They were hard-boiled, tough-talking products of the dangerous streets of such places as the Bowery and Hell's Kitchen.
Bootlegging, the rackets, the black market; you name it and they were a part of it.
Such was the picture of the big city gangster as painted by Hollywood during the 1930s. The studios, under the guise of vTC "educating the public," turned out a parade of exciting crime movies filled with the sounds of blazing tommy guns and screeching automobiles.
No one was more adept at it than Warner Brothers. It was Warners who launched the cycle with the release of "Little Caesar" in 1930.
Former Broadway actor Edward G. Robinson was "Caesar," the little hood who rose up through the ranks, ala Al Capone, to take over the mob. "Mother of Mercy," Robinson uttered as his demise neared in the film, "is this the end of Rico?"
"Little Caesar" is somewhat dated but Robinson's performance is still something to see. A much better film is "The Public Enemy" starring James Cagney and released a year later by the studio.
Cagney is Tom Powers, who falls in with the seamy side of life while still a youngster. His performance remains one of the most powerful on film and his transformation from innocent youth to cold-bloodied killer is downright chilling.
"Public Enemy" features the famous scene in which Cagney smears a grapefruit in the face of whining Mae Clark. The climax is also memorable, with Powers, his body riddled with bullets, stumbling down the street through a pouring rain. As he tumbles face down in a puddle, he mutters his last words, "I ain't so tough."
This week (Feb. 19), MGM/UA is adding four more excellent Warner Brothers productions from the same period; two with Cagney and two with Robinson. Each is priced at $19.98.
"City for Conquest" (1940) finds Cagney as a truck driver who leaves the road to become a boxer. He hopes the money will help his younger brother, played by Arthur Kennedy in his film debut, who is pursuing a career in music. Also in the cast are Ann Sheridan and Anthony Quinn.
Cagney is on the right side of the law in "G-Men" (1935), the best of the four new releases. Although his background here is almost the same as that of Tom Powers, his life takes a different path. When a buddy is killed by a gangster, Cagney decides to join the FBI.
Robinson also pulls a switch in "Bullets or Ballots" (1936) and works on the side of the law as a cop. He pretends to leave the police force so he can infiltrate a mob run by Barton MacLane. Also in the cast are Joan Bondell and Humphrey Bogart.
Bogie also appears in the cast of "Brother Orchid" (1940) in which racketeer Robinson attempts to shake his criminal background and grab a place in society.