Greetings all and sundry!
Having gone a bit long and broad in my previous critique of Cinematic Rebels. This next journey of exploration may come up shorter in length, but will have a larger and more intriguing number of contenders.
Filling niches for a specific type of character on either side of the law and story. Sometimes possessing the character traits of the rebel.While others draw strength from commingling the trappings of the Sap, Bully, Creep and Superb Louse. An intricate juggling act, to be sure. With the payoff being a much more charismatic and memorable character.
With that said. Let us take a much closer and detailed look at the lineage and evolution of:
Cinematic Tough Guys
Initially focusing on a select few who were fortunate enough to be spotted plying their craft on stage and at the tail end of Hollywood’s transition from silent films to “Talkies”. And were talented, hungry and ambitious enough to get their foot in the door of the west coast mogul driven “System” of the 1930s.
I’ll start with The Usual Suspects. Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni and Humphrey Bogart. The pioneers and trailblazers who took the words of Warner Brothers, MGM and other studio screenplay and writers. Created a “Type” of character. And set the bar incredibly high in but a few outings.
With all four actors being born at the tail end of the 1800s. I’d always been content in the belief that Paul Muni (Born Mesheim Meier Weisenfreund). Of what is now Lviv, Ukraine) would have the first bite of the apple in this new adventure. With his “One…Two” punch of Scarface and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang encompassing all of 1932.
Being given the role of an Italian immigrant and two-bit gunsel, Antonio “Tony” Camonte during the Chicago Turf Wars of the 1920s. Slowly and confidently dispatching those who stand in his way. While being very over protective of his wild, younger sister, Francesca (Ann Dvorak). Working his way up to driver and bodyguard of South Side crime boss, Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Making moves oh his girlfriend, Poppy (Karen Morley). Before ambushing and killing Lovo. And going to war with the North Side speakeasies, brothels, bookmakers, loan sharks and distributors of beer and liquor throughout the city.
In a fairly decent, thinly veiled and historically correct Pre-Hayes Act rendition of the rise of Al Capone. And quite a coup for an actor’s third time before the cameras. With Howard Hawks and Robert Rossen directing around mostly Warner Brothers back lots. And Howard Hawks in charge of production.
Creating another bout of cinematic social consciousness with I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. Drafted by Robert E. Burns and broken down into a bravura screenplay by Howard J. Green. From an anonymous and serialized story in True Detective magazine. The tale begins with returning World War I veteran, James Allen. Who wants to ply his talent for engineering in an upscale firm, but can’t find anything beyond unskilled labor. Sinking lower into poverty and despair. Until being rounded up on the fringes of a robbery. Tried and sentenced to ten years on a southern chain gang. Where the guards, warden and other convicts don’t care. Dispense torture and torment for the slightest infraction. While leaving Jim and a few others plenty of tie to plan an escape. Jim stays ahead of the pack. Due mostly to a hollow reed found in a murky stream. Which allows him to wait out the chasing guards and bloodhounds. Lie low. Travel at night. And make his way back to Chicago.
Where Jim prospers under a new name as a designer and engineer. Constantly wary. Even after the woman running his boarding house, Marie Woods discovers his secret. Blackmails Jim. And his wife, Helen (Helen Vinson) finally arranges for the local cops to pick him up. Jim escapes yet again, With a quick side trip to Chicago before quickly and confidently returning to a life of crime.
Overall Consensus: With just two films, Mr. Muni set the standards, parameters and limitations for a completely new kind of character. Though, not tall. The “Tough Guy” could glower, appear to tower, intimidate and bully. Striking the fear of God. While also being adaptable, attentive, sharp-witted. A bit ruthless, And willing to take some punches and deliver better than he receives in order to slowly attain his goal.
Writ very large in Scarface. While Mr. Muni’s Jim Allan show an enormous propensity to take abuse from all sides during his second outing. Knowing he is innocent, Yet, unable to prove it to those who could care less. His anger builds. yet, he can find no release for it after escaping, Always cautious of saying the wrong thing. Or seeing the wrong face. As Jim’s past catches up with him in the form of Marie Woods. Who extorts Jim into a bogus loveless marriage before the bottom falls out.
Which left James Cagney the early months of 1931 to deliver his particular and personal take on the “Tough Guy” under the direction of William Wellman. Released on April 23, 1931. Sharing a cast of soon to be “All Stars” in Jean Harlow, Edwards Woods, Mae Clarke and Joan Blondell. In what would be the premiere and epitome of “The Warner Brothers Back Lot Gangster Film”. The Public Enemy.
