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Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-ray Review

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#1 of 7 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

Ken_McAlinden

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Posted May 21 2013 - 08:18 PM

Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-ray Review

Warner Bros studio is celebrating their gangster film heritage this May via the release of two "Ultimate Gangsters Collection" Blu-Ray sets with subtitles of "Classics" and "Contemporary". While the "Contemporary" set consists of five previously released films (four from Warner Bros. and one from Paramount), the "Classics" set includes four films making their Blu-ray debut. These include LIttle Caesar and The Public Enemy, two films from the early sound era that defined the genre and featured break-out star-making performances from Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Also part of the collection is The Petrified Forest, an adaptation of a hit dramatic stage play featuring a career-making supporting performance from Humphrey Bogart as a world-weary gangster. The fourth and best film in the collection is White Heat, which reunited James Cagney with Warner Bros. in 1949 for what proved to be his valedictory gangster role as the volcanic oedipal Cody Jarrett. All titles are being released separately, but those purchasing the collection will also receive an SD DVD of the feature length documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film, a 34 page hardcover book, and deluxe packaging.


Cover Art


Studio: Warner Brothers

Distributed By: N/A

Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Audio: English 1.0 DTS-HDMA (Mono)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French, Other

Rating: Not Rated

Run Time: 5 Hr. 57 Min.

Package Includes: Blu-ray, DVD

in "fat" Blu-ray case with two hinged trays bound with hardcover book in a sturdy cardboard keepcase.

Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer), BD25 (single layer)

Region: A

Release Date: 05/21/2013

MSRP: $49.99




The Production Rating: 4.5/5

Little Caesar ***½
(1931 - Warner Bros. - 78 Minutes)

Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Ince, Thomas E. Jackson, Stanley Fields, Maurice Black

In Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson plays "Rico" Bandello, aka "Little Caesar", a thinly veiled surrogate for then contemprary gangster Al Capone. The film tracks Rico's ruthless rise to the top tier of a criminal organisation. Along the way, Rico's singular dedication to "be somebody" comes at the expense of almost anything and anyone who crosses his path. A night club robbery that turns homicidal results in Rico eventually assuming the leadership of a criminal gang previously led by Sam Vettori (Fields). These same events also put Rico firmly in the crosshairs of determined Police Sergeant Flaherty (Jackson) and rival gang boss Little Arnie Lorch. When Rico's only real friend Joe (Fairbanks) seeks to exit the criminal life and become a dancer paired with his girlfriend Olga (Farrell), Rico threatens them both, leading to a fateful confrontation with the former friends as well as the police.

While not the first cinematic depiction of organized crime on film, Little Caesar is the prototype of the modern gangster film thanks to the strangely charismatic antihero at its center. If one simply read a continuity script for the film, he or she would be hard pressed to find anything interesting or even remotely likable about Rico. He has no interest in money, women, or anything except for power, he treats his friends as terribly as his enemies, and he has no backstory establishing his motivations. He is effectively presented as a psychologically blank sociopath climbing through a criminal organization.

What is fascinating about the film is how Edward G. Robinson fills in the blanks via a forceful and charismatic performance. The viewer is hard pressed to take their eyes off of him whenever he is on screen. The film is crudely plotted and the actors playing Rico's associates and rivals come across as wooden and lifeless, but whenever Robinson is on screen, no matter what heinous activity Rico is essaying, it comes to cigar-chomping life. This makes scenes involving the romance between Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Glenda Farrell a tough slog, but director Mervyn LeRoy seems to have been aware of this and spends no more time on this subplot than is absolutely necessary to set up the pieces for the main plot. Aside from Robinson's iconic take on Rico, the only other actor who manages to make a lasting impression in the film is Thomas E. Jackson as Police Sergeant Flaherty. Jackson approaches his part with a detached cool confidence that is the perfect foil for Robinson's raging id of a gangster.

