Say Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and the triumvirate of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface immediately comes to mind. These films are, however, just the tip of the iceberg. In this season we showcase a selection of the best other gangster films from the “people’s studio”, with an emphasis upon two themes. First, what to do with the gangster now that the main reason for his existence, namely Prohibition, was at an end. Second, how to come to terms with the Studio Code and its injunctions that crime must not be seen to pay. The answer was films exploring different areas of gangsterism and films in which tough guys like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson engaged in similar violent actions, but now on the side of law, order and justice.
The Little Giant
Roy Del Ruth | USA | 1933 | 76 minutes
The era of the bootlegger is past but liquor runner Bugs Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson) has a plan for what he’ll do now that Prohibition is history. He decides to head for California’s posh, polo-playing Santa Barbara to become part of the high society. What he finds there – swindlers, gold diggers, great fun – makes first class entertainment in this pre-Code gem. Robinson shows his comedic chops for the first time, paving the way for such subsequent films as A Slight Case of Murder, Brother Orchid, Larceny, Inc. and more persona-skewering frolics.
Roy Del Ruth | USA | 1933 | 76 minutes
In one of his more comedic efforts, James Cagney plays Dan Quigley, a former con artist who goes to Hollywood to hide out and ends up becoming a star. Making it in show business may have its perks, but it also puts him in the spotlight and in jeopardy of being recognized by the thugs he ran away from. By turns, Lady Killer is a filmmaking spoof, a crime thriller and a character study. With Cagney’s vitality out front, it’s definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The likeable cast includes Mae Clarke, his co-star from Public Enemy and the recipient of the famous grapefruit.
William Keighley | USA | 1934 | 85 minutes
One year after graduation, New York lawywer Brick Davis (James Cagney) has no clients. His friend Eddie Buchanan tries to recruit him as a federal agent or “G Man” (government man), but Davis is not interested. However, when Buchanan is killed while trying to arrest a gangster, Davis changes his mind, determined to bring the killer to justice.
Bullets or Ballots
William Keighley | USA | 1936 | 82 minutes
After Police Captain Dan McLaren becomes police commissioner former detective Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson) knocks him down convincing rackets boss Al Kruger that Blake is sincere in his effort to join the mob. But “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart) harbours suspicions that Blake is a police agent.
Michael Curtiz | USA | 1937 | 102 minutes
This influential ring saga dramatically links professional boxing to criminal gambling. Edward G. Robinson is racketeer/fight promoter Nick Donati and tightly coiled Humphrey Bogart is Turkey Morgan. They’re rival promoters who, like fighters flinging kidney punches, end up swapping close-range bullets. Bette Davis plays the moll who has a soft spot for the bellhop (Wayne Morris) that Nick is grooming for the heavyweight title. And prolific Michael Curtiz directs this first of his six collaborations with Bogart that would include the romantic masterwork Casablanca and the sly comedy We’re No Angels.
The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse
Anatole Litvak | USA | 1938 | 87 minutes
Dr. Clitterhouse (Edward G. Robinson) is fascinated by the study of the physical and mental states of lawbreakers, so he joins a gang of jewel thieves for a closer look in this often amusing crime drama. Claire Trevor co-stars as a savvy crime queen, and Humphrey Bogart plays Rocks Valentine, whom Dr. C. calls “a magnificent specimen of pure viciousness.” The movie also marks the start of one of film’s most noteworthy collaborations. John Huston, who was to later direct Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, co-wrote the screenplay of The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.