Underworld passages

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


Arrogant criminals and righteous lawmen have been building blocks for movies since the beginning. Now, you are just as likely to see arrogant lawmen and righteous criminals. Indeed, the gangster is all but a metaphor for America itself in some contemporary films.

"Little Caesar" (1930), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, makes the most of the hubris of its ambitious hoodlum, played by Edward G. Robinson. Many conventions of the film gangster's career--the murderous rise, luxurious reign at the top, abrupt death in a hail of bullets--start here.

In 1931, James Cagney walked the last mile at the end of "Public Enemy," directed by William Wellman, and his baleful gaze filled the screen in the final fadeout. It made Cagney an overnight sensation.

"Scarface" (1932), directed by Howard Hawks, gave Paul Muni a turn as kingpin of crimedom. Muni, the Robert DeNiro of his time, portrays a fictionalized Al Capone.

"I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" (1932), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is another fine hard-boiled vehicle for Muni, portraying an innocent man chewed up by a cruel system and turned into a criminal.

"Dead End" (1937), directed by William Wyler, is the film treatment of Sidney Kingsley's trenchant Broadway play. Gangster played by Humphrey Bogart returns to his slum neighborhood in New York out of misplaced nostalgia. This is the movie that launched the Dead End Kids.

"Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz, is the archetypal priest-and-gangster movie with Pat O'Brien and James Cagney. This made stars of the Dead End kids, who later mutated into the cuddlier Bowery Boys.

"White Heat" (1949), directed by Raoul Walsh, put Cagney back in gangster leather after a long stint as a standard Hollywood leading man. He raised gooseflesh again portraying Cody, the sadistic psycho-robber who ends up on "top of the world, ma."

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950), directed by John Huston, is a landmark American movie about a gang and their big heist that goes awry. It maintains its flinty heart right up to the touching final scene on the horse ranch. Sterling Hayden and Sam Jaffe give once-in-a-lifetime performances.

"Blackboard Jungle" (1955), directed by Richard Brooks, has Glenn Ford as well-meaning teacher trying to cope with switchblade-wielding juvenile delinquents in an urban high school. Vic Morrow is a standout as the most deranged young punk.

"I Want to Live!" (1958), directed by Robert Wise, gave Susan Hayward the role of a lifetime, and an Oscar, as spit-in- your-eye dame Barbara Graham. Hayward tosses that red mane magnificently as the condemned woman who won't cop out.

"Thunder Road" (1958), directed by Arthur Ripley, has Robert Mitchum as a moonshine-runner in a supercharged car who can outrun anyone, revenooers or gangsters. Redneck cool all the way.

"The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond" (1960), directed by Budd Boetticher, is an unpretentious little gem from the tough guy school. Ray Danton is the handsome gangster-hoofer in Roaring 20s Manhattan.

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), directed by Arthur Penn, employed a wide range of cinematic techniques to turn out a masterpiece about a boy and a girl in love, on the road, robbing banks. It was a milestone for its lavish production about lowlife killers.

"In Cold Blood" (1967), directed by Richard Brooks, turned to stark black and white to bring Truman Capote's controversial true-crime book to film. There is remarkable psychological nuance in this story of a couple of drifters who rob and kill a farm family.

"Cool Hand Luke" (1967), directed by Stuart Rosenberg, the apotheosis of chain gang movies, is marked by an incandescent performance by Paul Newman. Sadistic boss Strother Martin's line "What we have here is a failure to communicate" is still an American catchphrase.

"Bullitt" (1968), directed by Peter Yates, sent Steve McQueen off to chase gangsters in a high-performance Mustang and a lightbulb went on in the collective consciousness of Hollywood that will never burn out. The high-speed car pursuit starts here.

Cop as anti-hero was the theme in 1971, the year of Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" and William Friedkin's "The French Connection." Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman were fuck 'em over cops who couldn't care less about innocent bystanders or constitutional rights in their determination to kill the creep.

