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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Packin' A Punch...and Packin' Heat! On the heels of the success of the Warner Bros. Gangster Collection, the Warner Bros. Tough Guys Collection delivers six all new to DVD Classics featuring Hollywood's greatest Academy-Award? winning Tough guys - James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson.
Say "Warner Bros. in the '30s" and you're talking, first and foremost, about the tough, gritty, urban, street-smart movies that help define that American decade for us. Which means you're talking about James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart: unpretty but charismatic guys with lived-in faces, and bodies that always seemed cocked, ready to spring. When one of them entered a room, he owned it, no matter how many people were there already. Their most celebrated habitat was the gangster picture. The genre didn't originate with them, but they, more than anybody else, defined it, gave it a face and a silhouette and a heartbeat.
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
- Is Discontinued By Manufacturer : No
- MPAA rating : s_medNotRated NR (Not Rated)
- Product Dimensions : 7.5 x 5.5 x 3.6 inches; 1.3 Pounds
- Director : Anatole Litvak, B. Reeves Eason, Bobby Connolly, Chuck Jones, Crane Wilbur
- Media Format : Box set, Subtitled, NTSC, Closed-captioned, Black & White
- Release date : July 18, 2006
- Actors : James Cagney, Margaret Lindsay, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell
- Subtitles: : English, Spanish, French
- Language : English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
- Studio : Warner Home Video
- ASIN : B000FI9OCM
- Number of discs : 6
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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. Unfortunately, as also shown in Angels with Dirty Faces (in the Gangster set), O'Brien isn't that interesting a character: he's too straight and narrow and this allows Bogart and the other cons to steal the show.
If the first three movies are merely good, the next three are top-notch. A Slight Case of Murder is a comic gangster movie with Robinson as a crime lord gone legitimate after Prohibition ends. He sells the same beer that he sold in the speakeasy days, little realizing that the only reason people bought his stuff was because it was the only drink available. It tastes like swill, however, but before Robinson can do anything about it, he faces financial ruin. Complicating things are some dead bodies, some missing bank loot and his future son-in-law, a law officer. It may be an old movie, but the humor still works well.
Probably the best movie in the set is Each Dawn I Die, with Cagney back as a reporter who is framed for a crime after reporting on corrupt politics. Initially convinced that the truth will set him free quickly, he soon realizes that it's not going to be that easy; as time goes by, he begins to fall apart. George Raft also stars as a fellow con who is wise to the ways of prison.
Finally, there is City for Conquest, which is more of a romance than a crime movie (although there is a little bit of crime). Cagney is a boxer who is strung along by his long-time girlfriend Ann Sheridan. Her ambitions to become a famous dancer will override her love of him, with bad consequences. Among other actors, this movie features Elia Kazan in a rare acting role.
Besides the fact that these movies probably average a high four stars, we get a lot of extras, including commentaries on all the movies and "Warner Night at the Movies" for all the films as well: in addition to the movie, you get an old movie trailer, a news reel, a short subject and a cartoon. Add to this a set of mini-documentaries and some miscellaneous shorts (including several blooper reels) and this set easily rates five stars and should be watched by anyone who enjoys crime films.
- "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. Cagney is superb as usual and Ann Sheridan has a starring role. It is great to see her paired with him on an equal basis.
All the prints are in excellent condition and the list of extras is endless - commentaries, newsreels, short films, cartoons and trailers. There is something for everyone here. One of the highlights is the group of blooper reels from the cutting room floor, good fun for those who know their Warner's films.
Like other DVD collections from Warners, this set is excellent value.