The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film of all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

Little Caesar (1931)

Little_Caesar.JPG

When I was a kid we had an old VHS of Bugs Bunny shorts and one of the caricatures in a gangster-themed storyline — although I didn’t know it at the time — was undoubtedly Edward G. Robinson. That voice. That mug. That smug self-assuredness. They’re inimitable. Even then I knew the image without knowing who this garbled-mouthed gangster actually was. Watch Little Caesar and it’s all right there. In fact, without Little Caesar, one could step out on a limb and say that Bugs Bunny cartoon would never have been made. Though, Robinson was an indomitable personality. One way or another he would have broken through.

As it was, Robinson made a lasting impression in his big break, the picture that would make him a star just as its contemporary The Public Enemy (1931) did the same for James Cagney also at Warner Bros. True, it served as both a blessing and a curse typecasting the stars with their audiences. Still, both men led impressive careers which, at least on occasion, allowed them to break out of the mold and really show who they were as actors. And the beauty of their successes had nothing to do with an imposing physical frame but rather a sturdiness and commanding tenacity that made them into electric performers full of captivating stage presence.

With an opening quotation from Matthew, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” we are immediately tipped off this will be a moral tale right from the outset, an act of condemnation not glorification. However, that cannot completely neutralize the unadulterated gangsterism of Litte Caesar. Far from it.

With all these early Warner Bros. crime films we can define the arc of the story by an ambitious lug who’s willing to do whatever it takes to rise to the top, showcasing both guts and gats when necessary. It takes both to get ahead. Rico (Robinson) is a little guy who’s not content with his lot in life so he resolves to change things. He heads to Chicago with his buddy Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) to see what they can make of themselves.

Already they are on diverging paths as Joe looks to return to his first love of dancing, even finding a capable ally and love interest at a local club. Olga (Glenda Farrel) makes a new lease on life possible for him. But such a life would never do for Rico. He’s already set his sights on big-time crime, moving up the ranks with local mobster Sam Vettori.

Joe is roped in for a job as the inside man and reluctantly he goes along with it. But on the same night, New Year’s Eve, Rico guns down the crime commissioner during an otherwise straightforward hold up of the Bronze Peacock. It has heady implications as the local authorities look to clamp down.

As best as I can describe it, there is a stripped-down unsentimental bent to the action line going through the movie. The talking pictures still feel like a new phenomenon recorded on Vitaphone — a bit rigid and visually unimaginative — but in some respects, it aids in the characterization of the gangster underworld. It’s hard-edged, lacking any sense of freedom of movement or ideals. They play by a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality and they are not about to let you forget who your friends are. Rico and Joe provide the diverging alternative lifestyles available as one tries to go straight and the other becomes more crooked by the hour.

The character of Tony is another convenient case study for the movie as the local mob’s getaway driver who begins to lose his nerve and have remorse for his part in it all. It is his saintly mother who not offers him spaghetti but tries to remind him of his former life when he was a good boy. Convicted to the very core of his being, he goes to the priest for confession. But Rico will have none of this blubbering. His retribution is sure and swift as it’s always been, culminating in an OG drive-by shooting.

A gang war erupts when a failed hit is instigated on Rico. Instead, he and The Big Boy are able to consolidate power and he continues to rise up the ranks. All throughout his ascension, Rico lives by streetwise slogans like, “I ain’t afraid of nobody.” “The resident bosses are getting so they can dish it out but can’t take it anymore.” And of course, “the bigger a man becomes, the harder he falls.” It’s all but inevitable.

His words are prophetic because at some time Rico’s got to face the music and he does. Like The Public Enemy and Scarface, what sets these pictures apart is not necessarily that they glorified crime because you can make the case each tries to hammer home the moral crime doesn’t pay. And yet with the exhibitions in violence and the uninhibited pursuit of power by antiheroes like Cagney, Muni, and Robinson, the public latched onto them and propelled them into being big stars. Without the pre-code era, we would lack some of the legendary mystique of Rico.

