Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

angelswithdirtyfaces_11Starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, The Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly), Frankie Burke, William Tracy

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Expectations: High.

fourstar


The future of our society is ultimately up to our children to carry forward, and thus it is our responsibility as adults to help make sure that these children grow up to be productive, responsible individuals. Angel with Dirty Faces builds its narrative around this idea, crafting a film that is equal parts entertainment and moral tale. It is usually billed as a gangster picture, and it does feature gangsters doing a lot of gangster stuff, but by focusing more on the next generation it transcends what we think of as the traditional gangster film.

Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are a couple of teenagers up to no good. They seem bored and disinterested in the normalcy of everyday life, always on the lookout for a good time. Rocky is clearly the more forceful of the two, goading Jerry into breaking into a train car with him to steal some fountain pens. They are quickly caught in the act and forced to make a break for it, but Rocky can’t quite run as fast as Jerry and he is arrested. Rocky’s fate is sealed in this event, marking the beginning to his life of crime and more than a few multi-year stays in prison.

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Federal Man-Hunt (1938)

federalmanhunt_1Federal Man-Hunt (1938)
AKA Flight from Justice

Starring Robert Livingston, June Travis, John Gallaudet, Charles Halton, Ben Welden, Horace McMahon, Gene Morgan, Matt McHugh, Jerry Tucker, Sibyl Harris, Margaret Mann, Frank Conklin, Gene Pearson

Directed by Nick Grinde

Expectations: Moderate.

twohalfstar


If the second half of Federal Man-Hunt was as enjoyable as the first half, we’d have a real barnburner on our hands. Instead, the second half decides to let almost all the air out of the balloon before redeeming itself by ending on a high note. And when I say “high note,” I’m talkin’ about a gangsters and coppers high-speed pursuit to a nondescript, mafia-run airfield. As you would expect, some of the cops are in standard police wagons, but it’s the cops who hitch a ride aboard an incredible all-terrain vehicle powered by tank treads that make the scene one to remember. Oh, and one of the cops is literally hanging on for dear life as the machine scales small hills and bounces towards the film’s conclusion.

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Adventure in Sahara (1938)

adventureinsahara_2Starring Paul Kelly, C. Henry Gordon, Lorna Gray, Robert Fiske, Marc Lawrence, Dick Curtis, Stanley Brown, Al Bridge, Ray Bennett, Charles R. Moore, Dwight Frye, Stanley Andrews

Directed by D. Ross Lederman

Expectations: Moderate.

twohalfstar


Adventure in Sahara opens with a lot of mystery. In Paris, a man on a runway receives a telegram just before he is to board a plane. The telegram states that his brother is dead and that he “would know the details.” Indeed, our man Jim did know the details, but he does not share them with us just yet. That’s where the mystery comes in! Anyway, he immediately leaves his job at the airport to join the Foreign Legion, and he asks the recruiting officer to station him under the command of Capt. Savatt. The officer agrees, and with that his Foreign Legion adventure begins!

By focusing on the trials of an entry-level soldier in the Foreign Legion, the film has something of a military vibe, but it actually feels like more of a western than anything else. The film is based around the solitary Fort Agadez in the middle of the Sahara desert, which is constantly under threat from savages Indians Arabs. Of course, this leads to a climax resembling a “Defend the Alamo” situation as the Arabs storm the fort, although in this “western” there are machine guns and hand grenades. Pretty fun stuff. Adventure in Sahara doesn’t necessarily live up to the adventure in its title, but it definitely delivers an interesting story and a fair amount of exotically skinned western action.

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Gangs of New York (1938)

gangsofnewyork_1Starring Charles Bickford, Ann Dvorak, Alan Baxter, Wynne Gibson, Harold Huber, Willard Robertson, Max ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom, Charles Trowbridge, John Wray, Jonathan Hale

Directed by James Cruze

Expectations: Moderate.

onehalfstar


Gangs of New York was the first full script that Sam Fuller wrote and sold on his own, so it’s something of a shame that it’s not a better movie. Of course, as a Fuller fan I can always point to the other writers’ names that appear above Fuller’s in the credits as the ones who screwed up the story, or perhaps director James Cruze. They’re the ones that took Fuller’s script and reshaped it into the film at hand, after all. But Sam Fuller, as great as he became, is not infallible, so I’m sure some of the blame is his too. But what makes me lean away from this notion (other than my fandom) is the opening shot of the film. Fuller included the beginning of his screenplay in his memoir, so this opening is without a doubt the creation of Fuller.

Technically, this wonderful shot is the film’s second, but it’s hard for me to count stock footage of an elevated train as a shot. Anyway, we open on a dingy looking business with a car sitting curbside. The street is silent, until the sound of gun fire ricochets out from the building. Three men quickly descend the stairs exiting the building, jumping inside the car just before it speeds away. An injured man stumbles in pursuit, firing a pistol at the getaway car before keeling over. Some bystanders rush to help him, and a policeman comes from behind the camera, walking into the foreground to blow his whistle. This is all contained in a single, static, incredible shot, dense with action and storytelling to whet the audience’s appetite for a thrilling gangster picture. It’s the first of many fantastic, gripping openings from Sam Fuller’s mind, but unfortunately that’s about all the Fuller influence to be found here… outside of a few shots of story events being broken in the newspapers (which hardly counts).

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Block-Heads (1938)

Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Patricia Ellis, Minna Gombell, Billy Gilbert, James Finlayson

Directed by John G. Blystone

Expectations: Not as treasured as Way Out West, but I remember loving this one as well in my youth.


For their next feature after Way Out West, Laurel and Hardy went contemporary. Block-Heads opens during World War I, as the tanks laboriously roll by and the soldiers march into certain death. Soon we focus down on a trench teeming with men, where Stan and Ollie prepare for war. But it’s not in the cards for Stan, as he is told decisively by his commanding officer to guard his post until told to do otherwise. Well, Ollie and the rest of the boys run out of the trench and Stan hangs back for the next twenty years. Yeah, he’s a block-head alright!

Block-Heads is an interestingly plotted film because unlike Way Out West which is pretty straightforward, Block-Heads tells a few different concurrent storylines and then has them all collide. In a way, it’s like the writers had a lot of leftover ideas and decided to throw them together, but that sounds like a unfair slight to a film that’s full of great gags and ideas. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that Block-Heads might start as a war-based comedy, but it quickly transitions to the home front, revealing itself to be more of a domestic, relationship comedy. Along the way to the domestic comedy, though, is a lot of “trying to get from point a to point b”, and that’s what makes up most of the runtime of Block-Heads.

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