29 June 2009

Film Gangsters, They Do Indeed Pre Date the 1970's

Yesterday I wrote a post (more went off on a tangent) after reading an article in the San Francisco Chronicle's entertainment section that claimed to list the top ten gangster performances in film. Ever. None of the roles mentioned was from a film made before 1972. I was understandably outraged.

During my tirade I said that I could easily come up with a top ten made up solely of performance before the 1970's. Always one to put my money where my mouth is (never mind that it's quite unsanitary). Here it is.

10. Clark Gable as Blackie Gallagher In Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Known as being the film John Dillinger had just seen when shot down outside of Chicago’s Biograph theater, Manhattan Melodrama features a strong performance by Gable as a powerful gangland boss. The performance suggests that Gable could have had a fine career playing heavies.

9. Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager in Johnny Eager (1942). Johnny is so slick he’s got the authorities fooled. They’ve bought his line about going straight and being a cab driver. Suckers. Eager’s back in the rackets after a stretch in the pen and the D.A.s daughter has fallen for him. Taylor too could have played the bad guy a few more times to good effect.

8. Edward G. Robinson as Rico in Little Caesar (1931). Robinson couldn’t have imagined what he’d started with his bravura performance. He not only spawned countless imitators but locked himself into a lifetime of similar roles. Its a rags to riches story gangster style, which means a return to rags and “the end for Rico.”

7. Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly In On the Waterfront (1954). Technically he’s a union boss but we know better. Friendly lives up to his name if you play ball. If not this is one tough S.O.B. who can be as loud as he his mean.

6. Alan Ladd as Philip Raven in This Gun For Hire (1942). So what is this guy, friend to kitties and children or cold blooded killer? How about both. Raven was cooler than a cucumber. The trench coat and hat inspired legendary French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

5. James Cagney as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931). This was the quintessential sociopath. Likable, even lovable to some. A momma’s boy who stood for nothin from nobody. His hubris caught up with him in the end but what a show he put on en route.

4. Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932). This is not the over top Tony of the re-make but he’s no shrinking violet either. A man who wouldn’t hesitate to dispense with those in his way. And don’t mess with his sister!

3. Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee (1936) in Petrified Forest. This was a more studied, mannered gangster than the ones Bogie usually played. Fatalistic, not unreasonable, but deadly.

2. Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948). We meet him while he’s soaking in a tub, all big belly and bigger cigar. He’s not only a heartless gangster but he whispers what are obvious obscenities into Lauren Bacall’s ears. What a rat! Robinson could have played this one on his reputation but he gave Rocco a little something extra.

1. James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). Makes Pacino’s Tony Montana of the second Scarface look like a choirboy. Shoots people in trunks, kicks others downstairs, but he too loves his ma and she’s no Little Miss Muffet either. For her he makes it to “the top of the world.” Never mind the cost to others or even himself.

Runners Up: Bogart as Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941), Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling in Out of the Past (1947), Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables TV Series (1959-1962), Vic Morrow as Dutch Schultz in Portrait of a Mobster (1961), George Raft as Hood Stacey in Each Dawn I Die (1939), Ricardo Cortez as Leo Darcy in Midnight Mary (1933).


John said...

This is so true and so sad. I'd like to add Rod Steiger in "Al Capone" to the list.

Wow! "Portrait of a Mobster", I have not seen that film in years.
Actually, the early sixties had quite a few other low budget gangster films, "Mad Dog Coll" and "The Purple Gang," to name two.

You may be interested in checking out my blog, I just posted a article on "White Heat."


R. D. Finch said...

Riku, I just read your two posts on that jaw-dropping list I read yesterday in the Chronicle. More than half the people on it were from "The Sopranos" and "The Godfather" movies. If the writer had listed the top 10 modern gangsters that would have been one thing, but to list the top 10 ever and not even mention Cagney, Robinson, Muni, and Bogart was a clear indication that this person was not qualified to be writing on the subject. People get paid to write such drivel, while better informed bloggers do it for free just because they love movies.

Richard Hourula said...

John, Love your blog. Have added it to my links list.

John said...

Thanks for adding the link, I have added your own wonderful blog.

I just read your original post on this and it is a sad state of affairs. Sounds like the author is just cathering to what he feels is his audience or he is about 16 years old himself. Scott Baio? How can you take him seriously.

Anonymous said...

All those look like interesting gangsters from interesting movies. But did you notice that those movies only span a few years, from 1931 to 1954?

What happened between '54 and '70? 15 years of weak gangsters?

I think it's possible that you, like the author of that article you posted, have a preferred period in time.

Also, neither of you seems to take into account the fact that there are movies made outside of Hollywood.

(Not to defend his list... It's damn weak. We get it, you like the Godfather! Now say something else.)

Spruce said...

One name that I seldom see on these types of lists is Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock (1947). I realize that Brighton Rock is not a movie that a lot of people have seen. But, in my mind it is an excellent gangster film and Attenborough is chilling. His character is sadistic, neurotic, and desperate which is never a good combination. Psychologically, he may be one of the scariest gangsters in film history.

Dan said...

I would add Richard Widmark in "Kiss of Death." Remember when he threw that old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs? Classic.

alexandra said...

It's not just gangster movies. Most top lists that aren't created by AFI seem to be under the impression that there were no films being made before 1970 and in some cases 1980. It is disheartening to think that these people get paid to write about film.

andy said...

Great article. I agree that too many movie critics today have no interest in films that were not made in the past twenty years. Given the ease with which older movies can be found today, there really is no excuse.

It also seems strange to prepare a list of screen mobsters when people are getting ready to see Public Enemies, a movie about gangsters, not mobsters. Maybe he was worried that if he mentioned Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger (1945), Mickey Rooney in Baby Face Nelson (1957)(more noteworthy than Scott Baio) or Warren Oates in Dillinger (1973) (a personal favorite), he would not be able to satisfy his fixation with the Godfather.

Andrew Allen

Anonymous said...

Dan Duryea as Duke Pastrami in "Ball of Fire" (1941). Shoots a globe in cold blood. Chilling.

Anonymous said...

Most of the AFI lists and best-whatever lists read like they were done by teenagers or twentysomethings who've never seen anything made before "The Godfather", let alone any black-and-white movies. These "critics" and "experts" have no credibility.

Anonymous said...

"a movie about gangsters, not mobsters" will you be so kind to elaborate on the difference between an gangster and a mobster? Thanks

Sibyl said...

I'm so glad I didn't see the original article in the Comicle. I would've burst into flame. Thanks for a REAL list. I would add George Raft, personally, but you've got the rest of my favorites (no Eddie G. or Cagney? How can that be?).

futurelegendvinceyoung said...

Tremendous list. I read the Chron article and I honestly thought the guy was joking with some of his picks.

If he is going to go with post-1972 gangsters what about Finney and Byrne in Miller's Crossing?

Anyway love the blog

andy said...

To respond to anonymous' question about the difference between gangsters and mobsters, yes they are the same. However, I was commenting on the original top ten list of mobsters (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/06/28/PK9F187FPO.DTL) that drove Riku to put together his excellent list. The reviewer had stated that he meant mobsters, namely members of an organization, not free agents like Dillinger, which is strange since the starting point of his list is a movie about Dillinger. Guess I was not as clear as I thought I was. Sorry.