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4.5 stars

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The Movie Itself
4.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
5 Stars
High-Def Extras
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Bottom Line
Must Own

The Ultimate Gangsters Collection Classics

Street Date:
May 21st, 2013
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
May 30th, 2013
Movie Release Year:
1931
Studio:
Warner Brothers
Length:
357 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

Back in Hollywood's heyday, MGM was known for its lavish musicals and Universal cornered the market on horror movies. The gangster film, however, belonged almost exclusively to Warner Bros, which, over the course of a decade, transformed a fledgling genre into an art form. No other studio cranked out a grittier or more violent product or told topical tales ripped from the day's headlines with such insight and vigor. Tough-talking wiseguys, their sassy and brassy molls, and a squadron of square-jawed cops populate these taut, pulsating pictures that prove - despite prologues and epilogues to the contrary - that crime does pay, at least for a while, and the ruthless, doomed thugs who terrorize society and break the law with brazen abandon harbor enough twisted mental afflictions to make Dr. Freud salivate with glee. Any moralizing is kept to a minimum, and romance strictly falls in the rock-'em-sock-'em caveman category. In this barbaric world, rules are simple, the code is clear, and retribution (or revenge) is swift...and painful. Brisk, hard, and endlessly entertaining, the films comprising the Warner gangster canon stand as timeless salutes to a bygone age and undisputed cinema classics.

Though several box sets could be culled from the Warner gangster vault, this initial "ultimate" offering contains four of the studio's most iconic mob titles - 'Little Caesar,' 'The Public Enemy,' 'The Petrified Forest,' and 'White Heat.' The first three films put their respective leading men - Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart - on the cinematic map, launching careers of astonishing duration and versatility, while the final movie puts a blistering - and literally explosive - exclamation point on an era and style that would often be imitated, but never matched. All, however, are distinctly Warner and share common themes and a pugnacious attitude of drive and desperation that's both fascinating and thrilling. Though they live in infamy on celluloid, Rico Bandelo, Tom Powers, Duke Mantee, and Cody Jarrett are fictional figures, yet their all-American stories are as disturbing as those of any real-life outlaw, and a vital cog in the evolution of our culture.

'Little Caesar' (1931)

As cuddly as a tarantula and with a face only a mother could love, Edward G. Robinson is perhaps the most unlikely star in Hollywood history. Yet in Robinson's rare case, talent eclipsed looks in the eyes of the usually fickle public, and his menacing, cigar-chomping portrayal of mobster Caesar Enrico Bandelo mesmerized moviegoers and galvanized the burgeoning gangster genre. 'Little Caesar,' based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, chronicles the rise and fall of an ambitious small-time hood (modeled loosely on Al Capone) whose all-consuming hunger for power and unquenchable thirst for celebrity both propel his ascendancy and speed his destruction. Mervyn LeRoy's no-nonsense film is also a searing study of the inner-workings and hierarchical structure of organized crime, and depicts just how difficult it is to wriggle free from the syndicate's strangulating grip.

One of the best early talkies, 'Little Caesar' is somewhat hindered by the constraints of rudimentary sound technology, but a striking series of dissolves during the pivotal heist sequence and some other flashes of visual artistry nicely balance the picture, which flaunts all the elements of Warner's distinctive early-1930s filmmaking style - swift pacing, rapid-fire dialogue, socially relevant themes, and a no-frills production design. And while the script follows what would become the typical gangster film blueprint, an air of Greek tragedy hangs over the proceedings, as well as an undercurrent of latent homosexuality, as Rico's intense feelings for his long-standing buddy (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) alter the trajectory of both their careers.

Of course, without Robinson in the lead role, it's doubtful 'Little Caesar' would wield such enormous impact. (It's interesting to note producer Hal B. Wallis originally wanted to cast an unknown actor named Clark Gable in the title role, but studio chief Jack L. Warner rejected him, saying Gable's ears were too big and "stuck out like a couple of wind socks.") His nasal vocal quality and bulldog face enhance the character's ruthless nature, yet that same lack of physical attractiveness sparks eventual pity for Rico and lends him an everyman quality that helps bring the high-flying tale down to earth. Though Robinson would go on to land a host of colorful parts, the ghost of Rico Bandelo would forever haunt him, just as his reading of the film's famous last line - "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" - would rightfully cement his place in the annals of cinema history. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.

