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).