In the end, riddled with Tommy gun fire, he looks up into the heavens, exclaiming those now immortal lines, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” With that, he breathes his last. But the miracle of celluloid means that now 85 years onward Edward G. Robinson’s performance lives on.

3.5/5 Stars

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

the_whole_towns_talking_1935_posterComic mayhem was always supercharged in the films of the 1930s because the buzz is palpable, the actors are always endowed with certain oddities, and the corkscrew plotlines run rampant with absurdities of their own.  Penned by a pair of titans in Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, The Whole Town’s Talking opens with an inciting incident that’s a true comedic conundrum.

Bald and beady-eyed Mr. Seaver is called upon to fire the next employee who comes in late to work. A tough proposition to begin with but it gets worse.  Arthur Ferguson Jones has not been late to work in 8 years and of course, today’s the day his alarm clock doesn’t work. Although he gets a reprieve. Still, the next person walking in isn’t so lucky. The hardy, wisecracking Miss Clark (Jean Arthur). And that’s our introduction to our main players.

But the real wrench comes from an age-old device that’s easy to scoff at initially. There’s a doppelganger. Yes, the same upstanding, timid Arthur Ferguson Jones is cut in the spitting image of Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion. But before you check out, consider what this does for this ruckus of a story. It ties it up in knots.

Jones is the talk of the town. Exploding flashbulbs. Cover stories. Tumult. Back in the glory days when the press ran in a pack like hyenas.  His boss invites him to dinner, wants an autograph for his boy. He’s being ribbed by his coworkers and Miss Jones takes an interest in his literary endeavors. This leads to a gig ghostwriting the gangster’s life story in the local paper.

Meanwhile, the police argue about what to do about him. They finally decide to give him a special passport. It says he’s not Killer Mannion. And hapless little Mr. Seaver still badgers his employee to finish up his waiting caseload. What no one expects is that Mannion will sneak into Jones’ home and sets up camp.

And from that point on, everything gets confused. Robinson gets a chance at a great deal of range sometimes having his two diverging roles playing off each other in the same frame. All you need to know is the gangster is looking to leave his new benefactor holding the bag for his numerous crimes. Whether it works out or not is quite another story.

This a particularly odd film for the talent assembled. It doesn’t especially feel like a John Ford film and not simply because it’s not a Western. But at this point in his career, his stock company isn’t even assembled.

Edward G. Robinson will always be identified with gangster pics and it’s true he was tired of that association. Here he’s playing comedy. He has one foot in his usual wheelhouse but the other seems utterly alien to his usual persona. As such it’s great fun.  And his timid common man isn’t even a tragic figure like Chris Cross (Scarlet Street). The comedy is far more apparent and that in part stems from Arthur.

She shows up late to work, gets fired, and still has quips coming out of her ears. She plays all the journalists trying to pump her for facts and at the same time falls for this dope who has her picture framed by his bedside. Perhaps better than anyone she perfected how to be cheeky but still wholesome and caring. Arthur feels most at home in this film more than anyone else, given her comedic pedigree but she and Robinson bounce off each other well.

In a few years she would play a Miss Jones but for right now she’s content calling her colleague by the pet name “Jonesie” and (tiny spoiler) she does become Mrs. Jones. So an oddball romantic pair they might be, but that doesn’t make the partnering of Robinson and Arthur any less amusing. They’re both on their A-game in The Whole Town’s Talking and thankfully there would be many more arresting performances to come.

4/5 Stars

White Heat (1949)

james_cagney_in_white_heat_trailer_cropWhite Heat burns like hot coals even today as the epitome of incendiary cinema. It’s a gangster picture from master Warner Bros. craftsman Raoul Walsh that’s volatile and intriguing, highlighted by the always fiery James Cagney as a crazed man-child with a mom complex.

