Back in the days of the studio system,
gangster films were moviemakers’ bread and butter. Although they
seldom won awards, they were cheap to make, and
virtually guaranteed a profit. While Warner Brothers pretty well
defined the genre with their James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart films,
other studios and independent producers also cranked them out by
the score.

Originally produced mainly to fill the lower half
of double bills, they continue to inspire today’s moviemakers. Among
the recent remakes were Gun Crazy, and bloated reworkings
of Night and the City and Narrow Margin. NYPD Blue’s
David Caruso is scheduled to star in a remake of the classic Kiss
of Death
. It also served as the basis for the deplorable 1958
western The Fiend Who Walked the West.

The Gangster Collection from CBS/Fox Video contains
11 warhorses from the 30’s through the 60’s. While you won’t find
anything with Bogart or Cagney, the collection contains fine performances
by Richard Widmark, Dan Duryea, and others.

Richard Widmark in Street
With No Name.

Widmark was always most interesting when playing unscrupulous
characters. He is at his insane best in Road House and that’s
very hard to beat. Not to be confused with the Patrick Swayze movie,
this 1948 film is a tight little drama that harks back to a time
when scriptwriters could make an exciting story out of virtually
anything, and directors were capable of creating economical movies
with never a dull moment. All director Jean Negulesco needed was
Widmark as the sadistic owner of the road house and Cornell Wilde
as his employee. Soon after, he hires Ida Lupino as his nightclub
singer, sparks begin to fly between her and Wilde, and Widmark becomes
jealous. When Wilde is wrongly convicted of robbery, Widmark arranges
to have him put in his custody, and in general makes life hell for
both of them. With a lesser actor the film might have been boring
and predictable. At once cunning, ruthless, and cruel, we’re never
sure what Widmark’s character will do next.

Widmark contributes another delightfully cynical and
sinister performance in Street With No Name. Supposedly based
on an actual FBI case, this 1948 film featured Mark Stevens as an
undercover agent infiltrating Widmark’s big city mob. Stevens is
cocky, almost arrogant agent had a talent for boxing and seemed
able to lick all comers in the ring and mob. As such he made a nice
foil for Widmark’s suspicious mobster. We’re always expecting Stevens
to slip up and Widmark to figure him out. Although the plot’s as
old as the hills and the script’s thundering voiceover narration
walks us through the case by the numbers, director William Keighley
kept it moving at a brisk pace.

In 1955, director Samuel Fuller reworked it by transferring
the setting to Japan, and replacing the FBI with army officers and
police. The remake, titled House of Bamboo, starred Robert
Ryan and Robert Stack. Like the recent remakes of Night and the
and Narrow Margin, it was inferior to the original.

From the title, one would expect The Underworld
to be another bit of hokum about exposing mob corruption.
Made in 1950 and directed by Cy Endfreld-best remembered for 1962’s
Zulu-the title looks like something that was tagged on to take advantage
of the publicity generated by the Keefouver Crime Commission hearings
and the spate of low-budget gangster films which became popular
because of them.

Instead, it is a tale of small-town crime of passion
which leads to coverup, blackmail, and murder.

Underworld‘s plot has Dan Duryea as a big city
newspaper reporter who is fired after a story he writes helps mobster
Howard DaSilva beat an indictment. Borrowing $7,500 from DaSilva,
he buys part interest in a small suburban newspaper.

Duryea has barely settled into his editor’s chair
when the daughter-in-law of the big city publisher who fired him
is murdered. The black housekeeper, who was seen hawking her employer’s
jewelry, is the prime suspect.

Duryea, with the morals of a snake and an instinct
for a good newspaper yarn, is willing to go either way with the
story. He convinces the housekeeper to give herself up, forms a
defense committee to raise money for an attorney, then makes a deal
with the lawyer to split the fee regardless of whether she’s convicted
or found innocent. As Duryea plays it, we’re never really sure until
the last frame whether he’s reformed or working another con game.

A lot of the fun in watching these films comes from
the cryptic dialogue. As one character tells Duryea, “That’s an
Ivy covered town, and you know under ivy is a lot of creepy, crawling
things.” Later Duryea says, “The truth is the truth, and we’re going
to stuff it down their ivy-covered throats.” When he loses out on
the $25,000 reward for turning in the housekeeper because the police
chief decides he didn’t earn it, the DA says. “Things are tough
all over. Pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.”

They don’t write dialogue like that anymore, and maybe
they shouldn’t. Over the years some of these films have lost their
hard-hitting realism, and become virtual parodies of themselves.
Part of the reason is that they were made in a time when Hollywood
labored under a production code which prohibited vulgar language
and graphic violence. Although their dialogue may seem corny and
the plots somewhat simplistic and naive, they are still a lot of
fun to watch.

The Gangster Collection also includes Pickup on
South Street
,with Widmark, Johnny Apollo, with Tyrone Power,
plus the original Gun Crazy, Show Them No Mercy, and
1945’s Dillinger, with Lawrence Tierney. MM