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Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection (Bullets or Ballots / City for Conquest / Each Dawn I Die / G Men / San Quentin / A Slight Case of Murder)
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The films in this set were produced half a decade and more after Little Caesar and The Public Enemy made stars of Robinson and Cagney, respectively, and after repeal had begun to lend Prohibition the patina of nostalgia. The studio's gangster franchise was evolving, and so were the careers of its top stars. When it came to toughness, the boys could still dish it out, and take it, too. But increasingly they were doing it on the other side of the law-and-order divide.
Cagney was first to reform. In 1935's "G" Men he plays a lawyer put through college by the avuncular neighborhood crimelord. After a law-school pal turned F.B.I. agent is murdered, Cagney abandons his (resolutely legit) one-man practice and joins the Bureau. The film memorializes several big moments in F.B.I. legend, but what's grabbiest is the personal drama growing out of Cagney's lingering underworld friendships. William Keighley directs the murders and shootouts with jolting ferocity, Barton MacLane and Edward Pawley supply flavorful villainy, and there are times when Sol Polito's cinematography literally glows (all these films have been restored, but "G" Men looks especially terrific). One gripe: The movie should have been presented without the F.B.I.-classroom intro tacked on for 1949 reissue (which belongs under "Special Features").
In Each Dawn I Die (also Keighley, 1939), Cagney teams with George Raft making his Warners debut. It's mostly a prison picture, with muckraking reporter Cagney behind bars after being framed by crooked politicos. Career felon Raft has little sympathy for him till Cagney proves to be a stand-up guy, whereupon the two bond in mutual loathing of sadistic guards, rat-fink convicts, and the endlessly malleable system. The movie boasts one indelible scene (involving a movie screening for the cons), some evocative prison workhouse detailing, and a fine Cagney performance as always. But it's undone by a script cluttered with melodrama and contrivance.
Bullets or Ballots (Keighley yet again, 1936) is much more satisfying. Again we get two icons for the price of one, with Robinson as a tough but square-shooting police detective and Bogart as the ambitious number-two man to a big-time racketeer. Bogart's effectively the co-star, albeit fourth-billed behind Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Barton MacLane. But it's Eddie G.'s movie, and he walks the line beautifully as an honest cop who, unjustly jettisoned from the force, signs on with the mobster he's long pursued. Despite a rhetorical reference to "ballots" as the public's means of combatting crime, it's bullets that get the job done. Bullets and fists: the movie makes clear that Robinson has beaten confessions out of people plenty of times, just as it has no illusions about the empty symbolism of crime commissions and grand juries.
The only other Bogart vehicle in the set is San Quentin (Lloyd Bacon, 1937), a scrap-work effort below the standards of everybody involved. Bogart's a small-time crook whose arrest at a nightclub occasions a meet-cute for his big sister Ann Sheridan and Army training officer Pat O'Brien--who's on his way to become yard captain at the penitentiary where Bogart will be interred! O'Brien tries to reform the lad, but with corrupt/sadistic guard Barton MacLane on one side and sociopathic con Joe Sawyer on the other, Bogart never has a chance. Neither does the viewer.
Lloyd Bacon, normally one of Warners' zippiest directors, is back on his game with A Slight Case of Murder (1938), a delicious gangster comedy. Robinson plays beer baron Remy Marco, who craves respectability as a legitimate businessman once beer is legal again. Problem is, nobody has ever had the heart to tell him his product tastes like varnish, and soon the bank is out to foreclose on his brewery. At which point Remy learns that his summer home upstate is full of fresh gangland corpses.... Based on a play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay, the picture gives a trio of glorious goons--Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, and Harold Huber--a rare chance to shine as Marco's house staff.
City for Conquest (1940) ought to be the showpiece here. It's the longest and most ambitious entry, with prestige-picture scale and production values (including Polito and James Wong Howe as cameramen) and a cast including Cagney, Ann Sheridan, Arthur Kennedy, Frank McHugh, Donald Crisp, Anthony Quinn, Jerome Cowan, and--in his first of only two film performances--future directorial giant Elia Kazan. Working-stiff Cagney loves his gifted musician brother (Kennedy) and childhood sweetheart (Sheridan), a dancer with her own aspirations for the limelight; he becomes a boxer in order to pay for the brother's musical education. Triumph and tragedy ensue. The film's avowed aim, and Kennedy's, is to create an urban symphony of New York and the many little people striving against all odds to rise; there's even a one-man Greek chorus--Frank Craven, the Stage Manager of the recent Our Town--to hammer the theme periodically. But over the previous decade Warners' honest, hard-charging, small-scale movies had collectively achieved that "symphony," without the pompous flourishes Anatole Litvak's direction brings to the project. Here's hoping DVD showcases more of them. --Richard T. Jameson
Top Customer Reviews
Typically you get a cartoon, a newsreel, a preview for another movie of the same year and a short film. At the end there is invariably a ten or fifteen minute retrospective in the form of interviews with leading film critics and sometimes even cast and crew associated with the film (if they're not dead).
