• Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 4


    Released by: Warner Brothers
    Released on: 10/21/08
    Director: Various
    Cast: Various
    Year: Various

    The Movies:

    The fourth in their (so far) ongoing boxed set collections of vintage crime films, the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 4 contains five classic films from the studio’s vaults as well as a modern day documentary on how the studio’s output at the time would go on to shape and influence the crime film as we know it in modern times. Here’s a look…


    THE AMAZING DOCTOR CLITTERHOUSE (1938)

    Co-written by the one and only John Huston and made up of a cast consisting of Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor and Allen Jenkins, the unusually titled The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse is an interesting film that sees Robinson cast against type. Based on the play by Barry Lyndon, the film follows the titular doctor (Robinson), a fancy New York City doctor who caters to the wealthy. He’s an educated man and prides himself as such and he enjoys all that high society has to offer – including a stint as a jewel thief that no one else knows about! He eventually decides to join a gang and make a career out of crime and hits it off with the sexy woman in charge of fencing the gang’s loot, Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), all the while claiming to be studying the criminal element in order to find out what makes them do what they do. Eventually Clitterhouse decides that he wants to control the gang and he all too easily takes control from the original leader, Rocks Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), who is known too pleased at all about his dismissal from the lead. Clitterhouse balances his time between his patients, most of whom are fellow crooks at this point, and his robberies but soon those around him start to notice that his thieving ways are getting more and more intense to the point where something is going to need to be done about his erratic behavior.

    An interesting look at one man’s descent into a life of crime by way of his own personal obsessions, The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse really allows Robinson to stretch his stuff a bit as an actor even if he’s an odd choice for an odd part. While it’s true that he’s playing a gangster in much the same vein that he was partially typecast, his Clitterhouse has plenty of comedic quirks about him that show his range as a performer and his knack for comedic timing are just as strong as his penchant for tough talking dialogue and sneering physical tough guy work. Supporting performances are uniformly strong, particularly Bogart as the tough thug, Rocks Valentine, a man Robinson’s Clitterhouse describes at one point as ‘pure viciousness.’ It’s also interesting to note that this film marked the first of many collaborations between John Hughes and Humphrey Bogart – the pair would of course go on to make classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen.

    The film is a strange mix of drama and comedy and contains some interesting and surprisingly amoral violence, something that was definitely tamed in the gangster film genre by 1938 as the code had gone into effect. While this isn’t a classic in the same sense that other, better known pictures are it is a well acted and well photographed film that moves at a good pace and that manages to entertain while bringing a unique, if not completely successful, spin to the many of the gangster movie clichés.

    INVISIBLE STRIPES (1939)

    Another wonderfully cast film, Lloyd Bacon’s Invisible Stripes stars George Raft as an incarcerated hood named Cliff Taylor who, after doing five years in Sing Sing, is finally given parole. Taylor isn’t going to look this second chance in the mouth, he’s going to go straight and swear off his life of crime no matter how hard it might get or how tough it might be to do so. His cell mate, Chuck Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who is getting out at the same time, tells Taylor that it’ll never happen, essentially telling him that society has no place for no goodniks like them but this doesn’t stop Taylor from trying. Important in Taylor’s decision to walk the straight and narrow is his younger brother, Tim (William Holden), who definitely looks up to Cliff in a big way. Unfortunately, Cliff soon learns that life isn’t easy outside the joint and that people aren’t as willing to give an ex-con an even break as he had hoped. When he turns to a Chuck for help and makes some quick money to help out his brother before swearing off crime again, things turn sour for the well intentioned Cliff.

    George Raft might get top billing in this picture, and that’s fair enough, but Bogart really steals the show here as the tough, cynical and sneaky man who knows full well that he’s destined to live a life of crime – he’s branded with those titular invisible stripes! A young but perfectly recognizable William Holden also holds his own here, playing the bright spot in Cliff’s life quite effectively. Raft himself does a great job with the more melodramatic and conflicted aspects of his character’s development. Bacon keeps the film moving at a good pace and the script from Warren Duff lays on the social commentary pretty thick, giving the picture some thought provoking moments that help it to stand out from other low budget gangster pictures of the era.

    The photography in the film is nice and shadowy, making excellent use of the sets and showcasing some effective design work. The film isn’t as consistently interesting as it could have been but the interplay between Bogart and Raft is always spot on and anytime they’re on screen together the picture is great. Some of the subplots are a little heavy on the melodrama but all in all this is a solid picture with a good story and a few remarkable performances.