The Public Enemy ****½
(1931 - Warner Bros. - 84 Minutes)

Directed by: William Wellman

Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook, Beryl Mercer, Murray Kinnell, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Leslie Fenton

In The Public Enemy, James Cagney plays Tom Powers, a kid who, despite a stern father, a caring mother (Mercer), and a straight arrow brother Mike (Cook), drifts into a life of crime with his pal Matt Doyle (Woods). Tom and Matt's burgeoning criminal career comes to an abrupt halt after a bungled heist leads to the deaths of a fellow gang member and a police officer. They find themselves unceremoniously abandoned by crimnal patron "Putty Nose" (Kinnell), and narrowly avoid arrest and incarceration. In 1920, Prohibition opens up new criminal opportunities, and Tom and Matt find success under the wing of Paddy Ryan (O'Connor), a high ranking lieutenant to rum-running gang leader Nails Nathan (Fenton). Tom's ruthlessness proves effective in keeping the customers for Nathan's booze in line and up to date with payments, and he achieves financial success. When Nathan suffers an unexpected accident, Tom, Matt, and Paddy find themselves in the middle of a brutal gang war that will test exactly how tough they are.

Premiering only three months after Little Caesar, The Public Enemy features a much more sophisticated plot and another iconic antihero star-making performance, this time from James Cagney. Cagney's Tom Powers prowls through the film like a jungle cat always sizing up his next prey. While every bit the sociopath that Rico is in Little Caesar, Cagney's Tom Powers is given a backstory and some sympathetic traits, such as loyalty to his friends and associates, that make his fall into criminal activity more dramatically satisfying than that of Robinson's Rico. All of the physical traits and vocal tics that would define Cagney's movie star persona for the following two decades and change are fully on display in this performance.

The Public Enemy also benefits from an appealing supporting cast, with Cagney's fellow gang members exhibiting strangely charming personality quirks that are almost like Damon Runyon characters but with legitimate criminal menace intact. While female characters are generally given short shrift, the actresses playing them make the most of what little they are given. Jean Harlow, in an early role predating her ascendance as a major star at MGM, makes some bizarre but interesting choices as a Moll in whom Cagney takes an interest. Her scenes almost feel like clips from a completely different movie, but it is at least a movie I would want to see. Mae Clark famously demonstrates that she knows how to take a grapefruit in the face, and her small role here served as a prelude to two more significant roles in 1931 films Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein at Universal. She would be re-paired with Cagney for more cave man abuse in the comically-slanted gangster film Lady Killer in 1933.

The Petrified Forest ****
(1936 - Warner Bros. - 82 Minutes)

Directed by: Archie Mayo

Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Humphrey Bogart, Joe Sawyer, Porter Hall, Charley Grapewin, Paul Harvey

The Petrified Forest faithfully adapts a then popular stage play by Robert E. Sherwood. Bette Davis plays Gabrielle Maple, a waitress at a diner attached to a service station in central Arizona near the titular location. Gabrielle lives in a home attached to the diner with her father (Hall) and her grandfather (Grapewin). Seemingly resigned to some day giving in to the romantic advances of dim bulb sports obsessed co-worker Boze (Foran), the arrival of Alan (Howard) a British drifter and failed writer at the diner ignites her imagination, worldly ambition, and a flicker of romance. Radio announcements throughout the film's first act about a fugitive bank robber and murderer prove prescient when Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his gang arrive at the Diner taking all those inside hostage while they await a rendez vous with Duke's woman. Alan recognizes a desperate kindred spirit in Duke and eventually makes a startling request of him.

The Petrified Forest hews closely to its stage-bound source material, occasionally to a fault, but proves to be a satisfying viewing experience thanks primarily to its top-notch cast. Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart had recently completed an extended run in the Broadway production, and knew the material and each other's timing inside and out. Davis and Howard had previously exhibited on-screen chemistry in 1934's Of Human Bondage and it remains intact with this film.

While Howard's extended philosophical monologues could have used a bit of judicious editing, his onscreen chemistry with Davis, Bogart, and the colorful supporting cast help to carry viewers through the occasional slow patches. The film also benefits from the unusual for the time decision by the studio to stick to their dramatic guns and refrain from engineering a more upbeat ending than the source play. Reportedly such an ending was shot, but it tested so poorly with audiences that the producers reverted to the more faithful and fateful original ending.