'The Public Enemy' (1931)

Released a mere three months following 'Little Caesar,' William A. Wellman's 'The Public Enemy' paints a more full-bodied portrait of a career criminal, showing how economic hardship, lack of education, and, most importantly, the influences of a corrupt society lead innocent boys astray. It also more specifically weaves Prohibition into its plot, silently condemning it as the root of gangland violence, and strives to downplay the glamorous aspects of mob life that blinded starry-eyed contemporary audiences to the harsh realities of a lawless existence.

While some sluggish stretches somewhat dull its impact, 'The Public Enemy' remains a damn good motion picture packed with memorable images and a seething brutality that set it apart from its sister films. It also made 32-year-old James Cagney a household name. Originally cast as Tom Powers' sidekick, Matt, Cagney switched roles with actor Edward Woods just prior to the start of shooting at the behest of Wellman, who recognized Cagney's magnetism and ferocity. The rest, as they say, is history, and whether Cagney is pumping a rival full of lead, dazedly muttering "I ain't so tough" as he collapses in a gutter, or, in the film's most iconic moment, smashing a half grapefruit into his girlfriend's face in a shocking fit of pique, he's a riveting screen presence. Cagney, too, would have trouble escaping future gangster roles, but after a period of rebellion, he would eventually embrace the persona.

'The Public Enemy' charts Tom's rise through the underworld ranks, which, much like the mobsters in 'GoodFellas,' begins when he's a kid doing odd jobs for the local big shot, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). Once they mature, Tom and Matt join a high-level bootlegging operation run by Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton), which considerably inflates both their social standing and egos, until vicious gangland battles bring both men down. Joan Blondell as a heart-of-gold floozie who loves Woods and up-and-coming sexpot Jean Harlow as a society dame of questionable breeding who dallies with Cagney add appropriate spice to the proceedings and help humanize the film's anti-heroes. Wellman's tough-as-nails direction keeps the story grounded, and the final image remains as shocking and gruesome today as it surely must have seemed 82 years ago. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.

'The Petrified Forest' (1936)

Poetic language and lofty ideas don't usually find their way into gangster pictures, but 'The Petrified Forest' is chock full of both — almost to the exclusion of the stylized gun violence and tough lingo that define the genre. More an examination of man's tortured spirit than a peek inside his sadistic soul, this taut, emotionally affecting film is perhaps best remembered for the electrifying, star-making performance of Humphrey Bogart as the outlaw Duke Mantee. But the lyrical prose of Robert Sherwood, whose hit play inspired the film, deserves equal praise, and lifts this atypical mob film above others in its class.

Set in a dilapidated diner-cum-gas station in the heart of the Arizona desert, 'The Petrified Forest' brings together an intriguing collection of disillusioned misfits who bare their souls while being held captive by the murderous Mantee. Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a penniless drifter with "uncertain" plans, rues his wasted life and thwarted literary potential, and now wanders the American countryside searching for "something worth living for...or dying for." His quest for meaning ends in a most unlikely spot when he encounters the wide-eyed Gabby Maple (Bette Davis), daughter of the diner's proprietor, who fantasizes about escaping the desolate Southwest and studying painting in Paris. Alan appreciates Gabby's spirit and vitality, while she's attracted to his intellect and sensitivity — a refreshing change from the doltish Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran), a brawny former football hero who fancies her.

When Mantee, who strikingly resembles John Dillinger, commandeers the diner, Squier impulsively alters his life insurance policy and names Gabby the beneficiary. He then makes Mantee promise to kill him, in the hope Gabby will use the inheritance to pursue her dream and develop her talent. Although the two men couldn't possess more divergent personalities, Alan and Mantee develop a kinship born of their fatalistic attitudes and "obsolete" nature — Mantee is a relic of the Roaring '20s, while Squier evokes the Lost Generation. Both feel they no longer fit into the world, and ironically make a last stand in a mystical wasteland where wood turns to stone.