    KID GALLAHAD (1937)

    Not to be confused with the Elvis Presley film of the same name, this one stars Edward G. Robinson and none other than Bette Davis. Robinson plays a fight promoter named Nick Donati who sees a potential champion in a young man named Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris) when he sees him knock out a boxer named Chuck McGraw. Donati, who is also really into racketeering, tries to sign Ward as soon as he can but things get complicated when Donati’s main squeeze, Fluff (Bette Davis), starts to fall for the new recruit. If that weren’t complicated enough, Ward’s got eyes for Donati’s younger sister, Marie Donati (Jane Bryan). Eventually, feeling threatened in pretty much every was, Donati turns on his newfound fighting sensation, much to the delight of rival fight promoter Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart).

    While this film is more than just a little bit predictable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t great in its own way thanks to an all star cast who deliver a string of rock solid performances. Davis and Robinson really shine here but Morris and Bogart absolutely hold their own and serve to round things out quite nicely. Robinson really shines here, stealing the show as the control freak who has to have everything go his way and his way only and who leaves little room for any opposing viewpoints. The younger members of the cast, particularly Brian and Morris, are surprisingly just as good as the more seasoned members of the cast and they too deliver some great work here.

    The script has a couple of interesting twists that help keep things moving along nicely even if we can see where it’s all heading fairly early on while the direction from Michael Curtiz is lean and efficient. Some nice camerawork and a few memorable boxing ring set pieces, coupled with the aforementioned performances, cement this one as a true and legitimate classic.

    LARCENY INC. (1942)

    Another directorial effort from Lloyd Bacon, Larceny, Inc. is a comedic take on the gangster film that follows a man named Pressure Maxwell (Edward G. Robinson) who has just gotten out of the joint. He wants to go into the dog racing business and leave the life of crime behind him but his friends, Jug Martin (Broderick Crawford) and Weepy (Edward Brophy), are quick to point out that none of them have enough money to fund Pressure’s idea. The three ex-cons join up with a dame named Denny Costello (Jane Wyman) and decide to buy the luggage shop next door to a bank to use it as a front while they dig a tunnel into the vault next door. When the luggage store turns into a blockbuster of a business idea, things get complicated – even more so when another ex-con, Leo Dexter (Anthony Quinn), finds out what they’re up to and decides he wants in on this scheme.

    Based on the play of the same name, this is a moderately amusing but all in all fairly forgettable film that’s really only memorable for Robinson’s performance that once again shows his knack for comedy. His interplay with the less impressive but still enjoyable Brophy is what makes the film enjoyable and when the film isn’t following them it tends to fall a little flat. That said, the premise is a good one and there’s some genuinely witty dialogue contained in the film, most of which is afforded to the three leads. Quinn’s supporting role is a decent one and he adds a fun sense of menace to the film, but the light hearted tone of the movie doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the films in the set. There’s enough here that works to make the movie worth watching but the pacing can, at times, feel a little uneven and some of the humor is a little limp.

    THE LITTLE GIANT (1933)

    Last but not least comes the earliest film this collection, Roy Del Ruth’s The Little Giant, in which Edward G. Robinson stars as a liquor bootlegger named Bugs Ahearn who needs to figure out what to do with himself now that prohibition has come to an end and effectively put his booze racquet out of business. He decides that the best thing to do would be to move to Santa Barbara, California and get in tight with all the rich folk who have moved out that way. He’s got enough money stashed away from his booze operation to make this happen and so he heads west with his friend and former partner in crime, al (Russell Hopton) in tow. Bugs soon meets a woman named Ruth (Mary Astor), a realtor who rents a house to a family of faux-socialites known as the Cass family who Bugs initially wants to impress not realizing that they consider him a laughing stock and he soon learns that these seemingly upper class and fancy folk are actually a bunch of backstabbers and liars.

    While Larceny, Inc. seemed a little flat in the way that it mixed humor with the gangster film, The Little Giant is a genuinely fun film that allows Robinson to play the type of gangster he’s so well known for though here he’s really a fish out of water and unsure of how to best approach the California socialites he so desperately wants to get ‘in’ with. His interplay with Astor is great and the two make a great pair together, particularly once Bugs realizes the truth behind the Cass family’s motives and decides to pay them back in the only way that a gangster like he understand. There’s plenty of great dialogue and some very nice camera work here and at seventy-five minutes long the movie kicks along at a very quick pace.