White Heat *****
(1949 - Warner Bros. - 113 Minutes)

Directed by: Raoul Walsh


Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark

White Heat features James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, a ruthless leader of a criminal gang who we meet as they are pulling off a daring and murderous train heist. Among Jarrett's crew are his wife Verna (Mayo), Big Ed Somers (Cochran), and his tough as nails mother (Wycherly). responding to the heat brought on by the dogged pursuit by US Treasury agents led by Philip Evans (Archer), Jarrett conceives of a clever plan. He confesses to a crime in another state that will result in a 1-2 year jail sentence at most and serve as his alibi for the train heist which would have resulted in the death penalty. While serving his time, Jarrett learns from his mother that Verna and Big Ed are conspiring against him and that BIg Ed is likely working to have him killed in prison. After a murder attempt by an agent of Big Ed's, Cody befriends Vic Pardo (O'Brien), the cellmate who saved his life. Little does Cody suspect that Pardo is really an undercover Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. A prison escape places Cody, Hank, Verna, and Big Ed on a collision course towards an explosive finale.

White Heat is by far the best film in this collection and one of my personal all time favorite action films. The film constituted James Cagney's return to the studio and genre that made him a star eighteen years after his breakthrough in The Public Enemy. White Heat has a little something for anyone interested in the action, heist, gangster, police procedural, prison, or film noir genres. Cagney explodes off the screen every bit as much as he did in his younger days, and he is ably supported by a cast including Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Steve Cochran, and especially Margaret Wycherly as his tough as nails mother who constantly assures her son that he is headed for the "top of the world".

Warner action master Raoul Walsh keeps things moving like a house on fire for the entire hour and 53 minute running time starting with an elaborate train heist, continuing with the subsequent cat and mouse games played with savvy and technologically sophisticated Treasury agents, and then keeping his editorial foot on the throttle for every twist, turn and double cross leading up to the literally explosive finale.


Ultimate Gangster Collection (Classic) - Little Caesar - Gunmen

Ultimate Gangster Collection (Classic) - White Heat - Big Ed


Video Rating: 3.5/5  3D Rating: NA

All films in this collection are represented by a black and white 1080P AVC encoded presentations "Pillarboxed" to a 4:3 aspect ratio appropriate for their original theatrical presentation dimensions.

Little Caesar **

Little Caesar is the oldest and least impressive of the video renderings in this collection. Detail is very limited to the point that subjective improvement over the previously released SD DVD is marginal at best. This is both a credit to the transfer and compression of the older SD release and an indication of limitations in the source element. Contrast occasionally waivers between blooming whites and crushed blacks, although overall shadow detail is adequate despite some density fluctuations during the thinner negative scenes. Damage is largely cleaned up, although the final 20 minutes of the film are plagued by occasional vertical scratches that sometimes last for multiple seconds.

The Public Enemy ***

The Public Enemy is less than one year younger, but is visually a substantial step up from Little Caesar. It features greatly improved detail and a more consistent rendering of contrast. Film damage is also less evident, although there are still more visible scratches than the two newer films in this set. The vertical scratches appear much less frequently and for a shorter duration than on Little Caesar. Video quality diminishes greatly, but understandably, during a couple of segments that have been restored from censored cuts of the film. One involves and early scene of Cagney and Woods interacting with a very effeminate tailor. The second occurs late in the film and involves the moll of Robert Emmett O'Connor's character coming on to a drunk Cagney on a bed.

The Petrified Forest ****

Despite being shot by brilliant cinematographer Sol Polito, The Petrified Forest is the least visually interesting film in this collection. Polito's lighting is as expert as usual, but Director Archie Mayo's fondness for long static two shots and close-ups does not match the compositional flair of Little Caesar or The Public Enemy, let alone the kinetic editorial pace of White Heat. Fortunately for the viewers and in defense of Mayo's decisions, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis are among the best actors in close-up in the history of cinema, so the film itself still plays well. Having established that caveat, The Petrified Forest receives the overall best visual presentation of the four films in this set. Detail is very good with a noticeable improvement in texture over previous standard definition renderings, film grain looks very natural, and contrast is pleasingly consistent from reel to reel.

White Heat ****

White Heat is a step up from even The Petrified Forest in terms of fine image detail, but is marred somewhat by an inconsistent level of contrast, with some dark scenes falling off to black a bit faster than others. It is otherwise of very high quality and rewards the viewer upgrading to high definition in non-subtle ways.