Thanks to the literate adaptation by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, and sensitive direction by Archie Mayo, 'The Petrified Forest' possesses far more depth than the formulaic menace-to-society, crime-doesn't-pay gangster flicks that flooded theaters throughout the 1930s. Although the climactic shootout flaunts all the trademark touches of Warner's best mob efforts, the exchange of ideas remains the film's raison d'etre, and it admirably adheres to the play's core elements, even while whittling down the story to a lean 82 minutes.

Both Bogart and Howard created their respective roles on Broadway, yet when Jack Warner suggested Edward G. Robinson play Mantee in the movie version, Howard balked, and refused to come to Hollywood unless Bogart was cast. Warner acquiesced, and within a few years, Bogart became the studio's biggest star. His smoldering presence here commands attention, yet the actor divorces himself from the archetypal portrayals of Cagney and Robinson by turning his intensity inward and adding a glimmer of compassion that gives his performance marvelous dimension and resonance. Howard is equally fine, and though his character strongly resembles the weak-willed Ashley Wilkes, his conviction carries the day and makes us admire Alan Squier even if we can't wholly understand his suicidal actions. He and Davis (who worked together previously on the classic Of Human Bondage) share a lovely rapport, and their relationship develops believably despite the compressed timeframe. Davis embraces her ingénue character, imbuing Gabby with just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder and girlish sincerity. The result is a simple yet emotional performance that's far different from the bulk of Davis' best-known and most acclaimed portrayals.

Although 'The Petrified Forest' is very much a film of its time (and can't totally escape a dated aura), its themes and performances still resonate, and turn this "gangster" movie into a multi-layered, involving cinematic experience. Rating: 4 stars.

'White Heat' (1949)

Who says you can't go home again? Not only did James Cagney return to the studio that made him a star after a multi-year hiatus, he also returned to the type of role that made him a star after almost a decade of shunning similar parts. 'White Heat' brings the Cagney-Warner Bros-gangster cycle full circle, as it recalls with relish the rough-and-tumble mob pictures of yore, yet builds upon them by adding more violence, more psychological shadings, and a heightened sense of toughness to satisfy more savvy and mature audiences. Bold, brassy, and uncompromising, 'White Heat' blazes across the screen, bringing the genre to its apex while bidding the classic structure a fond and appropriately incendiary farewell.

Cody Jarrett is Tom Powers on steroids, an unrepenting, cynical, sadistic gangster whose only redeeming quality is his pathological devotion to his equally crooked, hard-as-nails mother (Margaret Wycherly). Ma Jarrett, based on the legendary Ma Barker, protects her son at all costs, keeping tabs on his two-timing wife (Virginia Mayo) and keeping his gang in line while Cody lays low in prison, serving time for a minor charge in order to avoid getting fingered for a big one. While in the slammer, Cody is befriended by undercover T-man Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), who hopes to infiltrate Jarrett's brood and bring them to justice.

Psychopathic to the core, plagued by crippling headaches, saddled with an Oedipus complex, and shockingly ruthless, Jarrett is a dream role, and Cagney plays it to the hilt, snarling, cackling, smirking, and strutting his way to the memorable chemical plant finale and that oft-quoted, orgiastic exultation, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" Instead of smashing a grapefruit in Mayo's face, Cagney kicks a chair out from under her, and in arguably the film's most memorable scene, the actor goes certifiably berserk when he learns some disturbing news in the prison mess hall. Dynamo doesn't begin to describe Cagney in this once-in-a-lifetime role; he's more of a whirling dervish, literally tearing up the screen, and it takes several massive explosions to snuff him out.

Director Raoul Walsh made his name crafting tough, macho films, and 'White Heat' just may well be his masterpiece. Breathlessly paced, lean and mean, the movie rivets attention from the opening frames, grabbing us by the throat and never letting go. The violence may be excessive by 1940s standards (and over the top by any standards), but the psychological elements lend the story welcome weight, humanizing Cody and - amazingly - engendering a modicum of sympathy for a cold-blooded killer.