    What’s interesting about this film (as well as many pre-code crime movies) is how it portrays the elitist high society types as the true criminals, while the booze running Bugs is the true ‘good guy’ of the movie. The Hays Code would kill this in a few years but here Del Ruth and company seem to relish in glorifying the criminal and when Robinson’s Bugs finally figures out what’s going on and who has wronged him and finds the moxie to do something about it, it’s hard not to cheer him on. The film is effective in the way that it manipulates the audience into rooting for a man who made his fortune illegally and it makes some interesting social commentary by pointing fingers at the upper crust of society. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, but the film has an odd underlying subtext that makes it interesting while the very effective comedy and witty dialogue keep it fun.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Each of the five films in this set is presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio and all of them appear in glorious black and white, just as they should. Although the four films do show their age at times, for the most part these progressive scan transfers are pretty nice. Aside from a bit of very mild print damage the pictures are consistently clean and there aren’t any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement. Contrast levels look good, particularly important with the black and white films, while the color reproduction on the two color films looks pretty lifelike and natural and there’s very little fading here and there. Fans should be very happy with the restoration afforded the five films in this collection – they look very nice indeed.

    As you could probably guess, considering the age of the four films in this collection, each picture is presented in English language Dolby Digital Mono with optional subtitles provided in English SDH and French. As it is with the video, there’s little room to complain here. The levels are good across the board and there aren’t any problems with audible hiss or distortion. Dialogue is always easy enough to understand and things sound just fine here, particularly when you consider the age of the four films.

    The supplements in this collection can be watched individually or through the ‘Warner Night At The Movies’ option which presents them all in a sequence replicating the movie going experience of the era in which they were made. The supplements in this collection are spread across the four discs in the set as follows:

    THE AMAZING DOCTOR CLITTERHOUSE

    This first commentary in this collection comes courtesy of film historians Dr. Drew Casper and Dr. Richard Jewell. They being by talking about the science behind the film and the star power that Edward G. Robinson brought to this picture. This is a very scene specific talk that covers the cinematography, the camera tracking and its significance and other interesting bits of trivia. They talk about the cast and crew who worked on the picture but also spend a fair bit of time explaining what’s happening on screen that can, at times, make this a bit dry to listen to despite the fact that a lot of it is quite informative. They also talk about the importance of Warner Brothers’ crime film out put at the time and how they rose to prominence by figuring out how to make these crime films quickly and on lower budgets than the competition. The pair talk one at a time so this is less conversational so much as it is structured like a lecture but these guys really know their stuff and are able to impart some interesting insight in to the history of this picture and what makes it unique within the pantheon of the Warner Brothers gangster film catalogue.

    From there, cruise through the Warner Night At The Movies content that begins with a vintage newsreel from 1938 before moving on to a short from the Your True Adventure series entitled Night Intruder. After that it’s time for a musical short called Toyland Casino before checking out a classic cartoon entitled Count Me Out. Trailers for the feature and for 1938’s Racket Busters are also included.

    INVISIBLE STRIPES

    Film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini contribute another informative commentary track for this film. They begin by discussing how this film is a post code film and a picture that tries to reinvent the image of a gangster rather than to glorify it, thanks to pressure from the Catholic Church who claimed that ‘the Jews’ were corrupting the youth with their gangster films! From there they cover the style of the film and mention how much of this film is shot on the lot rather than on location, before detailing the cast and crew who worked on the picture. They point out that this picture is as much a social drama as it is a gangster film, as it covers the proletariat struggle for success, and they put out how much of the subtext in the film really backs this up. They compare much of what Holden’s character goes through to the Stations of the Cross and discuss the existential angle that the film takes, and they mention how the attitude and tone of the film was obviously shaped by what the country was going through politically and socially at the time that it was made. This is quite an informative and insightful discussion that is highbrow enough to be interesting but not in the least bit pretentious – good stuff!

    Also be on the look out for more Warner Night At The Movies content, this time made comprised of a 1939 newsreel, a Technicolor historical short film entitled The Monroe Doctrine, two musical short films entitled Mr. And Mrs. Jesse Crawford At Home and Quiet Please, a pair of classic cartoons entitled Bars And Stripes Forever and Hare-um Scare-um, and finally trailers for the feature and for the 1939 film You Can’t Get Away With Murder.

    KID GALLAHAD

    The commentary this time around comes courtesy of film historians Art Simon and Robert Sklar, both of whom are film studies teachers. They begin by talking about the Elvis Presley Kid Galahad which lead to this film being re-titled as The Battling Bellhop when it played on television in the sixties. From there the pair discuss why this is an important picture, even if in many regards it’s almost a forgotten film. They talk about the importance of the cast and about how the real combatants in the film aren’t the boxers but their managers. They discuss the film’s critical reception from its 1937 theatrical release before talking about the history of fight films and the portrayal of different ethnic types in the movie. They also cover the relationship between mother and son that makes up a big part of the film and shapes Robinson’s character quite a bit, noting how they talk to one another in Italian to give these scenes a true family feel. They compare the picture to a lot of other Warner pictures made around the same time and note a lot of similarities to what happens to many of the characters in this picture, particularly the females. There’s a bit of dead air here and there but generally this is a well paced discussion that is fairly scene specific and that does a good job of explaining and exploring the characters and their motivations in the film.