The story begins in 1900s Chicago. Where boyhood friends Frank Coghlan, Jr. and Frankie Darrow will grow up to be Tom Powers (Mr. Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods). Who share a wild and easy streak in making money. They steal. And sometimes fence larger items through the services of “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell). Who recognizes the boys’ potential and talks them into a warehouse heist. Which goes bad when uncharacteristically jumpy Tom jumps at shadows. Shoots a Teddy Bear. And draws in The Law. A lone uniformed Beat Cop. Who enters. Gives chase. And is shot and killed by Tom and Matt. Who quickly discover that they have no friends after discovering that “Putty Nose” has left town. And drift even deeper into the shadow world. Quickly being recruited as “salesmen” and “enforcers” for Paddy Ruan’s (Emmett O’Connor) bootlegging gang. Getting in ahead of he curve as Prohibition looms. And Tom’s older brother, Mike (Donald Cook) joins the Marines as the US enters World War I.
As with any situation involving influxes of income. Tom and Matt grow prosperous. Dress a bit more elegantly. Enjoy the night life, when not “persuading” unattached bar and saloon owners to peddle their beer and bootleg alcohol. As both go through women of differing reputes.Matt falls for Mamie (Joan Blondell). His childhood sweetheart. While Tom attracts Kittie. An unabashed Gold Digger. Who receives a half grapefruit pushed into her face for complaining at the Room Service breakfast table. And later, rich girl, Gwen Allen. Jean Harlow, who has a penchant for bad boys.And this is where the wheels start coming off.
Matt and Mamie are engaged. Operations begin to get sloppy. Takes start turning up short. Eyes and suspicion start to sweep all over the place. And Tom and Matt’s far too smooth boss, “Nails” Nathan dies after being thrown from a horse. Creating a break in the Chain of Command the death of the horse won’t satisfy. Matt and Mamie are married. Tom spots the long thought dead and treasonous “Putty Nose” at the reception. Vengeance rears its ugly head as Matt and Tom follow him home. Where Tom shoots him in the back.
Opulence and money grows as distant war drums begin to grow along the borders of colliding and overlapping sides of town. Tom continues to keep in touch with his doting mother, Beryl Mercer. Who has to run interference between Tom and just returned from war, Mike. Who finally lets Ma know where Tom’s money comes from.
Tom and Matt are caught in a public gang hit. With Matt going down and never getting back up. As Tom escapes and plots revenge. In one of the most classic and drawn out final reels. Where Tom braves a torrential Chicago downpour beneath a moonless night. Pockets full of pistols. Walking from haunt to haunt and balancing the books as shots ring out and flashes fill apartment windows. Slowly bleeding out before he stumbles and falls in the gutter. Then being taken to the hospital. And family reconciliation. Before being kidnapped and made an example of by rival gangs.
Overall Consensus: This is the film which put Mr. Cagney on the map. Coarse language. Rough treatment and all. Introducing a character short of stature, but enormous in ego.Seeming to lean forward whenever in motion and willing to take anyone or anything in his way. While still being intriguing and charming as Hell when need be. With myriad variation seen and remembered in many films.
From The Crowd Roars and Winner Take All a year later. To his standout Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces opposite Pat O’Brien and a more dramatic Bowery Boys. Treacherous Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties. And strong-willed, naive Jerry Plunkett in The Fighting 69th through 1938 to 1940.
Mr. Cagney’s physicality comes to the fore in Captain of The Clouds and Yankee Doodle Dandy during and after the war years. Along with 13 Rue Madeleine and White Heat. Proving that he can still tousle and deliver. Take a punch believably. Then scare the crap out of you at a moment of betrayal!
Closing out the Class of 1931 with Edward G. Robinson in another classic Warner Brothers Black Lot Gangster Classic. Little Caesar.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy before taking the taking the helm of I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. And sharing a superlative cast of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Glenda Farrell and Sidney Blackmer.
Mr. Robinson fully embodies small-time New York hood, Enrico “Rico” Bandello. Who, with his long time friend, Joe Massara (Mr. Fairbanks) find themselves in Chicago after a gas station robbery gone bad. Rico joins the gang of aspiring crime lord, Sam Vetton (Sidney Fields). Working his way slowly up the ranks. While Joe wants to be a dancer. Falling slowly for his partner, Olga (Ms. Farrell). Dreaming of a better life. That crumble quickly as Rico forces Joe to help rip off a nightclub where he works.