"Badlands" (1973), directed by Terence Malick, is an unsettling masterpiece of atmospheric Americana. The Charles Starkweather-Carole Fugate killing spree is elevated to full art film status.

"Mean Streets" (1973), directed by Martin Scorcese, was the breakout film for the director and his stars, Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro. If this isn't how Little Italy really is, it should be.

"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973), directed by Peter Yates, has Robert Mitchum playing a gangland go-fer knocking around Boston trying to do a gun deal while staying out of police clutches. Mitchum is magnificently weary as a battle-scarred hoodlum who knows he's washed up but has nowhere else to go.

"Serpico" (1973), directed by Sidney Lumet, presents Al Pacino as a tower of fierce integrity as a cop who won't touch bribes. The New York location shooting is stunningly authentic.

"Charley Varrick" (1973), directed by Don Siegel, had Walter Matthau, cast against type, as the leader of a bank robbing gang that accidentally steals mob loot. Like most Siegel movies, not an ounce of fat.

In 1972 and 1974, director Francis Ford Coppola turned out two epic movies about America that happened to portray a mafia family, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II." Although one is a sequel, both are masterpieces that can stand alone. Coppola has said that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino's character) is a "loose metaphor" for America. If that's so, then the "family business" is capitalism. The movie can--and has--been read this way as an allegory. There are riches here.

"The Sugarland Express" (1974), directed by Steven Spielberg, gives the lovers-on-the-lam genre a bittersweet twist. If you like colorful Texans, this is your movie.

In "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), directed by Sidney Lumet, New York cops corner a nutty robber and his dim-witted sidekick inside the bank they are robbing and a standoff results, capturing the attention of all New York. Though the ending flags, Al Pacino gives a mesmerizing performance.

"Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) has director John Carpenter testing his spurs on a low budget crime thriller. An almost- deserted police station is put to siege by a band of young killers.

"Straight Time" (1978), directed by Ulu Grosbard, once again demostrated Dustin Hoffman's enormous range. Robber gets out of prison with good intentions, finds life sliding straight back into crime and violence. The supporting cast is top shelf and even a teenage Theresa Russell looks kind of soulful.

"The Long Good Friday" (1980), directed by John Mackenzie, employs a gangland plot with clear analogies to events in Maggie Thatcher's England. Bob Hoskins is the London mobster whose big schemes fail to take into account the Irish question.

"Atlantic City" (1980), directed by Louis Malle, features Burt Lancaster as that old standby, the aging mob minion going through a mid-life crisis. He finds a new lease on life when he crosses paths with some younger desperados.

"Prince of the City" (1981), directed by Sidney Lumet, is a vastly complex but emotionally compelling tale of a cop with honor who is swept up in an internal investigation.

"Thief" (1981), directed by Michael Mann, is an impossible- heist caper marked by hard-edged performances. German synth- meisters Tangerine Dream turn in an electrifying score.

"To Live and Die in L.A." (1985), directed by William Friedkin, is impressively cold blooded in tale of heartless U.S. Treasury agents chasing ruthless counterfeiters.

"Mona Lisa" (1986), directed by Neil Jordan, has low-level British mob guy Bob Hoskins getting out of jail, taking job as driver for a high-priced prostitute. A decent sort, he is increasingly appalled by the depravity his gangland milieu has sunk into and he decides to act.

"Drugstore Cowboy" (1989) by director Gus Van Sant is an entirely believable account of a gaggle of young drug addicts who rob pharmacies. It's basically a slice-of-life drama about the workaday world of a bunch of pillheads led by Matt Dillon.

"Thelma and Louise" (1991), directed by Ridley Scott, shows what happens when two women become "ready to get serious." This funny, audacious, and haunting movie is now part of American folklore.

"Pulp Fiction" (1994), directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a milestone of cinema depicting a circle of low-lifes that includes gangsters, hit men, armed robbers and sado-masochist perverts. It's either brilliant post-modern filmmaking or a signal that civilization as we know it is in the trash bin. Maybe it's both.


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