The last of the great gangster pictures before the Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola renaissance in the early 1970s, 'White Heat' ends a classic period in film history with a bang, not a whimper. It's the ultimate gangster offering in what truly is the ultimate gangster collection. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

'The Ultimate Gangsters Collection Classics' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a sturdy box with raised lettering. A Blu-ray case that snugly holds all four high-def discs plus a standard-def DVD lies inside, as well as a slickly produced, lavishly illustrated 32-page hardcover volume that provides a perfunctory history of the classic gangster genre and separate analyses of the quartet of movies comprising this collection. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

All of the transfers in this collection are top-notch and greatly improve upon their respective DVD counterparts. Crisp yet natural, and sporting marvelous contrast levels that produce a palpable sense of depth, the images of all four films will surely satisfy the most discriminating classic film aficionado. Some age-related imperfections do remain - it's impossible to erase every blemish on 80-year-old movies - but Warner has painstakingly touched up the pictures to the highest degree possible without destroying the integrity of the original specimens.

Blacks across the board are rich and inky, while terrific gray scale variance highlights details well, such as Rico's polka dot shirt and speckled bow tie in 'Little Caesar.' The white fur trim that adorns outfits worn by Jean Harlow and Mae Clarke in 'The Public Enemy' is bright, sharp, and well defined, and intricate patterns resist shimmering. Background elements are wonderfully sharp, and fabrics, such as wool suits and satin gowns, exude a marvelous sense of texture. Close-ups wield plenty of impact, too, and grain levels haven't been compromised, so each movie maintains the warm feel of celluloid.

'Little Caesar' is the oldest film in the bunch, so it's not surprising it brandishes the most print defects. Though most marks and scratches have been removed, a few nagging specks remain, along with some faint vertical lines that unfortunately disrupt a few key scenes, such as Rico's final confrontation with Joe. Some soft stretches and brief moments of excessive grain crop up here and there, but such anomalies are to be expected when dealing with films from the early 1930s. 'The Public Enemy' is much cleaner, but grain levels are slightly higher. Still, the overall clarity and vitality that burst from almost every frame - especially during the climactic rain sequence - are quite remarkable, and Cagney's menacing close-ups continue to pack quite a wallop.

Grain and softness variations are present on 'The Petrified Forest' as well, but they're relatively minor, and the picture is free of any grit or marks, making it a huge step up from the previous ragged DVD. The high degree of sharpness, however, makes the painted backdrops more noticeable now than ever before, but also lends the expansive desert shots more depth. As the most recent film in this collection, 'White Heat' understandably looks the best, sporting a lush smoothness even during harshly lit scenes that draws the viewer deep into Cody's twisted world. Contrast here is exceptionally good, undoubtedly thanks to the noir influences that permeate the picture. One highly grainy shot is momentarily jarring, but no more shocking than any of Cody's sadistic acts of violence.

Minor quibbling aside, these are all terrific transfers that mirror the magnetism of the on-screen mobsters, and as such, should blow most viewers away. Even if you already own the DVDs of these films, a double dip is recommended and encouraged.

Ratings:

'Little Caesar' - 4 stars

'The Public Enemy' - 4.5 stars

'The Petrified Forest' - 4.5 stars

'White Heat' - 4.5 stars

The Audio: Rating the Sound

DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks grace all four films, and the remastered sound is quite impressive. Of course, a bit of hiss afflicts 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy,' largely due to the primitive equipment employed during the early years of talking pictures, but any pops and crackles have been meticulously erased, leaving marvelously clean tracks that stand up well today. The iconic sonic accents of gangster films - gunfire, screeching tires, blaring sirens, and shattering glass - are all crisp and distinct, and the ever-present desert wind in 'The Petrified Forest' adds subtle atmosphere to the on-screen action.

The rapid-fire dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend in all the movies (however a bit of distortion muddies a couple of conversations in 'The Public Enemy'), and though all the audio is anchored up front, there's enough fidelity to produce a pleasing soundscape. Dynamic range is somewhat limited, and a slight tinny quality colors the music in the three 1930s films, but considering their advanced age such deficiencies are to be expected.