Defying orders from his boss, “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer) regarding bloodshed. Rico sees a target of opportunity in crusading, “Law & Order” crime commissioner, Alvin McClure (Landers Stevens) and guns him down in front of witnesses. Including Joe. Sensing and seizing another opportunity. Rico accuses “Big Boy” of being soft and takes over the North side of Chicago, basically at gun point.
Rico becomes stronger and more powerful. Too powerful in the eyes of “Little Augie” Lorch (Maurice Black). Who dares to have Rico killed in a Tommy Gun Drive By. Leaving Rico grazed, but full of vengeance. And worried that Joe will rum to the Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) and his cops. Rico and his henchman, Otero (George E. Stone) seek their pound of flesh. Leave several dead bodies behind. And “Little Augie’ quickly heads to Detroit.
Then pay a call on Joe and Olga. Where Rico finds he can’t kill his oldest friend. But Otero can. Or tries. And things head South in a hurry. Joe and Olga run. With Otero close behind. Gunned down by the cops. Rico runs in an opposite direction. Finds a flophouse as his criminal organization if quickly rolled up by Flaherty and his boys.Who then calls Rico out as a coward. Rico obliges and walks into a running gunfight with pistols and Tommy Guns blazing. Slowly dispatching Rico. Who falls under a billboard featuring Joe and Olga. And one of the classiest, all-consuming final lines in cinema!
Overall Consensus: Another masterfully directed and edited (Ray Curtiss) founding “Gangster Film”. Considered by many to be the Creme de la Creme of its genre. Lean and straight line in the extreme. With no frames wasted on twists and plot devices. The entire cast deliver with elan and gusto. Especially Mr. Robinson’s Rico. Who is far more clever and smart than at first glance. With ruthlessness to burn when the opportunity presents itself. And that invisible chip on his shoulder takes over.
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio. Art Direction by Anton Grot is first-rate. Finding the correct smoky, seamy tone for gang members, foot soldiers and low rent hood. Opposite opulent, austere wood-paneled dens for those who count the take and make the plans. Then having Set Decorator, Ray Moyer go to town! Costumes by Earl Luick more than fill the bill. From torn and shoddy, long used suits, jackets and coats at the beginning. To Windsor and Four In Hand ties atop top of the line men’s suits, topcoats, bowlers and Fedoras. While gowns for the ladies in attendance have rarely looked more alluring and regal while spending ill-gotten gains!
Leaving Mr. Humphrey Bogart to be the most recognized, though late arrival to the dance. Not that he was unprepared or physically tardy. It was that Hollywood had spotted Mr. Bogart’s talents on the many theater stages of New York around 1926. And had him in slowly growing parts as the ingénue, best friend, thug or comic relief in several films as Mr. Bogart bounced between coasts plying his craft.
Exceptionally well in 1935 when given the lead role of bank robber Duke Mantee in the stage production of The Petrified Forest. Opposite Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Performing to sold out venues in upstate New York. And later, Manhattan. And starting to create a niche as Hal B. Wallis, Hollywood and Warner Brothers latched on. Bought the production rights and three major characters. Along with original playwright, Robert E. Sherwood to kibitz with director, Archie Mayo and screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Delmer Davies. To catch lightning briefly in a bottle for Mr. Bogart and Ms. Davis among the rough and tumble, middle of nowhere deserts of Red Rock Canyon state Park and interior stage sets of the Warner Studios.
Giving Mr. Bogart a new arena to explore and flex his muscles in various films. As scary, cold-blooded gangsters nefariously working their way up the food chain. Only to turn cowardly yellow when finally confronted with betrayal. Or the law in The Roaring Twenties.
Creating an optimum opportunity to take on the role of George Hally. Former saloon keeper turned soldier who finds killing easy. Toughing out the last hours of World War I in the rubble of a bombed home with fellow Dough boys Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). The Armistice is signed. Peace is declared and our three principals are shipped back home to an unnamed “Any City, USA’ where post war, Prohibition life is still pretty decent. Though many of the jobs promised returning veterans aren’t there. Lloyd lucks out and goes to law school. George becomes a bootlegger. Eddie, a garage mechanic, take some advice and becomes a cab driver. And unsuspecting mule for local rising crime boss, Panama Smith (Gladys George). Who both get arrested after an early failed delivery. Panama is acquitted and Eddie goes to jail. And returns ready to use his company’s many off-duty cabs to move Panama’s product to constantly growing numbers of speakeasies. And using Lloyd and his new license to make everything “legal”.
