Each dawn, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart keeps sleeping for a couple more hours.
"I think I need a good reason to sock a guy."
James Cagney was known for his portrayal of gangsters, but he's not just a cardboard mug. It's a good thing, since White Heat is the only film in TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: James Cagney where he plays the sort of gangster he's associated with. Each Dawn I Die plays with that image a bit, putting him in prison on a bum rap, and G-Men goes even further, making him a gangbuster. City of Conquest isn't even a gangster film, even though Elia Kazan makes an acting appearance as a shady pal of Cagney's boxer.
White Heat is still the best film here, and the must-see reason to buy this set. However, the other films have their merits.
Facts of the Case
The discs are two-sided, with White Heat and City of Conquest on Disc One, and Each Dawn I Die and G-Men on Disc Two:
Cody Jarrett (Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy) leads a California train mail robbery that gets him $300,000 and leaves a trail of bodies. The police can't nail him after he confesses to a lesser crime in Illinois, but they send in an undercover informant (Edmond O'Brien, D.O.A.) to befriend Cody and find out about the train job. The informant plans an escape to lead the cops to the money; it's canceled, but Cody breaks out anyway. Based on a Virginia Kellogg story, and containing a prime quote (above) for Cagney impressions. Writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts later created Charlie's Angels and served as producers on Mannix.
Extras include: Commentary by Drew Casper; "White Heat: Top of the World"; Leonard Maltin on 1949; a Joe McDoakes short, So You Think You're Not Guilty; a Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Homeless Hare"; and a newsreel and trailers.
City for Conquest
Danny's brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy, High Sierra) wants to compose a symphony and his girl Peggy (Ann Sheridan, They Drive By Night) wants to become a vaudeville dancer, but Danny (Cagney) is satisfied driving truck—until Peggy pushes him to make something of himself. Danny heads into the boxing ring, where he's a champ until a rival blinds him. Based on Aben Kandel's novel.
Extras include: Commentary by Richard Schickel; Alice Faye and Richard Preston in the Lux Radio Theater audio play; "Molls and Dolls: The Women of Gangster Films"; "Breakdowns of 1940" bloopers; Service with the Colors Technicolor short; "Stage Fright" cartoon; and a newsreel and trailers.
Each Dawn I Die
Newspaperman Frank Ross (Cagney) is knocked out by thugs. He wakes up in a burning car with the smell of alcohol around him, and he's facing a manslaughter rap. He's sent to prison, where he tangles with a tough guard and a tougher killer on his first day. He also becomes friends with "Hood" Stacey (George Raft, 1960's Ocean's Eleven), a lifer who escapes and may have a plan to prove Ross innocent. Based on a Jerome Odlum novel.
Extras include: Commentary by Haden Guest; George Raft in the Lux Radio Theater version, with Franchot Tone as Ross; "Breakdowns of 1940"; "Stool Pigeons and Pine Overcoats: The Language of Gangster Films"; cartoons "Each Dawn I Crow" and "Detouring America"; A Day at Santa Anita Technicolor short; and a newsreel and trailers.
The death of his college roommate, a federal agent, prompts lawyer Brick Davis (Cagney) to join the Department of Justice. His hunches are good about the rough customers he's tracking; the knowledge comes from growing up in the same neighborhoods with the mobsters, including a longtime friend (William Harrigan, The Invisible Man) who quit the mob to open a small inn.
Extras include: Commentary by Richard Jewell; "Morality and the Code: A How-to Manual for Hollywood"; "Breakdowns of 1935"; How I Play Golf by Bobby Jones, "Short No. 11: Practice Shots"; The Old Grey Mayor with Bob Hope; "Buddy the Gee Man" cartoon; "Things You Don't See in the Movies" blooper reel; and a newsreel and trailer.
White Heat is the only pure gangster film in this collection, with James Cagney playing Cody Jarrett, first seen shooting witnesses during a train robbery. Cody is brought down from the top of the crime world by a series of flaws and mistakes: severe headaches that hint at mental illness, an obsessive relationship with his Ma, and his friendship with an undercover informant. Cody's a villain, and he's going to fall, since the Hays Code hadn't fallen yet. However, Cagney gives him a fascinating grandeur. It won't make you like a guy who wants one of his own gang shot because he's too injured to move, but the flaws and mistakes make the steely villain seem human. It's obvious that Cody will meet a violent end, and the first sight of a chemical truck gives you an idea of how it will happen. Hinting at the end, in this case, adds to the tension during the final action sequence. Look for strong performances by Margaret Wycherly (The Yearling) as Ma, who takes over the gang while Cody's in stir, and Virginia Mayo as Cody's two-faced moll, who makes time with a rival.
The commentary by Drew Casper pays tribute to underrated director Raoul Walsh and takes a look at the movies of 1949. There are also details on the movie's censorship battles, which revolved around avoiding showing too much about the crimes so they couldn't be reenacted in real life, and the theme of Cody versus conformity.