Not surprisingly, the best sounding film is also the most recent - 'White Heat.' The highly active track is well mixed, allowing all the elements - dialogue, effects, music - to nicely coexist. Max Steiner's frenetic, string-laden score possesses wonderful presence and tonal depth, and the climactic series of explosions produce solid rumbles, even in mono. Subtleties and background noises are also more pronounced here, and the artillery sounds more powerful and deadly as well.

Though these tracks won't test the limits of your sound system, they complement their respective films well, and only minimally call attention to their vintage nature. Once again, Warner has taken great care with its classics collection, and Golden Age aficionados owe the studio their appreciation.

Rating for all four films: 4 stars.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

All four films were originally released in a DVD box set (along with 'The Roaring Twenties' and 'Angels With Dirty Faces,' which sadly do not make appearances here) and each disc included a wealth of fascinating supplements, all of which have been ported over to their respective Blu-ray counterparts. The material includes commentaries, featurettes, and plenty of vintage goodies from the Warner vaults. There's also a bonus DVD disc that contains additional material that's well worth checking out.

Bonus Disc

  • Documentary: "Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film" (SD, 106 minutes) - This fantastic feature-length documentary covers the complete history of gangsters on film, from 1903's 'The Great Train Robbery' to 2006's 'The Departed.' An array of noteworthy film experts, including Martin Scorsese, Rudy Behlmer, and Leonard Maltin, discuss, analyze, and offer insightful perspective on the genre and how it evolved over the past century. We learn how crime and violence fueled the development of movies as an entertainment medium during the silent era, and how Lon Chaney laid the groundwork for the future Warner gangsters. The influence of Prohibition, the Depression, and the influx of immigrants is also explored, along with the slang, morality, and streetwise sensibility that infused the early gangster pictures of the 1930s. Attention is also paid to the impact of censorship, the connection between criminal behavior and one's environment and upbringing, and the growth and maturation of female characters in gangster films. Gangster comedies, musicals, parodies, and cartoons are examined, too, and fascinating segments chronicling the genre's evolution into film noir and the transformation of the mobster from lawbreaker to crime-buster in the mid-1930s, reluctant yet passionate patriot during World War II, and Freudian case study in the late 1940s emphasize the breadth, appeal, and enduring power of the gangster persona. Film clips, stills, and rare footage abound, but the documentary's highlight is undoubtedly the first-hand reminiscences of the actual stars and directors who created these riveting film masterworks. Directors Mervyn LeRoy, William A. Wellman, Howard Hawks, and Raoul Walsh, and actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Joan Leslie, and Virginia Mayo all share vivid memories and anecdotes that enhance this must-see film.
  • Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes - (SD, 31 minutes) - In addition to the documentary, four vintage animated shorts are included on this bonus disc, all of which possess a distinct gangster angle. 'I Like Mountain Music' (1933) is a black-and-white cartoon that features cameo caricatures of Will Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, and King Kong, along with a spirited shootout, while Friz Freleng's 'She Was an Acrobat's Daughter' (1937) brings us into the Looney Tunes age, with voice characterizations by the incomparable Mel Blanc. Recreating a typical night at the movies, complete with newsreel, the cartoon spoofs 'The Petrified Forest' with spirited portrayals of Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. In 'Racketeer Rabbit' (1946), Bugs Bunny tries to escape the clutches of Robinson and Peter Lorre, driving them both crazy in the process, and in the similarly plotted 'Bugs and Thugs' (1954), the wascally wabbit turns the tables on a generic mobster and his dumb-as-a-stump lackey. All four shorts provide a modicum of amusement and are a welcome addition to this set.