Cagney had stayed away from gangster pictures that made him a star for nearly a decade and it’s true that now it’s easy to label this a film-noir given the sweeping tide of the times including other pictures like The Killers, Brute Force, and so on.

Still, everything that is truly inspired from this film stems from Cagney’s performance because we have seen gangsters before, bank jobs, inside men, gun molls, and the like but Cody Jarrett is one for the ages. He throws a twisted wrench into what is already a quality thriller by going absolutely ballistic and simultaneously jolting it in the most peculiar ways.

Before Norman Bates was even whispered on the lips of audiences Cagney burst onto the scene with his demonic characterization, very plainly evil personified as the psychotic Cody Jarrett. He smacks policemen, guns down the worthless, and schemes incessantly. However, he also has a strange sense of family and friendship. He’s prone to crippling migraines like his insane father and still parks himself on his mother’s lap. He even befriends a copper, except he doesn’t know it. He gets duped like a two-bit stooge.

Edmond O’Brien was on the rise at this point following such films as The Killers and The Web. He still owns a supporting role in the sometimes thankless job as the decent heartbeat of law and order. But he has so much more character than all the other stiffs with their fine looks and chiseled jawlines who simultaneously faded into the annals of history.

Although he’s playing support to Cagney, there are a lot worse gigs and the pair works well with each other. At one time strangers, confidantes, and finally bitter enemies in the constantly seesawing dynamic that comes when an undercover agent looks to get buddy-buddy with a certifiable psychopath. Not surprisingly it makes for a thoroughly engaging crime film because the characters actually have something to them.

The iconic Mess Hall sequence brimming with Cagney’s explosive bravado is representative of his flair throughout the entire picture. It just won’t let up. It never lets up. A line of “telephone” takes a message down the row of inmates (including sports icon Jim Thorpe) before reaching the waiting ears of the hardened criminal. Like a stick of dynamite, he goes off and becomes possessed by some unnamed force. It represents the manic, off the wall style of Cagney that still compels audiences today. It’s no longer a simple performance. This is not acting (or it doesn’t seem like it). This is feeling, hate, anger, rebellion, and violence all channeled into a transcendent moment where the man has completely lost himself in a role. No one can touch him. It’s fantastic.

Virginia Mayo finds herself portraying her particular sultry siren accustomed to mink and bubblegum. While Steve Cochran stands tall as the main crony with big ideas, the aptly name Big Ed who is looking to worm himself in on Jarret’s territory (and female company), while he’s incarcerated. Meanwhile, Margaret Wycherly who was previously known as the angelic mother of Alvin York takes on a maternal role on the complete opposite spectrum and she does a fine job as a woman modeled after the notorious Ma Barker.

Any great crime story needs a final set piece where everything can culminate in one ultimate crescendo. White Heat does not disappoint in this regard as Agent Hank Fallon looks to tip off his colleagues following the inception of a big heist of a chemical plant in Long Beach. What follows is a tense dragnet and shootout and it’s a fitting place for Jarrett to meet his maker or in his case his mother. He literally goes into the inferno, blowing up and entering the conflagrations of hell in the most startling of fashions — still clinging doggedly to his mom–his twisted guardian angel of death. It’s a curtain call worthy of such a performance and knowing it can do no better, the film ends there, no fanfare just a grimy picture where criminals aren’t as cut and dry as Hollywood once supposed.

5/5 Stars

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

angelswithdirtyfaces-theatricalposterWhaddya hear, whaddya say ~ Jimmy Cagney as Rocky Sullivan

If he hadn’t been on the stage and screen, it’s easy to get the sense that James Cagney, born and bred on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could have easily been a gangster. And it’s true that in films like Public Enemy and White Heat he embodied gangsters for ensuing generations solidifying his own legend.

Angles with Dirty Faces features another stellar performance as Rocky Sullivan, but what makes it truly unique are the intertwining worlds of faith and crime that meet and ultimately provide the major conflict in the narrative. It’s at these crosswords — the moral fabric of the film — where things get fascinating and to understand those things it’s necessary to see where Angel with Dirty Faces opens.

