Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Judge Clark Douglas?
Our reviews of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010), Little Caesar (published March 1st, 2005), The Petrified Forest (published February 21st, 2005), The Public Enemy (published April 5th, 2005), TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: James Cagney (published September 30th, 2010), TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (published September 22nd, 2010), and White Heat (published February 28th, 2005) are also available.
Four classic gangster films from the studio that defined the genre.
"I'm on top of the world, ma!"
Facts of the Case
Warner Bros.' Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics compiles four iconic early genre entries in one hi-def box set. In Little Caesar, we follow the rise and fall of the brash Rico (Edward G. Robinson, The Ten Commandments), who begins as an ordinary street criminal and eventually transforms himself into a powerful mob boss. In The Public Enemy, we watch the similar rise and fall of the violent Tom Powers (James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy). In The Petrified Forest, we observe as ruthless gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart, The Big Sleep) terrorizes the patrons and employees of a roadside diner. Finally, White Heat depicts wild ride of psychotic mama's boy Cody Jarrett (Cagney again), who fends off betrayals from his henchmen and plots a large-scale heist.
Though the Blu-ray format is faring reasonably well these days, the number of classic films released in hi-def is still a bit disappointing. Black-and-white movies featuring 1.37:1 screen ratios and long-deceased actors don't exactly skyrocket up the sales charts, but it's a shame that so many great movies remain stuck in standard definition while flicks like Troll 2 are readily available in 1080p. As such, it's always a pleasure to see something like the Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics box set, which delivers a quartet of essential crime movies of the '30s and '40s. While the set doesn't exactly offer the very best gangster films of all time, it certainly does feature some of the most influential and iconic.
The earliest films in the collection are Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, both of which were released in 1931. Collectively, these two films more or less form the birth of the genre, establishing a series of conventions (from brash, hot-tempered protagonists to fretful, overbearing mothers) that remain a crucial part of gangster movies to this day. Little Caesar is the less interesting film on a cinematic level, suffering from bland direction and poor supporting performances. Even so, Edward G. Robinson's gleeful, commanding performance keeps things compelling to some degree at all times, and the actor's closing scene is the stuff of legend. The Public Enemy is a stronger film, and Cagney's brand of gangster—savage, explosive, abusive towards women—is both more dynamic and more squirm-inducing. Jointly, Robinson and Cagney created the stereotypical '30s gangster that would be imitated (and satirized) so frequently.
The most unconventional entry is certainly The Petrified Forest, which is more concerned with its innocent hostages than with Humphrey Bogart's ruthless gangster. Still, Bogart's performance is easily the best thing about the film; he exudes a cool, quiet menace that stands in contrast to the over-the-top theatrics of Robinson and Cagney. Bogart would play a bad guy on multiple occasions over the course of his career, but audiences remember him best as an amoral antihero rather than as a violent crook. He's absolutely an essential part of gangster movie history, but unlike most gangster movie icons, he found himself on both sides of the law with regularity. While The Petrified Forest is a strong showcase for Bogart himself (it was his breakout role), the movie itself is arguably the weakest of the collection.
While all of the aforementioned movies have the merits, there's only one honest-to-God masterpiece in the collection: the 1949 Cagney vehicle White Heat. Made nearly twenty years after The Public Enemy, the movie draws extensively on the trends established by earlier gangster films while also breaking new ground. It remains one of the finest gangster movies ever to grace the big screen, boasting the strongest performance of Cagney's career. It's remarkable to consider that some of the material the film contains made it past the censors, as the movie offers a level of violence and nasty subtext that still seems a bit startling today. Cagney made quite a few poor films over the course of his career, but in the right role he could be the most exhilarating actor alive. His portrait of Cody Jarrett is simply stunning, and Cagney fleshes out every detail of this complex character (from his complicated relationship with his calculating Ma to his mental anguish to his explosive impulses) in masterful fashion.
Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics (Blu-ray) offers 1080p/Full Frame transfers of varying quality for all four films. The weakest of the collection is unquestionably Little Caesar, which looks soft and weathered due to age. It's okay, but there are quite a few scenes in which you'll think you're watching a standard-def presentation. Things steadily improve from there, with White Heat faring the best thanks to a crisp, sharp, dynamic image. All four films have received a DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track, and while none of them offer anything breathtaking in this department, for the most part they're crisp and clean (again, Little Caesar is a bit rougher than the rest).
Supplements are actually quite generous. All four films receive audio commentaries: Erix Lax on The Petrified Forest, Dr. Drew Casper on White Heat, Robert Sklar on The Public Enemy and Richard B. Jewell on Little Caesar. Each film also receives its own featurette ("Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero," "Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public," "The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert" and "White Heat: Top of the World"—these run 15-20 minutes each), a Leonard Maltin-hosted "Warner Night at the Movies" option (in which your viewing of the film will be accompanied by a Maltin introduction, a newsreel, a live-action short, a cartoon and a theatrical trailer—thus replicating the experience you might have had if you had seen the film in a theatre upon its release) and a theatrical trailer. The Petrified Forest also gets a half-hour radio version of the tale starring Bogart, while The Public Enemy and Little Caesar also offer the preachy forwards that were added to the movies when they were re-released in 1954. To top things off, you get a bonus DVD featuring the excellent 105-minute documentary "Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film," a handful of additional animated shorts and a 32-page hardbound book with text info and production photos. While the bulk of the supplements are in standard-def, it's still a strong package.
Warner Bros.' latest hi-def box set is a treat for classic film buffs, and hopefully many more are currently being planned (I'm dying to have their great noir box sets in HD). The films range from good to great, the supplements are informative and the A/V quality is generally strong. Highly recommended.
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