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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Gangs of the Waterfront (1945)

gangs_2Starring Robert Armstrong, Stephanie Bachelor, Martin Kosleck, Marion Martin, William Forrest, Wilton Graff, Eddie Hall, Jack O’Shea, Davison Clark, Dick Elliott

Directed by George Blair

Expectations: Moderate.

onehalfstar


Gangs of the Waterfront isn’t so much a sequel to Gangs of New York as it is a follow-up, and by “follow-up” I mean a film that just uses the same premise to build a movie on. So if you enjoy the type of movie where a gangster is impersonated by someone who happens to look exactly like him, then these two movies are nothing but sweet bread and butter. If, on the other hand, you’re me and you just watched Gangs of New York not too long ago (and weren’t too thrilled with it), Gangs of the Waterfront is going to hit you in roughly the same way.

This is going to seem obvious, but honestly the main difference between the films is that these gang members are the ones running the waterfront. It’d be hard to know this if you missed the film’s title, though, as outside of a few foggy waterfront warehouses, most of the film takes place in apartment buildings and offices. Gangs of the Waterfront is a low-budget film, without even the benefit of stock footage to sell itself, so instead of wasting money on waterfront sets, the producers apparently decided to combat this problem by having an incessant foghorn blaring over probably 75% of the movie, no matter what the location is. It’s so annoying! And it also had the side effect of lulling me into a light sleep at times.

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Man of Iron (1972)

manofiron_6Man of Iron [仇連環] (1972)
AKA Dirty Chan, Warrior of Steel

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Wong Chung, Chu Mu, Tin Ching, Bolo Yeung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Pao Chia-Wen, Chiang Tao, Li Min-Lang, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheung Ging-Boh, Chan Chuen

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


Man of Iron immediately sets itself up as a sequel to The Boxer from Shantung, but the only returning character is the street where everything happens. I’ve also heard the film referred to as a remake of the previous film, but this is also a misnomer as the stories are vastly different. The Boxer from Shantung is a re-telling of the classic gangster tale Scarface, but Man of Iron bears little resemblance to this rag-to-riches gangster tragedy. Instead, we just have Chen Kuan-Tai playing a character who wants to move up in the gangster hierarchy, but the characters themselves, while sharing some similar goals, are pretty far from being actually similar.

Man of Iron is set 20 years after the end of The Boxer from Shantung. The street and the people who populate it have moved on, and new gangs have grown to control the area. There are two major gang bosses: Chang Gen Bao (Chu Mu) and Yu Zhen-Ting (Yeung Chi-Hung). One day, Yu Chow-Kai (Tin Ching), the son of the gang boss Yu, is gambling and has all of his money taken by Qiu Lian-Huan (Chen Kuan-Tai), a man with a small gang of friends that’s tired of being small time. Yu’s son is a man who has inherited his place in the gangster world, so he is easily bested and intimated by Qiu, a man who has fought to be where he is.

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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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The Boxer from Shantung (1972)

boxerfromshantung_6The Boxer from Shantung [馬永貞] (1972)
AKA Ma Yong Zhen, The Shantung Boxer, The Killer from Shantung

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Cheng Kang-Yeh, David Chiang, Chiang Nan, Fung Ngai, Ku Feng, Tin Ching, Wong Ching, Mario Milano, Chan Ho, Lee Man-Tai, Liu Wai, Shum Lo

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


Ma Yong Zhen (Chen Kuan-Tai) has recently moved to Shanghai from the country with his best friend, and he’s sure that the good days will come. A chance meeting with local crime boss Master Tan Si (David Chiang in a fantastic small role) introduces Ma to a different way of life, one that he’d like to live for himself. Yes, The Boxer from Shantung is a Shaw Brothers version of the Scarface story (11 years prior to Brian De Palma’s famous remake), but honestly, the crime story — while skillfully told and engaging — is also one of the film’s weaknesses for modern viewers. We’ve just seen this kind of film far too many times to truly lose ourselves in all the characters’ struggles, although with all the fun martial arts battles, you could definitely do a lot worse than The Boxer from Shantung.

The film is notable for introducing the world to Chen Kuan-Tai, and there couldn’t have been a better story for him to debut with. By showing his character’s rise, we are able to watch Chen Kuan-Tai flex his acting skill along with his martial abilities. He is skilled in both regards, and almost single-handedly makes The Boxer from Shantung a remarkable film to watch. Chen exhibits no nervousness or shaky acting. He is a force of resolute, badass charm throughout the film, exuding star power and raw energy. Throughout the film he always retains his decency, so the character never falls so deep into self-destruction that he becomes unlikeable. This role could have easily gone to Ti Lung to make this yet another Ti Lung/David Chiang/Chang Cheh film, but Chang Cheh wisely cast the newcomer in the role of the fresh-faced guy looking for his big break. With an actual fresh face in the role, we’re sucked into the story all the more and the film feels distinct and different from the previous films of Chang Cheh.

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Goodfellas (1990)

Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: High. Love it, does it hold up?


If someone were to tell me that they thought Goodfellas was Scorsese’s best film, I really couldn’t argue with them. I might not agree but it is a completely valid position, as Goodfellas is one of the best films of the 1990s and still holds up today. The film is just as skillfully made as you remember it being, 20 years later. Goodfellas opens in the middle of the story, in the middle of a scene even, after some minimalist but effective Saul Bass titles. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci drive through the dark of night when strange sounds come from the back of the car. They pull over and open the trunk, revealing a bloody mess of a man. Joe Pesci violently stabs him repeatedly before De Niro opens fire. Liotta chimes in via voiceover, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This scene serves as an introduction to the film, but repeat viewers will recognize it also as one of the most important moments in these character’s lives, defining and shaping everything that ultimately comes to each of them.

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