City For Conquest moves furthest away from Cagney's pugnacious image. He's a truck driver who, while certainly able in a brawl, is largely content until the ambitious people around him push him into the boxing ring. The story is called a sweeping saga of New York, but Cagney's the main attraction as a hopeful romantic who finds himself enjoying running a newsstand and checking coins with his hands at least as much as he enjoyed knocking rivals out in the ring. His first bout is to help his brother pay for music school tuition, and he's reluctant to take his fists on the road. Even when he's at the top of the boxing game, it's clear that Cagney's Danny only wants to be with Peggy, the childhood sweetheart who dreams of stardom. When he's going through the stages of blindness, Cagney is convincing enough that you might feel something when the screen blurs to match his perspective. At the same time, it's noticeable that Danny, despite his situation, lacks the inner turmoil that you'll see in the other characters in this set. The story is strictly melodrama, but it's still a good showcase for Cagney.
The commentary by Richard Schickel provides a lot of background on Cagney; you'll want to hear it whether you're a diehard fan or just curious about Cagney's career.
Each Dawn I Die puts Cagney back in prison. It gives him a chance to revert to the tough guy act, eventually becoming the most unruly prisoner in the hole. However, his Frank Ross is a noble newspaperman who survives on that inner heroism, keeping his principles as intact as possible even when suffering in the hole, where prisoners are sent for punishment. The scene that'll hit you hardest, though, is the one in which his mom visits him in prison, and he's trying not to tell her how he's been doing. George Raft plays "Hood" Stacey with a street ethical code that's tested when he finds reporters and photographers poised to capture his escape attempt. When he realizes that Ross is a good guy, with a little prompting from the newspaperman's sweetheart, he's willing to risk his freedom and his life to clear Ross' name. For the most part, it's a very good movie, with powerful scenes of prison life. The last reel escape goes over-the-top, though. It's exciting, but it doesn't hit as hard as what went before.
Haden Guest's commentary tells where the censors won and where the movie pushed the Hays Code. It also discusses the cinematic techniques quite a bit.
G-Men puts Cagney in a conventional hero role, complete with cliffhanger rescue of his sweetheart at the end of the picture. His Brick Davis is a good guy, no doubt about it, but his street background and friendship with a top mobster play on Cagney's antihero reputation.
As I watched it, I was thinking of it as a routine picture, even as I noticed that Cagney's performance was anything but routine. However, USC professor Richard Jewell's commentary puts it into historical perspective. It's the first FBI movie, and likely the first procedural as well. G-Men came out shortly after the Hays Code geared up and prohibition wound down, and thus reflects a harsher attitude toward crime in both the movies and real life. It also shows Cagney moving away from the gangster roles he'd become famous for. I'd say it's worth a look no matter what—Cagney holds your attention in just about any role—but Jewell's comments tell me I was underrating one of those archetypal films, the ones that seem familiar but actually were the ones that made cinematic breakthroughs.
Jewell's commentary, along with the "Morality and the Code: A How-To Manual for Hollywood" feature, also had me thinking once again about the censorship of the Hays Office, something I have mixed feelings about. While its decrees were often ridiculous, the hard line on gangster films directly led to the development of the police procedural, a still-popular genre, and probably helped Cagney's career. He may have been unhappy with the gangster image, as Jewell said, but he did get a variety of roles, as this collection shows, and the Hays Code undoubtedly helped.
White Heat, the most famous of the films, was kept in nearly pristine condition, but the other movies have small flaws—flecks or lines—that are noticeable but not unexpected or particularly annoying. It looks like Warner did the best they could with what they had, but their originals weren't in perfect shape.
The "Warner Night at the Movies" features include a good Bob Hope short and a sample of Joe McDoakes, one of the last famous short subject characters. There's also a good featurette on "Stool Pigeons and Pine Overcoats: The Language of Gangster Films," which uses Bullets or Ballots and A Slight Case of Murder as favorite examples of gangster diction. I'll also mention the two Lux Radio Theater segments: Each Dawn I Die has one that retools the story to put the emphasis on guest George Raft, while City for Conquest puts Robert Preston and Alice Faye in the leads, letting Faye sing. Raft's turn in Dawn is particularly compelling, since it tells the story more from "Hood" Stacey's perspective.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Black and Native American caricatures turn up in "Detouring America," a cartoon with Each Day I Die. There's also quite a bit of profanity in the "Breakdowns" blooper reels. The novelty of seeing stars of Hollywood's Golden Age cursing as they make mistakes quickly wears off.
As DVD collections go, this is a good one, with four movies worth watching and informative commentaries. You'll see way too much of actors pretending, not very convincingly, to have just been shot, but that's a small quibble.
Not guilty. Top of the world.
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Scales of Justice, G-Men
Perp Profile, G-Men
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, G-Men
Scales of Justice, Each Dawn I Die
Perp Profile, Each Dawn I Die
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Each Dawn I Die
Scales of Justice, City For Conquest
Perp Profile, City For Conquest
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, City For Conquest
Scales of Justice, White Heat
Perp Profile, White Heat
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, White Heat
Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.