movie), who after serving in World War One returns home to the United States with the dream of becoming a civil engineer but ends up doing hard time in a forced labor camp. The subject of forced labor had appeared in theaters previously in, among other things, a popular Disney short starring Mickey Mouse (“The Chain Gang,” 1930), and the 1932 movie based on Burns’s life was soon parodied in a short musical comedy (“20,000 Cheers … Read the rest

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

"The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" (1933)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). 124 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Lohmann), Karl Meixner (as Hofmeister), Oscar Beregi, Sr. (as Professor Baum), Gustav Diessl (as Thomas Kent), and Rudolf Klein-Rogge (as Dr. Mabuse).

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the last film that Fritz Lang made before leaving Nazi Germany.  It begins by introducing the disgraced police detective Hofmeister, who in order to redeem himself in the eyes of his superior, Inspector Lohmann, has doggedly and independently investigated a criminal syndicate. Before he can reveal the name of the head of the syndicate to Lohmann, something happens to Hofmeister to make him go mad, and he is subsequently placed in an asylum. In the same asylum, we find the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse, who is insane and rapidly writing strange instructions (his “testament”) on how to carry out illegal activity. Dr. Mabuse is supervised by the psychiatrist Professor Baum, who considers the crime boss … Read the rest