    The Warner Night At The Movies content on this disc is made up of a newsreel from 1937, a comedy short entitled The Postal Union, a short from the Your True Adventure series entitled Alibi Mark, three classic cartoons consisting of Egghead Rides Again, I Wanna Be A Sailor, and Porky’s Super Service and finally trailers for the feature and for 1937’s It’s Love I’m After.

    LARCENY INC.

    Film historians Haden Guest and Dana Polan contribute another decent commentary track for this film. This is a scholarly track that moves at a very quick pace. They talk about how from the opening sequence we seem to be in a genre different from what you expect from a gangster film. They then make the case that this picture is actually a comic deconstruction of the classic gangster film and back it up by pointing out many of the quirks and subtle humor that is used throughout the film. They talk about how Broderick Crawford’s character is intentionally played as a simpleton for comic effect and they discuss how the government’s crack down on gangster films at the time likely lead to the lighter, comedic tone of this picture. They also talk about how the gangsters in this picture become very patriotic by the end of the picture and how Robinson’s character states the virtues of capitalism despite the fact that when the movie begins, capitalism effectively works against him. They note a few risqué moments in the picture but also point out that ‘nothing deeply amorous goes on’ and that the focus remains on buffoonish comedy.

    Also look for more Warner Night At The Movies material, including a news reel from 1942, John Huston’s Oscar nominated short film Winning Your Wings, a classic cartoon entitled Porky’s Pastry Pirates, another classic cartoon entitled The Rabbit Who Came To Supper, and trailers for the feature and for 1942’s The Big Shot.

    THE LITTLE GIANT

    Extras include a commentary from film historians Daniel Bubbeo and John McCarty. The pair begin by setting the film into context, talking about the political climate in 1933 and how the inception of the code that was written in 1930 but didn’t really kick in until 1934 changed things quite a bit. This, being a pre-code film, allowed the filmmakers to use a lot of double entendres and dabble in subject matter that they would soon not be allowed to deal with thanks to pressure form the Catholic Church and rural censor boards. From there they talk about male/female relations in gangster films and how they had less to do with romance than they did to do with serving as a symbol of how much power these men had acquired and how they were essentially status symbols like cars, suits and possessions. They talk about Robinson as an actor, how in real life he was nothing like the gangsters he was famous for playing, and how in real life he was an ardent art collector right up until his death in 1973. They discuss the other cast members and discuss director Roy Del Ruth in a fair bit of detail and generally give us a very good overview of this history and importance of this particular gangster film.

    Also included are the requisite Warner Night At The Movies shorts, this time made up of a vintage news reel from 1933, a musical short called Use Your Imagination, a classic cartoon entitled The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon, and trailers for the feature and for 1933’s Hard To Handle.

    PUBLIC ENEMIES: THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE GANGSTER FILM

    The sixth film in the collection contains this all new 2008 documentary which looks back on the vintage crime films that Warner Brothers was churning out in the thirties and forties and evaluates them from a modern day perspective by tracing their influence to modern day crime films like Goodfellas, The Departed and other Scorcese films. This clip heavy feature length documentary explains the enduring appeal of the gangster movie and why theater audiences have always been fascinated by the criminal element in films. It’s explained how the gangster film is a genuine American art form, and how crime films have been around as early as 1900. Alec Baldwin’s narration puts everything into context while interviews with the likes of Scorsese, Mervyn LeRoy, snappy dresser extraordinaire Kim Newman, Robert Benton, and others cover the importance of writers like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who got their start writing about real life gangsters for Chicago newspapers in the era of prohibition and Al Capone. Nicholas Pellegi, Mardik Martin, John McCarty, Dr. Drew Casper, and plenty more add a lot of depth to this interesting documentary that clocks in at over an hour and forty five minutes in length by the time it’s all said and done.

    Also included on this sixth disc are some classic gangster themed cartoons entitled I Like Mountain Music, She Was An Acrobat’s Daughter, Rocketeer Rabbit and Bugs And Thugs. Each of the discs in this collection features static menus and chapter selection sub-menus.

    The Final Word:

    How Much mileage you get out of this set will depend on your appreciation for Edward G. Robinson’s action but if you’re a fan of the man or of vintage crime films in general you absolutely need this collection. Warner Brothers has done a wonderful job on the presentation and the movies all look great while the wealth of supplements add a lot of context and historical value to a very full, well rounded package. Bring on Volume 5!

    NOTE: At the time of this writing the films in this collection are not available individually, you can only get them through this boxed set collection.