Audio Rating: 3/5

Little Caesar & The Public Enemy **

The Petrified Forest & White Heat ***½


All films feature their original English language soundtracks encoded as lossless DTS-HD MA mono audio. Little Caesar and The Public Enemy have a very limited range of frequency with almost no high end at all and less bass than was typically heard on Warner's earlier sound on disc Vitaphone soundtracks. Noise reduction appears to have been applied with a fairly heavy hand and artifacts, such as "noise gates" lifting and closing, can be clearly discerned at medium to loud volume letters.

The Petrified Forest is a significant step up in audio quality over the two older films in the set with a much fuller range of frequency. Hiss is audible, but signal to noise ratio is quite high and overall audio fidelity benefits from a light hand on the digital noise reduction tools. White Heat is a slight step up from The Petrified Forest with less audible hiss on the track, but still no distracting noise reduction artifacts.

Alternate Language Options

In addition to English DTS-HD MA mono tracks and English SDH subtitles, the films have various combinations of alternate language Dolby Digital Mono tracks and subtitle tracks as detailed below:


Little Caesar

Spoken Languages: German, Spanish (Castilian)
Subtitles: French, German SDH, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin), Portuguese

The Public Enemy

Spoken Languages: German
Subtitles: French, German SDH, Korean, Spanish (Latin), Portuguese

The Petrified Forest

Spoken Languages: German, Spanish (Latin), Portuguese
Subtitles: French, German SDH, Spanish (Latin), Portuguese

White Heat

Spoken Languages: German, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin), Portuguese
Subtitles: French, German SDH, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin), Portuguese



Special Features Rating: 4/5

Extras on the feature film discs are all carried over from the previous SD DVD releases with no apparent upgrade in audio or video. They are presented in AVC encoded 480i SD 4:3 black and white video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound unless otherwise indicated below.

Little Caesar

Commentary by Film Historian Richard B. Jewell offers the most literally screen specific commentary on this collection as Jewell has an interesting bit of history or trivia to offer up on just about every scene in the film as well as some biographical information on the cast and filmmakers and historical context for the film in terms of both the era it represents and cinematic conventions of the time.

Warner Night at the Movies is a collection of vintage features that are roughly contemporaneous with Little Caesar. These vintage features can be watched individually or via a "Play All" selection that plays them straight through and then launches into the disc's feature film:
  • Leonard Maltin Intro (4:07) Welcomes viewers to the movie and offers an overview of the vintage features from the Warner Bros. Studio New York street set.
  • Five Star Final Theatrical Trailer (1:56) promotes the tabloid journalism feature starring Edward G. Robinson
  • Newsreel (1:47) - Hearst Metrotone News clip of an interview with "Kiki" Roberts, the girlfriend of recently murdered gangster Legs Diamond
  • The Hard Guy Theatrical Short (6:28) is a Vitaphone one-reeler featuring a 30 year old Spencer Tracy as an out of work husband and father of a sick child whose wife, played by Katherine Alexander frets that he will take up a life of crime to make ends meet.
  • Lady, Play Your Mandolin! (7:17) is a Harman-Ising musical animated Short from the "Merrie Melodies" series featuring the character of "Foxy".
Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero (17:09) is an efficient and informative talking head and film clips featurette on the film. Topics covered include the early history of the gangster film, the Great Depression/Prohibition era, the Warner Bros. "ripped from the headlines" approach to topical films as spearheaded by Jack Warner and Daryl Zanuck, The W.R. Burnett source novel, the parallels with Al Capone, the controversy over the film's perceived glamorization of criminals, and the casting of Edward G. Robinson. Comments are provided by Author/Film Critic Gerald Peary, NYU Professor of Film Robert Sklar, Film Director Martin Scorsese, Author Mark. A. Vieira, USC Professor of Film Dr. Drew Casper, Author and Film Critic Andrew Sarris, and (via a vintage interview) Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Filmmaker/Film Historian Alain Silver.

Rerelease Foreword (:45) is a brief text scroll that preceded the theatrical re-release of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in the mid -1950s. It is a helpful reminder that crime is bad for any who could not figure that out on their own.