Two young hoodlums get caught in the act of snitching from a train car and in the ensuing chase one gets nabbed by the cops while the other slips away from their clutches to live another day. This succinct scene is a fitting reflection of all that happens thereafter. The one fellow will grow up to be the notorious gangster extraordinaire Rocky Sullivan who will be at odds with the authorities from his first moments in juvie to his final days.

Meanwhile, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) becomes a local priest who makes it his life’s work to reform the young men in the community who are more than likely destined for the life of Rocky and his fellow gangsters. Through a certain amount of kindness and quiet strength, he attempts to mold the boys through constructive activities like basketball, choir, and other extracurriculars. However, the bad boys (the real life Dead End Kids ensemble, less actors than personified hellraisers) are not quite swayed by his regimen, more content rough-housing, causing mayhem, and idolizing their rebellious hero the great Rocky Sullivan.

When he finally gets out of his stint in prison, Rocky has some choice words for his crooked lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) who hands over a load of cash to save his neck although he’s not looking to be swindled. But although he continues to have his hand in the local corruption and crime scenes, Rocky still maintains his ties with his old friend while renting a room from the girl he used to rib, the now stunning Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan). Here the core relationship between Rocky and Jerry becomes paramount as Jerry vows to tackle corruption in the city with the help of a local paper, even if his old buddy gets in the way.

So Jerry begins his full-fledged crusade against vice because he sees it as a threat to his parish — made up of the impressionable boys in his stead. But just as crucial is the boy’s idol worship, namely of Rocky. This is Jerry’s final goal to bring their idol tumbling down and it doesn’t involve simply destroying the aura surrounding a gangster — it involves two old friends making one final promise. The crime syndicate is thrown into an uproar as Rocky is wanted for murder, cornered, and finally apprehended.  Oh how the mighty have fallen, although he’s not about to go yellow because that’s the only thing he has left–his own bullish sense of moxie.

Still, Jerry asks him to imbue a different kind of courage (Not the courage or heroics of bravado but the kind that you, me, and God know about). And as the electric chair looms in front of Rocky as an arbiter of justice, you could easily make the claim that this is his modern-day cross with him as the martyr. But this gets into the ultimate dilemma where everything begins to break down. Either Rocky committed his final act out of undying affection for an old friend (and not remorse) or more feebly still he was not repentant at all but was, on the contrary, legitimately groveling in the face of death.

The first time seeing this film I mistakenly mistook Rocky’s actions as heroic in the end because as our protagonist that’s what we like to project onto him but it simply does not line up. The way he’s so belligerent before breaking down as he gets ready to meet his maker. The way the priest looks on with tears in his eyes, newspaper men too awestruck to jot down a single note. I mistook Cagney’s astonishing acting for Rocky’s own showmanship. However, the more astounding conclusion is that Rocky is hardly high and mighty in the end. His rough veneer is equally easy to shatter as his being is brought to the ultimate low, death.

It reflects the moral ambiguity of man that these angels with dirty faces are not in the singular sense but the sum of man in his plurality. We are all prone to evil just as we are all capable of good. But we can hardly save ourselves just as we are not always wholly good or wholly evil. The best we can do is make the way better for other people. If this film is any indication sometimes it’s extremely difficult to parse through the differences between the altruism versus the evil versus just plain cowardice.

Films about friends on diverging paths have continued to exist from Cry of the City to Mystic River but Angels with Dirty Faces is arguably one of the most compelling. Once again, Cagney steals the film with his usual no holds barred approach.  It electrifies the screen like very few others, making Angels with Dirty Faces an undisputed gangster classic and one of his very best.

Furthermore, the often discounted Michael Curtiz shows his versatility with the foremost of Warner Bros. winning craftsmen including directors William A. Wellman and Raoul Walsh. Notably, each man paired with Cagney with great results, because, after all, he is without question the king of the gangsters.

