Friday, July 10, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: At Close Range (1986); The Roaring Twenties (1939); The Joker is Wild (1957)

At Close Range (1986)

Director: James Foley

A great crime movie, and one I'm surprised I had never seen before.

At Close Range is a perfect example of how a relatively simple tale can, with a tight script and excellent acting, make for a great movie. Based on a true story, it follows Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn), a restless young man living in rural Pennsylvania in 1978. Brad whiles away his time without a job, mostly drinking or getting high with his younger brother.

Along comes Brad's estranged father, Brad Senior (Christopher Walken), a man with a bad reputation who lives several towns away. When junior is eventually thrown out of his mother's house by his mom's current boyfriend, Brad finds his father and quickly learns that senior is, indeed, a notorious thief. Using his siblings and cousins as his crew, Senior will steal nearly anything not nailed down, though he currently specializes in ripping off tractors from farms. Brad Junior, being a rebel in his own immature way, is immediately attracted to the excitement and payoffs that come from such larceny.

As the stakes ramp up, though, it becomes clear to Junior that his father will stop at nothing, including murder, to protect himself and his criminal lifestyle. Knowing this, Junior tries to back away from Senior, setting off a horrific and violent chain of events.

There is nothing overthought or remotely pretentious about this movie, though it is packed with emotional implications. The actions and dialogue feel completely organic, with the story following logical yet unpredictable lines set up by the strong characters and tense situations. The film is often quiet and unhurried, which lends it great strength.

A viewer can't help but recognize what the young Sean Penn and an ascendant Christopher Walken brought to this movie. These two are outstanding in their roles as father and son who, at first, gravitate towards one another, and then tragically become enemies.

This movie was unknown to me, and that always makes finding such excellent films that much more rewarding. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys crime tales that work on a quieter, much more personal level, but which still have the thrill of crime and suspense.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Director: Raoul Walsh

A really good movie that surprised me a bit.

When you see the headline cast of The Roaring Twenties, you might expect a great film. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart are tough to top, and they do much to recommend this film. It was no surprise to see them perform so well in their roles. However, the types of characters they play and the general story arc were pleasantly surprising to me, as someone who had never seen the movie. Cagney plays a rags-to-riches-to-rags again city guy, while Bogart plays a more sinister, self-interested criminal as a counter-point. As you may imagine, these two make for a great adversarial pairing. The secondary female characters, the worldly Panama and girl-next-door Jean, are also rounded well enough to add depth and interest beyond what is usually found in female characters in crime films.

The story is surprisingly creative. No, it's not hard to see the rise/fall plot coming fairly early on, but the way it unfolds defies many expectations. There are some simplified elements to it, but there is a welcome sophistication to characters' motivations and emotions. Love, ego, and avarice are the basic ingredients, and they are handled well enough to not fall into many of the tired cliches of the genre. The conclusion packs an emotional punch that you might not expect.

I suppose that I shouldn't have been so surprised. The director, Raoul Walsh, is responsible for some all-time great films, including White Heat, also starring Cagney in a later iconic role. The Roaring Twenties makes me want to seek out others by this director, who clearly knew how to tell a ripping good crime story through film.

The Joker is Wild (1957)

Director: Charles Vidor

Surprisingly good, though I would hardly call this a "gangster" movie.

I discovered this film in a list of all-time great "gangster" films, though the mobster connection is very tenuous. All the same, it's a rather good film, which explores some rather dark places for its time. When I saw the words "gangster" coupled with "Frank Sinatra," I simply assumed that the movie was in the same vein as Some Like It Hot - Some comedic mafia madness, with a heavy sprinkling of song and dance numbers featuring Ol' Blue Eyes. What I got was far more interesting.

The Joker is Wild tells the true-life story of Joe E. Lewis, a singer and comedian whose career was derailed in the late 1920s when territorial mobsters mutilated him. After several years of quiet recovery, Lewis was rediscovered and eased back into showbusiness. Though his silky smooth singing voice was never the same, he became an extremely successful comedian. The movie follows these various career turns, but the soul of the movie is about Lewis the man.

This biopic gives us a Lewis who, after his assault, fell prey to gambling and drinking. The portrait we get in the movie is of a man who, though always ready with a good one-liner, seems to dislike himself too much to truly love anyone else. We see this in his relationships with everyone around him, even those who are truly out to help him. In this sense, the movie can be seen mostly as a tragedy. For this, the film deserves a lot of credit, and it really is its greatest strength.

I cannot overlook Frank Sinatra's performance. He's exceptionally good, especially when his jokes are being delivered with the hint of sadness and bitterness that the role demands. I suppose I've never truly thought of Sinatra as a particularly talented actor, but this movie shows that he certainly knew what he was doing, when inspired.

The movie is not perfect, though. The one-liners and jokes, though often fairly funny, get to be overkill at a certain point. Even during moments of emotional tension, Joe and others are firing off gags all too easily. It tends to deflate some of the dramatic effect. I also found the film a tad long. While the individual song and dance numbers never drag, there are a few too many of them to remain effective. I suppose that this is due to the fact that, in 1957, such routines were still considered entertaining by the general viewing public. Now, they are more of a curiosity rather than a source of true humor or amusement. As such, I found them tiresome after the 90-minute mark.

While the movie does feature more than a little self-interest on the part of entertainers, the character study is interesting enough to make for a good movie. And if you like Frank Sinatra and haven't seen this one, you're likely to enjoy it.