Theatrical Trailer (2:08) begins with some fairly crude graphics before assembling some fairly lengthy film clips and returning to the tommy gun graphics. Trailers did not quite have the editorial sophistication that they would develop over the next decade.

The Public Enemy

Commentary by Robert Sklar is another screen specific track that is chock full of interesting facts about the film and the people who made it. He rarely lacks for anything to say to say, and whenever he runs out of biographical information, and production stories, he falls back on an interesting analysis of the differences and similarities between the film and its Beer and Bloodi source novel.

Warner Night at the Movies is a collection of vintage features that are roughly contemporaneous with The Public Enemy. These vintage features can be watched individually or via a "Play All" selection that plays them straight through and then launches into the disc's feature film:
  • Introduction by Leonard Maltin (3:16) features Maltin on the Warner Bros. Studio lot welcoming viewers to the movie before offering an overview of the vintage features to follow.
  • Blonde Crazy Theatrical Trailer (2:37) promotes the film starring Cagney and Joan Blondell
  • Newsreel (1:34) features young women training for the 1932 Olympic games
  • The Eyes Have It Theatrical Short (9:57) is a one reeler starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen as an optometrist with Charlie McCarthy as his patient.
  • Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! Cartoon (7:00) Harman-Ising Merrie Melodies cartoon featuring Foxy and friends operating a train car and performing the upbeat title song.
Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public (color - 19:37) is another short and sweet talking head, film clip, and vintage still featurette that covers topics including the source material for the film, the casting including the flip flopping of Cagney and Edward Woods' roles, Jean Harlow, Director William Wellman, the notorious grapefruit scene, the film's approach to depicting violence, the film's use of arranged source music in lieu of a traditional score, and James Cagney's influence on film acting. On screen comments are provided by Scorsese, Sklar, Silver, Casper, and Vieira.

Rerelease Foreword (:45) is a brief text scroll that preceded the theatrical re-release of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in the mid -1950s. It is a helpful reminder that crime is bad for any who could not figure that out on their own.

Theatrical Trailer (:48) is an unusually brief teaser that takes the novel approach of eschewing any scenes from he film and instead getting by with nothing but hyperbolic graphics and text.

The Petrified Forest

Commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax is a bit heavier on biographical details than the other commentaries in this set, but still features wall to wall information and trivia including interesting information about the adaptation and the film's ending in particular.

Warner Night at the Movies is a collection of vintage features that are roughly contemporaneous with The Petrified Forest, these vintage features can be watched individually or via a "Play All" selection that plays them straight through and then launches into the disc's feature film:
  • Intro from Leonard Maltin (3:13) provides a welcome to the viewer and an overview of the upcoming vintage features to come
  • Bullets or Ballots theatrical trailer (3:02) pitches the William Keighley directed film starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Humphrey Bogart
  • Newsreel (3:24) covers the abdication of Edward VIII and reelection of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Rhythmitis Musical Short (19:37) is an entertaining two-reeler featuring Hal LeRoy and Toby Wing
  • The Coo Coo Nut Grove Animated Short (Color - 6:46) is a Technicolor entry from the Merrie Melodies series directed by Friz Freleng that caricatures various Hollywood celebrities.
The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert (Color - 15:50) is another talking head, film clip, and vintage still featurette that covers topics including Bogart's breakthrough performance as Mantee on stage and screen, Leslie Howard's advocacy of Bogart for the screen role, the unique blend of gangster conventions and western mythology, the proto-noirish visual and thematic elements of the film, the unusual for its time ending and Warner's effort to hedge against it by shooting an alternate ending that ultimately was not used. On-screen comments are provided by Silver, Lax, Vieira, Sklar, Sarris, and Casper.

1/7/1940 Gulf Screen Theater Radio Adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, and Joan Bennett (28:58) features Bogart returning to his breakthrough role in an abbreviated radio play.

Theatrical Trailer (4:15) is a lengthy trailer that focuses on the reuniting of Howard and Davis, presumably from Of Human Bondage, although it seems to falsely suggest they were in The Petrified Forest on Broadway, before getting into the plot and character details. Bogart's Duke Manatee is billed as "The most terrible character since the Cagney of Public Enemy"

White Heat

Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper is effectively an audio essay/lecture with occasional screen-specific interjections, but Casper breathlessly fills the track with so much history and behind the scenes information on the film, that you will not mind. He does slow down towards the end of the film, and is at that point mostly reiterating points he made earlier in the track that are illustrated by events playing out on film.