4.5/5 Stars

Branded to Kill (1967)

branded to kill 1Branded to Kill is the stuff of legend inasmuch as director Seijun Suzuki offered up this wonderfully wacky, perverse, dynamic film and was subsequently dumped by his studio.  At Nikkatsu they accused Suzuki of crafting an oeuvre that made “no sense and no money.” And if we watch it with the eyes of a rational, money-grubbing business mind, there’s a point to be made. Because this film is ridiculous on so many accounts, absurd in plot and action, starring an unlikely cult hero — a silky smooth hit man with prominent cheekbones and a hyper-sexualized penchant for steamed rice.

Its budget and yakuza genre suggest it has no right be remembered as little more than a throwaway action flick–a petty amalgamation of American film noir and James Bond. In fact, that’s probably what the bigwigs at the studio would have liked, but Suzuki worked his own bit of cinematic magic.

If we set the scene everything looks sleek but potentially uninspired. This is your typical everyday hitman movie where each gunman is deadlier than the next, trying to knock off their marks so they can move of the hit list to the coveted  #1 spot. Except it’s all played off satirically. That’s important to note.

From the outset, Goro Hanado is # 3 and he is joined by a drunken, spineless cohort in protecting a client from other assassins. It’s entertaining action that maintains some sense of stylized reality. But soon enough the cutting and jumps in continuity make Branded to Kill into a full-fledged absurdist trip – simultaneously wacky and deadly. Now we’re getting into stranger territory.

branded to kill 4Phase two follows Goro as he flaunts his tireless inventiveness as a hit man. Hiding inside a cigarette lighter advertisement and shooting his target through an adjoining water pipe for good measure. Then the femme fatale Misako slinks into his life and after a botched job, his life is in jeopardy, an unlikely adversary being his wife.  She rightly characterizes them as beasts and their home life is pure chaos.

By the latter half, the film has completely careened off the rails of convention, at times functioning as a widescreen collage of glorious visuals matched with the sweet cadence of sounds and score. Chiaroscuro lighting is pulled directly from the shadowy avenues of noir streets, with the camera, often moving leisurely through modern interiors and human bodies constantly obscured by fountains of water, butterflies or whatever else.

branded to kill 2By now we have the total dissolution of the character we have known as he begins to sink into an all-out state of sniveling paranoia. He finally meets the mysterious number  1 and far from being a tense showdown, it turns into a rather pitiful scenario. They go arm and arm to the toilet, not allowing each other out of sight as number 1 decides how to finish off his hapless foe.The final showdown comes and it’s all we could ask for. Brutal, perplexing and above all undeniably unique – accented with the brushstrokes of an utterly creative mind.

My thoughts thus far feel admittedly disjointed and almost incoherent. I feel like I’m writing chicken scratch crossed with gobbledygook, but that’s the perfect homage to Suzuki’s art. Its aesthetic is hard to comprehend in common terms. Is it a masterpiece? Is it not a masterpiece? I’m not quite sure I can give a clear conclusion. What measuring stick can we hope to use with it? And that’s hardly the point. If you want something immeasurably different–something that will shake you out of the millennial malaise, view Branded to Kill. You might not like it because those Nikkatsu fellows were right. No sense. No money. But there’s more to life, now isn’t there?

4/5 Stars

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

Ga220px-Scar2ngsters, prohibition, Al Capone, the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre. It all sounds like some distant piece of folklore that by now is far removed from our modern day sensibilities. But when films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and of course Scarface came out, these things were at the forefront of the national conscience. In fact, it seems like these films have seeped into our culture, making it hard to pull the legends and cinematic stereotypes away from the cold hard facts that have now dissipated with time.