'Little Caesar'

  • Audio Commentary – An informative and insightful commentary by Richard B. Jewell brings 'Little Caesar' into focus. The film historian talks about how underworld movies represent "the dark side of the American dream," and 'Little Caesar' is "filled with emblematic scenes and stock characters that would form the gangster genre." He talks about the early sound elements that distinguish the picture, the inimitable gangster dialect, how the character of Joe Massara was modeled after actor George Raft, the connection between Rico and Al Capone, and how the film never directly mentions or addresses the issue of Prohibition, which certainly fueled the characters' nefarious acts. Jewell also describes a scripted alternate ending and notes how any mention of Rico's latent homosexuality enraged author W.R. Burnett. Any fan of gangster films in general and 'Little Caesar' in particular will certainly appreciate this stimulating discussion.
  • "Warner Night at the Movies" (SD, 21 minutes) – This recreation of a typical night at the movies during Hollywood's Golden Age, featuring a preview of a coming attraction, newsreel, short subject, and cartoon, used to be a staple on Warner's classic DVD releases. (It's a terrific concept, and I hope they consider reviving it in the near future.) Introduced by film historian Leonard Maltin, this 1930 edition begins with a trailer for the Edward G. Robinson newspaper drama 'Five Star Final,' followed by a tabloid interview with "Kiki" Roberts, an ex-Follies dancer and girlfriend of the recently slain gangster "Legs" Diamond, who shares her memories of the colorful criminal. 'The Hard Guy,' a vintage short subject starring a young (and already magnetic) Spencer Tracy as an unemployed husband and father who considers going crooked in order to feed and support his family, is up next, and the program closes with a frenetic, black-and-white Merrie Melodies cartoon, 'Lady, Play Your Mandolin,' which celebrates the lively, beer-infused atmosphere of Prohibition-era speakeasies, and features characters who look suspiciously like Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
  • Featurette: "'Little Caesar': End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero" (SD, 17 minutes) – Director Martin Scorsese, film critic Andrew Sarris, and other noted film historians discuss the evolution of the gangster film and how Prohibition spurred the development of real-life criminals in this slick yet probing 2005 featurette. In an archival interview, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. recalls his experiences making 'Little Caesar' and working with Edward G. Robinson, and such topics as the casting of Robinson, the symbol of his ever-present cigar, the film's famous last line, and the movie's impact are also examined. Film clips and production stills enhance this involving study.
  • 1954 Re-release Foreword (SD, 1 minute) – This text-based prologue accompanied the 1954 theatrical re-release of both 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy.' Though it borrows heavily from the original epilogue of 'The Public Enemy,' it puts both films in context and strives to de-glamorize the iconic gangsters portrayed by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) – The original preview for 'Little Caesar' is in remarkably good shape in spite of its advanced age.

'The Public Enemy'

  • Audio Commentary – Film historian Robert Sklar provides a low-key yet interesting commentary that addresses vital points in a succinct manner. Sklar sets the record straight regarding the switching of roles between Cagney and Edward Woods, talks about the novel upon which the movie is based, discusses themes of family and mother-love in gangster pictures, and points out racy elements of certain scenes that eventually would be deleted due to censorship when 'The Public Enemy' was re-released years later. Though too many gaps bookend his remarks, this commentary is still a worthwhile listen for fans of the underworld genre.
  • "Warner Night at the Movies" (SD, 24 minutes) – Also introduced by Leonard Maltin, who previews all the attractions contained therein, this 1931 edition of "Warner Night at the Movies" begins with a preview of the James Cagney-Joan Blondell vehicle 'Blonde Crazy,' followed by a brief newsreel feature hyping the United States Women's Track and Field Team as they train for the 1932 Olympic Games. 'The Eyes Have It,' a vintage short starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wise-cracking dummy, Charlie McCarthy, casts Bergen as a nerdy optometrist and McCarthy as his juvenile patient, while the Merrie Melodies cartoon 'Smile, Darn Ya, Smile' is a bit of good-natured nonsense built around the popular song of the same name.
  • Featurette: "Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public" (SD, 20 minutes) – The insights, analyses, and recollections of director Martin Scorsese dominate this excellent featurette, which explores almost every aspect of 'The Public Enemy.' From the casting of Cagney as Tom Powers to the intoxicating "presence" of a young Jean Harlow to the tough-as-nails artistry of director William A. Wellman, this piece praises the cast and crew, dissects the famous grapefruit scene, denotes the documentary feel of the early Warner gangster flicks, and looks at how all the violence transpires off screen. A host of film authorities also contribute cogent remarks to this brisk and beguiling salute.
  • 1954 Re-release Foreword (SD, 1 minute) – This text-based prologue accompanied the 1954 theatrical re-release of both 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy.' Though it borrows heavily from the original epilogue of 'The Public Enemy,' it puts both films in context and strives to de-glamorize the iconic gangsters portrayed by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 1 minute) – The original preview for 'The Public Enemy' contains no scenes from the film, only written promises of the intensity and thrills that await audiences.