Warner Night at the Movies s a collection of vintage features that are roughly contemporaneous with The Petrified Forest, these vintage features can be watched individually or via a "Play All" selection that plays them straight through and then launches into the disc's feature film
  • Introduction from Leonard Martin (2:58) provides background on Hollywood circa 1949 and previews the vintage features to come.
  • The Fountainhead Theatrical Trailer (2:18) promotes the King Vidor directed adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal
  • Newsreel (1:30) includes vintage clips of recently elected US President Harry Truman
  • So You Think You're Not Guilty Theatrical Short (10:29) is an amusing entry in the series of "Joe McDoakes" one-reelers starring George O'Hanlon as McDoakes. In this feature Joe's stubborn refusal to pay a $2 traffic fine spins comically out of control.
  • Homeless Hare Cartoon (Color - 7:06) is Technicolor animated short from the Merrie Melodies series directed by Chuck Jones. It features Bugs Bunny pursuing comedic vengeance on a construction worker who digs up his rabbit hole home.
White Heat: Top of the World (Color - 16:55) is another talking head, film clip, and vintage still featurette that covers topics including Cagney's history with Warner Bros., the character of Cody Jarrett and Cagney's approach to him, Virginia Mayo, the film's Oedipal theme and actress Margaret Wycherly, the film's place in the larger context of the gangster and noir genres. On-screen comments are provided by Casper, Scorsese, Silver, Sklar, Film Scholar Dr. Lincoln D. Hurst, Vieira, Sarris, Lax, and (via an archival interview) Virginia Mayo.

Theatrical Trailer (2:25) plugs the film as "Your kind of Cagney in his kind of story", and I find it tough to argue with that.

Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film

Appearing on its own SD DVD disc, this documentary was previously released on the Warner Bros. Pictures Gangster Collection Vol. 4 DVD box set from 2008. My comments on it are largely excerpted from my HTF review of that set. The documentary, directed By Constantine Nasr, runs 106 minutes and is presented in 16:9 enhanced color video. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with alternate English SDH or French subtitles.

The core of the documentary consists of a number of interviews with an international collection of film scholars, including Sheri Chinen Biesen, Tony Maietta, John McCarty, Kim Newman, Jeffrey Vance, and Mark Vieira. We also hear from filmmakers attuned to the genre such as Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi, and Robert Benton. The interviews are complimented by archival first person accounts from important filmmakers in the genre such as directors Mervyn LeRoy and Raoul Walsh and actress Joan Leslie. Generous amounts of clips and behind the scenes photos are used to illustrate the films being discussed. The interviews and clips are held together by off-screen narration by Alec Baldwin.

This documentary offers a fine history of the genre as well as a broader look at the history of crime on film. This is quite a range of years to cover when one considers that it begins with the first substantial narrative feature, The Great Train Robbery from 1903.

It follows the genre roughly chronologically after that beginning with significant silent films and taking quite a bit of time to cover the breakthrough "pre-code" talkies "Little Caesar", "The Public Enemy", and "Scarface". Other topics include the adaptations of the genre that were necessary to address both its fundamental limitations and the enforcement of the Production Code beginning in 1934. These included the casting of gangster stars as agents of the law in films like G-Men, infusing the gangsters with consciences and forcing them to confront even worse gangsters (enter Humphrey Bogart as Warner Bros. go-to "worse-guy"), and genre-bending twists like gangster comedies. Eventually, the documentary discusses the influence of the Golden Age gangster films on subsequent features ranging from postwar noirs to modern-day crime films such as Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Departed. Interestingly, no mention is made of The Godfather and its sequels. Paramount generally resists having those films lumped in with other "gangster" pictures as if the genre were some kind of pejorative. If anything, this documentary makes a pretty good case that the genre is flexible enough to encompass everything from low comedies to hard-boiled action programmers to Oscar-worthy epic family sagas like Coppola's films.

Along the way, the film also offers biographical and professional notes on significant personalities both in front of and behind the camera involved with the production of these films.