Like the other gangster dramas, Howard Hawks‘ effort makes it blatantly obvious with its introductory title card that it is a story condemning the rise and fall of the gangsters. Much like many modern films, there is a great deal of screen time given to corrupt characters, but in this case, there is meant to be less ambiguity. The audience is directed to the fact that this is not a glorification, but an indictment. That didn’t mean controversy was not stirred up since Scarface’s immense amount of violence got it held up by the censors. But it did finally make it past in 1932.

What follows is what we would expect: The rise and fall of one ambitious mobster Tony “Scarface” Carmona. He starts out as an enforcer and tough guy who is ready to make his way up the ranks and he’s not going to allow any Tom, Dick, or Giuseppe get in his way. He often incurs the displeasure of his worried mother, and he is often distraught with his baby sister (Ann Dvorak) since she will not keep away from the boys.

Pretty soon Tony is made second in command, and his boss is looking into taking over the South Side after the previous big shot was knocked off. The little men cannot do much about Johnny and his crew moving in on the territory, but of course Tony’s not satisfied. Along with making a pass at the bosses girl, he starts taking it to rival mobsters on the North Side even when Johnny told him to lay off.

Retaliation follows with a vengeance and the cops are also taking an increasing interest in nailing Tony since he’s such a smug hotshot. But Scarface’s new best friend is the Tommy Gun. Tony only increases his ambitions by countering the rival mobsters, ambushing and gunning them down all across town. There’s no mercy and he even annihilates the rival boss Gaffney (Boris Karloff) at a bowling alley. Tony even manages to escape a hit put on him by Johnny and pretty soon old Scarface is running the show like he always wanted.

Every rise is always followed by a crushing fall, and Tony is no different. He is enraged to find his buddy and perpetual coin flipper Little Boy (George Raft) calling on his sister. Tony literally loses his mind gunning his friend down in cold blood and thus unwittingly setting himself up for an undisputed murder wrap. He deliriously holds himself up in his barricaded flat, but the hourglass is slowly running out. The game is up as quickly as it began.

Paul Muni is a fairly captivating lead who pulls off the gruff Italian tough guy pretty well. His supporting cast including the glowering George Raft and his hapless “secretary” (Vince Barnett). Although Ann Dvorak felt like a girl miscast. Otherwise, this pre-code film has its fair share of bullets flying and sirens blaring. It’s a film full of grit and shadowy avenues that are sometimes swimming with beer and sometimes blood. It is extraordinary to think of where Hawks went from this film, one of his earlier works because he really was one of the most adaptable and successful directors I can think of. His films do not always reflect his own personal style per se, but they are more often than not engaging, self-assured, and dynamic. Scarface is little different. An early classic from one of the great American visionaries of film.

4.5/5 Stars

Donnie Brasco (1997)

220px-Donnie_brasco_ver2In the tradition of such films as Serpico, Goodfellas, and even The Departed, Donnie Brasco is another worthy addition to the gangster canon. You have a necessary mainstay in Al Pacino, playing the veteran and streetwise hit man Lefty. He’s been around and is claimed to have 26 “whacks” to his name. One fateful day he took Donnie under his wing and the two became real pals. Better than that they were family and Lefty vouched for Donnie, bringing him into his life and his business. It’s just that his business revolves being a member of one of the mob families.

The story is twofold, however, because Donnie Brasco’s real name is Joe Pisone, and he is an undercover agent for the FBI. However, in order to do his job he has to be gone for months on end. He checks in and has a tape recorder on his person, but for all intent and purposes, he is a member of the mob. They think he’s one of them which Pistone’s superiors are delighted about, but he also begins to relate to them and see himself pulled into their reality.

Long months away from his wife and kids do not help their marriage or his family life. Whenever he drops in their life, he’s cold and detached. His wife expects something more. She wants her husband back, but all he has for her is a fiery temper courtesy of the crowd he hangs out with now.

He follows their crowd from New York, down to Florida trying to get a cut of the land there, but after getting ousted by the cops, they must head dejectedly back to New York. Several times Joe almost gets his cover blown, but even more perturbing he stops checking in with his superiors. His wife is bearing the toll of his absence and tries to content herself with thoughts of him being dead. It’s easier to take.