'The Petrified Forest'

  • Audio Commentary – Bogart biographer Eric Lax sits down for this track, which takes a while to hit its stride, but ends up providing plenty of interesting facts and trivia. Lax presents his information with enthusiasm and polished phrasing, but spends far too much time during the film's early stages recapping the lives of Howard, Davis, and Bogart at the expense of 'The Petrified Forest' itself. He more than makes up for it later on, but the listener has to hang in there to learn about the movie's colorful production history, which includes such topics as Howard's wrangling with Jack Warner over the casting of Bogart, the illnesses caused by the sandstorm dust, Howard's habitual tardiness, and the censorship issues the film faced. So, if you're already familiar with the lives of the three principals, skip ahead a bit and join this well-researched track about a third of the way along.
  • "Warner Night at the Movies" (SD, 30 minutes) – Another fine edition of "Warner Night at the Movies" begins with a three-minute introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin, which segues into an entertaining (and lengthy) trailer for 'Bullets or Ballots,' a 1936 gangster saga starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Bogart. A 1936 year-end newsreel follows, chronicling the abdication of Britain's King Edward VIII (so he could marry American divorcée Wallace Simpson) and the landslide re-election of FDR. The 19-minute musical short 'Rhythmitis' shows us what happens when Hal Le Roy unwittingly drinks a potion designed to quell his rhythmic impulses, but instead the tonic produces the opposite effect, turning him into a tap dancer extraordinaire. Toby Wing co-stars as a ditzy movie star in this breezy one-reeler that also features an amazing dance by a man on stilts! Finally, the Looney Tunes cartoon 'The Coo Coo Nut Grove' spoofs the famous nightclub and its Hollywood clientele. The first animated short to poke fun at movie stars, this delightful six-and-a-half-minute romp caricatures such actors as Clark Gable (and his oversized ears), Katharine Hepburn (referred to as "Katharine Heartburn"), W.C. Fields, Charles Laughton, John Barrymore, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Laurel and Hardy, and even the prudish Edna May Oliver, who appears as the sexy "lady in red." Why can't going to the movies be this much fun today?
  • Featurette: "'The Petrified Forest': Menace in the Desert" (SD, 16 minutes) – This 2005 featurette analyzes both the film itself and the studio that made it. Film critics and historians (Andrew Sarris, Eric Lax, and Alain Silver among them) discuss how Bogart's career was in steady decline before he was cast as Duke Mantee, and how his portrayal — which he reportedly based on legendary bank-robber John Dillinger — "defined the American gangster, as opposed to the immigrant gangster." We also learn Bogart named his daughter Leslie to honor the man who "made his career," Leslie Howard. Comments about the tough atmosphere at the Warner studio and its socially relevant, ripped-from-the-headlines product flesh out this well-made, interesting piece.
  • Radio Adaptation (23 minutes) – The stagy nature of 'The Petrified Forest' made it a perfect candidate for a radio adaptation, but four years passed before the Gulf Screen Theater tackled the project in 1940. Bogart recreates his star-making role, while Joan Bennett subs for Davis, and Tyrone Power takes over for Leslie Howard. Condensed to a mere 23 minutes (and that includes a lengthy introduction and commercial break!), this production excises many supporting characters and only gives listeners a taste of the film's lyric tone and soulful depth. Bogart sounds surprisingly subdued, and Bennett lacks the youthful optimism Davis brings to the role. Audio quality is mediocre at best, but it's still a treat to hear this rare antique.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) – The original theatrical trailer for 'The Petrified Forest,' which includes a couple of alternate angles, rounds out the disc extras.