The Public Enemies: the Golden Age of the Gangster Film DVD also includes a series of bonus gangster-themed cartoons which are described below:

I Like Mountain Music (6:56) is a 1933 Harman-Ising Merrie Melodies cartoon following what would become a familiar "magazine covers come to life" plot. There is very little gangster related material in this until close to the end where an Edward G. Robinson caricature appears out of the pages of a Hollywood magazine to thwart the efforts of a group of criminals who previously emerged from a true crime magazine.

She Was an Acrobat's Daughter (8:35) is a Friz Freleng directed Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1937 that parodies a night out at the movies, lampooning both audience members and theatrical conventions. The gangster connection in this one comes late in the short when the feature presentation proves to be "The Petrified Florist" which spoofs The Petrified Forest complete with caricatures of Leslie Howard and Bette Davis.

Racketeer Rabbit (7:52) is a Friz Freleng directed Technicolor Looney Tunes cartoon from 1946 in which Bugs Bunny matches wits with a couple of criminals who bear a striking resemblance to Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre.

Bugs and Thugs (7:12) is a Friz Freleng directed Technicolor Looney Tunes cartoon from 1954 that pits bugs against diminutive bankrobber Bugsy and his large oafish sidekick Mugsy. A couple of gags are repeated from Racketeer Rabbit, but they are improved upon as well. This is one of my all time favorite Freleng cartoons.


Physical Extras

In addition to premium packaging which includes a "fat" blu ray case with two double side hinged trays, the viewer is also treated to a 34 Page Hardcover Book with appealingly reproduced photos and text including details on the historical era of the films and brief essays on each of the four films in the collection.



Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Those who do not own these films on DVD are advised to assemble cash, skipping meals if necessary, and purchase this set on Blu-ray. It includes four films, three of which are iconic entries in the gangster genre and all of which include key performances in the careers of Warner's greatest "tough guy" actors. Viewers purchasing the box set in lieu of the individual titles on blu-ray will be treated to deluxe packaging, an attractive hardcover booklet , and a bonus DVD including the documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film as well as four vintage gangster themed cartoons. Owners of the previous SD DVD versions of these titles face a trickier value proposition with substantial video upgrades on all titles except for Little Caesar, which appears to be limited by the available source element, and identical on-disc extras to those included on the SD DVDs.


Reviewed By: Ken_McAlinden


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Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 7 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

Ronald Epstein

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Posted May 22 2013 - 02:02 AM

Outstanding review, Ken.

 

I am waiting for the eventual price drop and then

I am going to buy this set, though really, this is not

overpriced at $40


Ronald J Epstein
Home Theater Forum co-owner

 

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#3 of 7 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted May 22 2013 - 04:17 AM

I saw that several of these were being shown on TCM last night, but I wanted my next exposure to them to be in high definition with this set. Can't wait for mine to arrive.

 

Thanks for the review, Ken.



#4 of 7 ONLINE   Mark Walker

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Posted May 22 2013 - 06:48 AM

Costco has this for $34.99


Paramount, please release DRAGONSLAYER on Blu-ray

Dragonslayer_1981HTF_zps4e370848.jpg

 

 

Vermithrax Pejorative deserves to be seen in high-def.


#5 of 7 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted May 22 2013 - 09:00 AM

Outstanding review, Ken.

 

I am waiting for the eventual price drop and then

I am going to buy this set, though really, this is not

overpriced at $40

 

If these titles were being sold individually at a street price of $10 each we would be raving about what bargains they are! I have all but Public Enemy on DVD, but I will probably buy the Blu-ray set and the DVDs will turn into gifts.


Rich Gallagher

#6 of 7 OFFLINE   A. Pismo Clam

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Posted July 21 2014 - 06:11 AM

I just received this set as a gift, and I love it!  Is there any word on a Classics Vol. 2?



#7 of 7 OFFLINE   JohnMor

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Posted July 21 2014 - 08:16 AM

I just received this set as a gift, and I love it!  Is there any word on a Classics Vol. 2?

 

I think the chance for that is nil.  They released a Volume 2 of the Contemporary Gangsters set one year later, but no Classic Gangsters. Evidently the sales weren't as good on the Classic set as the Contemporary set.







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