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TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters -- James Cagney

by Ed Tapper
Contributor
Friday Oct 8, 2010
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You dirty rat...you killed my brother," is the stock phrase employed by countless James Cagney impersonators. Though his peculiarities of speech and gesture are often mimicked, his great talent was inimitable.

A true Hollywood original, Cagney could do it all: song & dance, drama and comedy. Swift-tongued, he had the ability to toss off a Yiddish accent or a heavy Irish brogue. He could be remarkably sympathetic as a hero, or equally repulsive as a vicious heavy. Yet even at his most despicable, this all-American screen phenomenon managed to engender compassion from his audiences.

In it’s recently released Greatest Classic Film Collection, which focused on gangsters of the Prohibition era, two famous Cagney films were featured, Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties. Now Turner Classic Films and Warner Brothers gives Cagney a solo bow in a superb, new DVD set -- TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters -- James Cagney featuring four fine films from the actor’s absolute prime.

Each has copious special features that include "Warner Night at the Movies," a collection of movie shorts, newsreels and cartoons dating from the release year of each film. There are also documentaries on the gangster film, which feature several film historians and celebrities such as Theresa Russell, Talia Shire and Martin Scorcese. All of the films are shown in terrific transfers, making this new set an absolute must for both Cagney fans, and vintage film enthusiasts in general.


Each Dawn I Die

The best all-around offering of the set is Each Dawn I Die, released in that landmark Hollywood year of 1939. After more than 70 years, the film has lost little of its power; and Cagney gives one of his finest, and most moving performances in it. As a crusading reporter attempting to expose the corruption of his local political regime, he is framed and sent off to the Big House, where he meets hardened gangster, George Raft. The injustice of his conviction and the brutality of prison life slowly corrode his ideals. His increasing desperation causes him to assist Raft in a daring escape plan, with hopes that, once outside, his friend will seek out the hired hoods who framed him. Each Dawn I Die is captivating, right up to the final, graphically violent, inmate uprising. The scene in which his mother visits him in prison is beautifully understated and superbly acted.


White Heat

Equally great is the 1949 White Heat, which contains another signature Cagney performance. One of the actor’s true film noirs, the movie proved a vehicle for one of his darkest and most savage characterizations. As Cody Jarrett, a vicious mob leader with a serious, mother fixation, Cagney has a histrionic field day. Virginia Mayo is his femme fatale wife, Verna, who changes her allegiance as the situation demands. While accepting furs and jewels from hubby Cody, she is sleeping with henchman Steve Cochran, who wants to take over the mob himself.

Obviously Verna has a thing for impressive men, since Cochran’s nickname is "Big Ed." Mastermind Cody surrenders to the police for a minor crime he did not commit, in order to beat the rap for the film’s opening train robbery, in which he makes off with wads of federal payroll money. With Cody in the slammer, mama Margaret Wycherly controls the mob, but is later knocked off by Verna and Big Ed. Edmond O’Brien is hired by the police to pose as a con, befriend Cody, and uncover where the loot is stashed. A staged escape misfires, and, truly on the lam, Cody avenges the killing of mother, and his hunted down by he police. In the famous final scene, he is chased to the top of a gas tank, and cries out one of the immortal quotes from film history: "Made it, Ma...Top of the World!"


City for Conquest

Noted for his lush productions, Anatole Litvak directed the 1940 City for Conquest, which concerns a group of young people from the slums of Manhattan who aspire to worldly success. Cagney becomes Young Samson, a prizefighter who slugs his way to the world championship. Arthur Kennedy is his musical kid brother who strives to be a famous symphonist. His childhood sweetheart, Ann Sheridan, seeks stardom as a professional dancer, an obsession for which she nearly sacrifices her relationship with Cagney. Future director Elia Kazan plays a dirt- poor kid who becomes a wealthy, powerful mobster. The amazing supporting cast also includes the young Anthony Quinn, as Sheridan’s sleazy dance partner, Donald Crisp as Cagney’s supportive fight promoter, Frank McHugh, as his loyal sidekick, and George Tobias as his trainer. Though it lacks the concentrated power and grit of Cagney’s earlier crime films, this broad, lavish soaper is beautifully acted and thoroughly engrossing.


G-Men

The last film in the box is the 1935 G-Men, It is presented in a later reissue with an attached prelude in which actor David Brian "hosts" the earlier movie, presenting it as an FBI training film. Cagney plays a struggling, honest lawyer who nearly works for Barton MacLane’s mob to scrape together a living. Disenchanted with their criminal antics, Cagney opts to join Lloyd Nolan and King Kong’s bud Robert Armstrong, and train as an FBI agent, or "g-man." The film drags midway, as Cagney undergoes his lengthy training; but the action ensues later, when he and his cronies come to blows with McLane and his gang. The weakest film of the lot, "G-Men" nonetheless has some exciting moments, like the bloody, final shootout scene. The solid supporting cast includes Ann Dvorak as a tough nightclub hoofer. Watch for her highly campy production number in which she throws large balls of cellophane at the audience while enacting the clumsiest of choreography.


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