'White Heat'

  • Audio Commentary – Dr. Drew Casper supplies the 'White Heat' commentary, and though at times it sounds as if this USC professor is lecturing about the film rather than discussing it, his remarks shed enormous light on the subtle complexities that distinguish this gangster classic. In addition to providing bios of Cagney and director Raoul Walsh, Casper talks about the history of post-war mob syndicates, the Freudian shadings that color the film's characters, the movie's semi-documentary tone (especially with regard to police procedures), and how this "non-conformist film" still possesses plenty of traditional aspects. Casper analyzes Cody Jarrett's twisted persona, outlines the censorship issues that afflicted the picture, and addresses topics such as editing, pacing, sound, and music. Though an abundance of Casper's points relate to film theory and technique, he covers enough universal elements to make this commentary accessible for both casual fans and serious film scholars.
  • "Warner Night at the Movies" (SD, 21 minutes) – This 1949 edition of "Warner Night at the Movies" begins with a three-minute introduction by Leonard Maltin, followed by a trailer for the Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal romantic melodrama 'The Fountainhead.' Next up is newsreel footage of newly elected president Harry S. Truman and the vintage short 'So You Think You're Not Guilty,' starring comedian Joe McDoakes, who goes to Herculean lengths to avoid paying a two-dollar traffic ticket. The program culminates with the classic Looney Tunes cartoon 'Homeless Hare,' which pits Bugs Bunny against a sadistic construction worker who wants to bulldoze the rabbit's underground home. Guess who wins this battle of wits!
  • Featurette: "'White Heat': Top of the World" (SD, 17 minutes) – This breezy featurette celebrates Cagney's return to Warner Bros after a multi-year hiatus and honors what critic Andrew Sarris calls "one of the great performances in the history of cinema." Cagney reportedly strove to create a new type of gangster, highlighting psychopathic tendencies, and the experts here examine them in detail. The allure and trashy nature of Virginia Mayo's character are also explored, along with the thinly veiled Oedipal relationship between Cody and his mother, and Mayo herself recalls the film and how Cagney frightened her during a confrontational scene. A few outtakes and a dance clip from the Cagney-Mayo musical 'The West Point Story' spice up this slick 2005 piece.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) – The original preview for 'White Heat' touts "It's your kind of Cagney in his kind of story."

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are no high-def exclusives.

Final Thoughts

Few styles of film are as inherently American as the gangster genre, and no studio produced better (or more) mob movies than Warner Bros. This ultimate collection salutes the all-time classic crime pictures and the trio of stars that defined them - Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart - and treats them with the care and reverence they deserve. 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy' blazed the trail, 'The Petrified Forest' refined the form, and 'White Heat' took the genre to the nth degree as it said a blistering and bittersweet goodbye to the golden age of Hollywood heavies. Though other noteworthy gangster films merit mention, this quartet holds a special place in cinema history and their grouping here provides a stunning look at a vital era, and hopefully signals the promise of more classic gangster releases on Blu-ray in the future. Superior transfers, fantastic supplements (the feature-length documentary alone is worth the price of the set), and classy packaging heighten the allure of this first-class collection that truly deserves the "ultimate" moniker. For gangster lovers, it is indeed the top of the world, and a slam-dunk must own.

Technical Specs

  • 4 BD-50 Dual-Layer Discs
  • Bonus DVD
  • 32-page Hardcover Collectible Book
  • Box Set

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.37:1

Audio Formats

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
  • Spanish Castilian Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono ('Little Caesar' and 'White Heat')
  • Spanish Latin Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono ('The Petrified Forest' and 'White Heat')
  • German Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono

Subtitles/Captions

  • English SDH
  • French Subtitles
  • Spanish (Castilian) Subtitles
  • Spanish (Latin) Subtitles
  • German SDH
  • Portuguese Subtitles

Supplements

  • Audio Commentaries
  • Featurettes
  • Leonard Maltin hosts Warner Night at the Movies, featuring vintage trailers, newsreels, short subjects, and animated shorts
  • Feature-Length Documentary
  • Theatrical Trailers

Exclusive HD Content

  • None

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