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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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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Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

UnderworldUSA_1Starring Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay, Paul Dubov, Robert Emhardt, Larry Gates, Richard Rust, Gerald Milton, Allan Gruener, David Kent

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: High.

fourstar


Samuel Fuller is known as the director who makes direct films that punch you viscerally with their ferocity, but Underworld USA is perhaps the leanest, meanest, most consistently thrilling Sam Fuller picture I’ve seen yet. Not only is this one instantly rocketing up near the top of my favorite Sam Fuller movies, there are few noir films that I enjoy as much as this one. I must admit that I’m not as well-versed as I ought to be in the noir genre, but if there were more noir films as jam-packed with excitement as Underworld USA is, that might be a different story. It’s absolutely criminal that Underworld USA isn’t better known and respected. Who knew that one of the best noirs out there was made in the ’60s?

As all Fuller films do, Underworld USA begins with a strong premise. We meet Tolly Devlin, a 14-year-old kid hiding out in an alleyway, waiting for his opportunity to lift some valuables from drunk New Year’s Eve partygoers. He is firmly entrenched in the criminal lifestyle, and soon we learn why. His father is a career criminal, but tonight is not his lucky night. Tolly watches four men beat his father to death in the alley. He only sees the face of one of the men, but when given the opportunity to tell the cops what he saw, he refuses. Instead, he bides his time as a career criminal like his father, working towards the day when he might exact revenge on the men responsible for his father’s murder.

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Into the Abyss (2011)

Starring Fred Allen, Jason Burkett, Melyssa Burkett, Werner Herzog, Michael Perry, Jeremy Richardson, Adam Stotler, Sandra Stotler, Kristen Willis

Directed by Werner Herzog

Expectations: Very high. I love Werner Herzog’s documentaries.


Werner Herzog set out to document and interview the death row inmates of five murder trials for a TV miniseries, but while working on this project, one of the stories caught his fancy and he decided to expand that case into a feature-length documentary. This, obviously, is that case, and while it doesn’t immediately strike you as one worth devoting an entire film to, it slowly unfurls itself in ways you don’t expect and it becomes apparent why. At least, in so much as the reasons of a man I’ve never met can become apparent to me.

The case is a triple murder carried out by two teenagers, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. I had typed out a fairly detailed description of the basic murder, but then I realized that in this case a basic plot synopsis would undermine the entire drive of the documentary for those looking to see it. So, these kids performed three murders in 2000, one of them was sentenced to death and Herzog filmed his interviews with this man, Michael Perry, eight days before his execution. Herzog also interviews people surrounding the murders, including the other family members left behind, prison chaplains, and ex-Death Row guards.

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SPL (2005)

SPL [殺破狼] (2005)
AKA Sha Po Lang, Kill Zone

Starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Simon Yam, Liu Kai-Chi, Jacky Wu Jing, Timmy Hung Tin-Ming, Ken Cheung Chi-Yiu, Austin Wai Tin-Chi, Uncle Ba Suk, Danny Summer

Directed by Wilson Yip

Expectations: High. I’m totally stoked to be wowed.


OK, right off the bat I just want to say that this is definitely not the revelation in martial arts cinema I was led to believe it was. In 2005, Hong Kong films had fallen into disrepair, cranking out ugly CG-aided fights with their greatest stars off to find their fortunes in Hollywood. Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen, tired of this bullshit and wishing to recapture the 80s/90s glory days, created SPL, a film that would feature fights as they were done in the past. This was a line in the sand to everyone else, to prove definitively that fantastic martial arts choreography and performers trump any and all CG bullshit. In that, they handily succeeded, but in the grand scheme of things, SPL isn’t worthy of the high praise.

The film opens with a car crash. A group of cops were transporting a witness, his wife and their daughter when an assassin rammed them with his car. It instantly killed everyone except for two of the cops and the little girl, and it was yet another crime added to the résumé of Wong Po (Sammo Hung). Because the witness was unable to testify, Wong Po was released, but Inspector Chan (Simon Yam) vows to nail his ass at some indeterminate time in the future. Donnie Yen gets roped into this struggle later in the film, and there’s some personal melodrama draped over the whole thing, but that’s it in a nutshell.

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The Arriviste (2012)

Starring Eamon Speer, Mark Fernandes, Gary Devirgilio, Tom Morwick, Raymond Turturro, Paige Ambroziak, Sam Charny, P.J. Cross

Directed by Paschal Santschi


Most low-budget films go the horror route, and while the intro to The Arriviste features a dude getting his hand chopped off, it is quickly apparent that the goal is something other than gory trash. The Arriviste is a mystery crime film, and one that is perhaps more interesting for its backstory than its actual contents. The Arriviste is special in the realm of low-budget, independent filmmaking because Paschal Santschi, the man behind nearly everything in the film, chose to shoot the picture on 35mm film. But wait, isn’t that cost-prohibitive for an indie movie? Usually it is, but by shooting on leftover film from other productions (an old trick used by many budding filmmakers) and by cutting the film’s crew to basically just himself, he kept the total cost for the production just under $10,000. It’s a remarkable feat and is worthy of praise just for the fact that he did it. What’s impressive about The Arriviste though, is that it actually manages to be a good film too! This is an accomplishment in and of itself, as most truly independent productions (as this is) are amateurish at best. The Arriviste remains professional and the 35mm looks great throughout, making for an enjoyable, twisty little movie.

As I mentioned above, the film opens with a man, William, getting his hand chopped off. This sets into motion a cascading series of events involving William’s unfound dead body that doesn’t let up until the final frame. Our main character is Nick, the brother of William, a simple guy doing his best to live out a small existence in his minuscule apartment as he counts off the days of his probation. William left him a note and some keys to an apartment, leading Nick to start an informal investigation into finding his brother’s body. Along the way he comes into contact with a colorful cast of unsympathetic characters that seek to obstruct his way however they can.

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