James Cagney's funny, weird, sexually charged early gangster movies.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
April 8 2008 3:13 PM

The Mayor of Hell

James Cagney and the formative years of the American gangster movie.

Gangsters.

In 1966, Warner Bros. grudgingly green-lighted Arthur Penn's modestly budgeted crime drama Bonnie and Clyde for first-time producer Warren Beatty. A few weeks later, Jack Warner, the 73-year-old titan who had co-founded the studio back in 1918 and still ran it with a mostly iron hand, finally read the script and, in a pique of pessimistic irritation, scolded his production chief for agreeing to make the movie at all. "I can't understand where the entertainment value is in this story. Who wants to see the rise and fall of a couple of rats?" Warner wrote. "I don't understand the whole thinking of Warren Beatty and Penn … this era went out with Cagney."

Warner's memo has since been enshrined as one of Hollywood's classic executive-suite head-slappers. Not only did Bonnie and Clyde become a game-changing hit, but its incendiary combination of comedy and bloody violence, French New Wave tropes, and American crime-spree iconography didn't remotely resemble the gangster quickies that Warner Bros. had churned out in the 1930s.

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The movie holds up beautifully in its new, lushly bedecked 40th anniversary rerelease, which includes a couple of soundless deleted scenes and a making-of documentary (but no commentary track, a DVD staple that Beatty disdains). It's been thoughtfully restored, with just enough graininess left on-screen so that the frame never looks digitally Botoxed. And if after 40 years, some of those nouvelle vague flourishes are showing their age, the movie still has the power to challenge, excite, and unsettle viewers.

This was, without question, something new. But had Jack Warner, or for that matter Bonnie and Clyde's many champions, taken another look at some of the films that "went out with Cagney," they might have discovered that in its formative years, the gangster movie was funnier, weirder, more sexually charged, and less constricted by moralizing than anyone remembered—as a revelatory new box set makes clear.

The words Volume 3 on a DVD release usually suggest that a studio is beginning to reach into the dustier recesses of its library. The just-out third installment of Warner's"Gangster Collection" is no exception. If you're looking for classics—Cagney introducing Mae Clarke's face to a grapefruit in The Public Enemy or Edward G. Robinson moaning, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" in Little Caesar—they're way back in Volume 1. Here, instead, are half a dozen relative rarities that contribute immeasurably to any understanding of how elastic, adaptable, and energetic the genre had become by 1934, when the stultifying restrictions of the Production Code began to be enforced and Hollywood movies became, for a time, duller and dumber.

These movies also showcase an actor who still has the power to astound. Between 1931 and 1934, James Cagney made 17 movies, all of them for Warner Brothers. Four—Smart Money, PictureSnatcher, Lady Killer,and the irresistibly titled The Mayor of Hell—are included here. None of them is, strictly speaking, a gangster movie. But together they make it clear that rigid genre labeling is beside the point when you're considering a period in which genres, and talking pictures, were still inventing themselves.

Cagney became an instant star with his cocky, tensile performance in The Public Enemy, a moment in which, Martin Scorsese has suggested, "modern screen acting begins." Menacing, likable, funny, tough, brutal, careless, and nimble, he seemed to operate at a higher voltage than everyone around him. (It was tough to get near him on-screen without getting injured.) Over the next few years, Warner built movie after movie around him, usually throwing caution and coherence to the wind in order to create entertainment that could service the desires of pretty much anyone who walked into a movie house, whether they were looking for a shoot 'em-up, a melodrama, a romance, a comedy, a caper, or just an hour indoors.

In 1931's Smart Money—shot before The Public Enemy was released—Cagney is still a second banana, supporting Edward G. Robinson in the lighthearted story of a small-town gambler who comes to the city (that's what it's called, on-screen: "the City") in search of a bigger game. This is Robinson's show, whether he's bullying a high-rolling bettor who may be a pimp (Boris Karloff) or telling off a double-crossing dame ("Why, you hustling little bag—I'll have you on your knees begging for a cup of coffee!").