The value for money with sets like these (see also Errol Flynn Signature Collection and Film Noir Collection) could not be better, highly recommended.
The big difference in the two sets are the roles of its principal players. In the Gangster set, the stars - in particular, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson - were criminals. As the studio got more pressure to stop producing movies in which the heroes were crooks, they merely switched their actors from one side of the law to the other.
In more-or-less chronological order, the first in this six-movie set is G-Men, featuring Cagney as a struggling lawyer who joins the fledgling FBI. This puts him at odds with his friend, a genial crime boss who opts to retire rather than contend with Cagney. Unfortunately, his successors are not so nice, setting up a lot of gunplay. Of the three Cagney movies in this set, this is the weakest, although it is still decent.
Also relatively weak is Bullets or Ballots which features Robinson as a cop who joins the mob after he is fired (an obvious ruse that not even the villains totally buy). Once again, there is a "good" mob boss who is Robinson's friend. Humphrey Bogart, in a standard role for him in the 1930s, is a much more evil gangster.
Bogart returns in San Quentin as a small-time crook sent to the title prison. The principal character, however, is Pat O'Brien as a reform-minded Captain of the Yard, who tries to turn Bogart around, partly out of good intentions and partly because he's dating Bogie's sister.Read more ›
- "G Men" (1935) and "Bullets or Ballots" (1936) are direct responses to the imposition of the Hays Code in 1934. By switching Cagney in the former and Robinson in the latter to the other sides of the law, Warner Brothers cleverly maintained the momentum of the earlier pre code films but shifted the emphasis to the crime fighters. Both films are as exciting as their predecessors and much better made.
- in 1937, "San Quentin" was a programmer starring the second rung Pat O'Brien with Bogart and Ann Sheridan in support. It does not have the budget of the other films and is much more routine. Ann Sheridan sings for the first time on screen though and very well too. This is the weakest film in the set.
- 1938 brought "A Slight Case of Murder", an hilarious Damon Runyan send up of the gangster with Edward G Robinson relishing his comic role and with a brilliant supporting cast including the memorable Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins and Ed Brophy.
- In 1939, "Each Dawn I Die" was the best of the prison films, with convincing detail of the violence and boredom of prison life. George Raft, the weakest of the actors who played gangsters, rises to the level of colleague Cagney in this one and the film has great suspense.
- "City for Conquest", made in 1940, is the most ambitious film of the group based on a pretentious novel which was not a great critical success in the late thirties. The poetic quality of the script is exactly what dates the film more than all the others in the collection but the fight scenes are as harrowing as any on film.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
NOTE: This collection was originally entitled the Warner Tough Guys Collection, which is the version I bought. Read morePublished 22 months ago by Silver Screen Videos
I'm not gonna go into the synopsis of each movie. That's been done, many times. These are all great B&W gangster classic movies that just aren't made anymore. I love 'em allPublished on April 24, 2014 by JJ452
Got this item for my husband and he loved all the movies. All the black and white movies are the best.Published on January 11, 2014 by Raven
This collection has the likes of James Cagney and other big stars from the 1930's and 40's. these movie are all classics, and if you like classic movie tough guys, this collection... Read morePublished on December 13, 2013 by Cynthia Carter
I love the format of these releases with the newsreels,cartoon and trailers in the fashion of how they used to run them in the theater. Read morePublished on July 13, 2013 by R. Langley
This dvd boxset has been subsequently re-released as Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection, Volume Two. Read morePublished on May 24, 2013 by WEM51
When this collection was first available, I didn't recognize the titles and, therefore, didn't buy it. I am glad that I found it at Amazon. Read morePublished on March 1, 2013 by G. N. Clark
The Warner Brothers Studios slowly, but surely, are releasing DVD collections of movies from their impressive catalog, including their more popular stars. Read morePublished on December 8, 2011 by Carlos E. Velasquez
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