Life and comforts improve. Eddie meets his high school sweetheart, Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane). All grown up and a singer of some repute, working at a nightclubs. Eddie arranges a job for Jean at one of Panama’s nightclubs, As a singer in a cabaret. Eddie has marital plans for Jean, but any reciprocity just isn’t there. Since Jean secretly yearns for Lloyd.
Opportunities, personalities and desires cross and clash when Eddie and his crew move in on the competition, Nick Brown’s (Paul Kelly) shipload of liquor. George is in charge of the shipment and quickly changes sides with Eddie’s approval. Hijacking that load. Then letting the Feds know of and confiscate another. Which is stored at warehouse that Eddie, George and assorted henchmen decide to raid. Retrieving that load as well with slight collateral damage. As a Sergeant turned watch man George recognizes and didn’t like is gunned down for his efforts.
Lloyd quits the business as George applies pressure. Eddie sends an intermediary to talk about a truce to Nick Brown. The intermediary winds up dead and dumped at the steps of the Panama Club. Eddie and his crew head off to find Mr. Brown and kill him. George calls ahead to warn Brown, who sets up an ambush. Henchmen drop. Brown is gunned down by Eddie, who senses a double cross with George’s name on it.
A bloody “Night of the Long Knives” has been brewing for months. And betrayal is the main ingredient as Eddie catches Jean and Lloyd in a passionate lips lock. Lloyd is working for the District Attorney’s office and has let Eddie know through George that both will be prosecuted.
George has delivered death threats to Lloyd and is also scared that his ambush of Eddie failed. Even if it did leave Eddie as a broken king without a kingdom. Which brings George and Eddie together for a final sneering rant from George targeting Eddie’s shabby appearance and stink of bourbon.
Pushing Eddie just a bit too far and into gunning down George and his Inner Circle. Into the pouring rain. Across the street and into a Brown stone for one of the great Warner Brothers anonymous gun flash lit gunfights on film. And Eddie shot and slowly staggering away as his life leaks away into the rain.
Overall Consensus: Director Raoul Walsh hits on all cylinders with one of the last and greatest Warner Brother gangster films. Capping off a long list of tales with a splendid team up of Mr. Bogart with Mr. Cagney. Allowing Mr. Bogart to dip one last time into bravura scenes of scheming, double-crossing and back stabbing arrogant wickedness, Before being called out. Running out of rope and lies and embracing his sniveling coward one last time.
Eschewing it for a more enlightened more erudite occasional wise-ass. Trading verbal blows, though physical ones crop up from time to time. As in They Drive By Night to test the waters before returning to Duke Mantee mode for High Sierra with Ida Lupino. And a chance for top billing atop the “Tough Guy Hierarchy” with the role of San Francisco private eye, Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Sharing the tale under the guidance of John Huston. With an established Rogue’s Gallery of conniving heavies led by rotund Sydney Greenstreet. Buffered by Mary Astor and Peter Lorre. And a welterweight gunsel in Elisha Cook, Jr. Mr. Bogart’s Sam Spade has ample opportunity to crack wise and give as good as he gets. Keeping Kasper Gutman and company busy. While discerning who shot and killed his partner, Miles Archer.
Taking a variant of Mr. Bogart’s Sam Spade for his role of court-martialed, expatriated American, Rick Leland in Across the Pacific. Taking the long way from Halifax, Nova Scotia around the Atlantic and Pacific on a Japanese steamer to finally fight for Chiang Kai-shek in China, Developing and reinforcing his cover with false alliances while skirting, delving and discovering Axis espionage and possible sabotage of the Panama Canal. Again under the deft touch of John Huston. Along with Mr. Greenstreet and Ms. Astor as possible nemeses.
Which sets the stage for Mr. Bogart’s first true romantic leading role opposite Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. A well cast, written and re written film which no one expected to do as well as it did. Being released early to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa. Garnering three Academy Awards for Best Picture. Best Director, Michael Curtiz. And Best Adapted Screenplay, Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein. Making Warner Brothers some serious money while catapulting Mr. Bogart into the Stratosphere and realm of romantic leading man. Though only visited a few times, as in Sabrina and The Barefoot Contessa. And usually augmented with healthy doses of wise cracking “Tough Guy”. As in To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo with Lauren Bacall.
Mr. Bogart kept the image and persona of the “Tough Guy” alive the longest in numerous films. From Sahara, where Mr. Bogart portrayed a very believable Tank Commander and Sergeant given a near impossible situation. To The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Where his everyman fall victim to Gold Fever, greed and paranoia. Mr. Bogart kept the faith. And opened the door for countless later players to pick up the baton and run with it!!