Meanwhile, young hopeful Sonny (Michael Madsen), with the help of his cronies, knocks off his rival and things are looking up for the whole lot of them. Donnie knows however that there will come a point where he will be pulled out and that will be the end of it. He tries to give his new found friend and confidante Lefty a way out. He offers money to his pal, in a last-ditch effort to get the vet to leave this life behind. Instead, they follow through with the hit that they’re supposed to.

The irony of this story is that Joe Pisone gets a medal and a $500 check for his services to his country. He spent however many months and years in this high tension, high-stress environment and that’s what he gets. You can see him scoffing at it. His marriage is essentially shot to hell. He lost one of the best friends he had and that’s the end of it.

It’s great having Al Pacino in this film because he along with Robert De Niro will always embody the gangster to me. Except instead of playing the steely Michael Corleone, he’s the more world wearied type. Bruno Kirby sounded so much like Joe Pesci that it was almost uncanny to me. And it was a pleasure to see Johnny Depp in such a role since he is so often remembered for his quirkier roles. Here he truly seems to show his dramatic acting chops, and the camaraderie between him and Pacino is palpable in their scenes.

4/5 Stars

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

e08f7-the-roaring-twentiesHere is a retrospective gangster film reminiscing about the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties extending from the post WWI period  of prohibition to the election of FDR.
Two mainstays of the genre including the original gangster James Cagney and hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart star as two men in a group of three soldiers who meet during World War I. In the ensuing years Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) initially has difficulty getting back into society, but after meeting Speakeasy owner Panama Smith (Gladys George) he finds himself climbing the ranks in the bootlegging business. Soon through grit and a ruthless drive Eddie makes good racketeering by utilizing taxis with booze to make it big. 

Through it all Eddie becomes smitten with a young singer he used to know when she was a young girl (Priscilla Lane), except she does not share his affection. Pretty soon his ol’ buddy George (Bogart) comes back into the picture, with a some shifting dealings of his own. Eddie practically runs the town now but when the Crash happens he gets pushed out by George and now Jean is off and married to her lawyer beau. Eddie is a washed-up taxi driver still hanging around Panama and he has time to do one last favor for Jean.

This is one of the last great gangster films of the 1930s following in the wake of other Cagney classics like The Public Enemy and Angel with Dirty Faces. Raoul Walsh directs this film and it develops as another dynamic, action packed film with a lot of drama and heart thanks to Cagney and George. It is however different from previous gangster flicks in that it plays out as a history although it keeps the nitty-gritty look of the previous films. Like Angel with Dirty Faces especially, there are also some sentimental moments because Cagney is not a complete scoundrel, just mostly. Not wanting to continue being typecast Cagney took a break from the genre not coming back until White Heat in 1949. He did pretty well for himself during the 1940s though with performances in The Stawberry Blonde and Yankee Doodle Dandy. There was another fellow who did not do too bad in that interim period either, new found leading man Humphrey Bogart.

“What was his business?”
“He used to be a big shot.”
 
4/5 Stars

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

b1a0c-bonnie_and_clydeStarring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, with director Arthur Penn, the film chronicles the crime life of a group of notorious gangsters during the 1930s. Clyde Barrow (Beatty), a small time thief meets the beautiful young girl Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) and together they begin robbing banks. Soon they enlist the help of a dim-witted mechanic C.W., and then Clyde’s brother joins the fray bringing along his wife. They have a string of successes and they become infamous nationwide. Soon they begin to bicker among themselves and the police start to buckle down. In a shootout Buck is shot dead and Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. just barely escape. However, their actions eventually do catch up with them and thus ends the story of these two figures depicted as anti-heroes. This film is significant because it was influenced by the French New Wave but it in turn ushered in a new era of American film . It has a unique combination of comedy, romance, violence, and of course banjo music.

5/5 Stars