Monday, August 3, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Little Odessa (1995); Key Largo (1948); Dillinger (1973)

Few crime movies feel so authentic. Or so
numbingly grim.
Little Odessa (1995)

Director: James Gray

Hard and real, but faded around the edges.

Little Odessa follows a bleak few days in the bleak life of a young Long Island, New York hitman, Josh (Tim Roth), who is descended from Russian Jewish immigrants. Josh is told by his boss to return to his old neighborhood, Little Odessa, to perform a hit. Though reluctant to return for reasons not totally clear to us viewers, Josh does so all the same. As he hunkers down and prepares for the assassination, Josh attempts to reconnect with a few people, including his younger brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) and his former girlfriend, Alla. These things are not so easy, as he not only needs to keep a low profile, but he must also deal with a mother stricken with a brain tumor, as well as a stern father who has long since disowned him.

The movie has one of the grittiest, nastiest feels of any crime movie I've seen. Any glamor that one finds in most gangster movies is completely stripped away. There are certainly gunfights and killings, but they are presented with cold, disturbing realism. The matter-of-fact manner with which Josh goes about his business is unsettling, to say the least. Yet the juxtaposition with his attempts to rekindle some sort of connection with Reuben and his mother gives depth to this otherwise detached character. He's fiendish and heartless in most ways, but his interactions with these two hints at a person who may just have been redeemable at some time in the past. As the story unfolds, though, it becomes clear that Josh is truly beyond saving.

The film is written and shot with the same starkness as the themes and characters. The Little Odessa where the story takes place is all faded grays and browns, and speckled with urban blight. Everything happens in the cold, bitter wintertime, adding a greater chill to the grim proceedings. There are a few brief moments of gallows levity, but this is not a film that one "enjoys" as much as sees through with determination and a hope for some form of reconciliation.

It is a good movie, no doubt. Director James Gray, who would later do the much glossier We Own the Night, executed a very clear vision, despite having limited resources (this was his very first film). The dialogue feels very authentic, and the performances are excellent. Still, the entire tale is far too tragic and depressing to even border on "entertaining." Rather, it has the feel of a dramatization of all-too real events. It's worth seeing one time, especially for crime movie aficionadoes, but one time should suffice for most people.

A stand-off between Bogart and Robinson should have been
epic. As it was, I found Robinson's cigar-munching,
scenery-chewing Johnny Rocco a rather dull character.
Key Largo (1948)

: John Huston

I can see why this movie has been labeled a classic, though I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

The story begins with World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) arriving on the titular island, where he hopes to visit the father and sister of one of his fallen comrades. He finds the father James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and sister Nora (Lauren Bacall) as the proprieters of a little hotel on the island, but not before running into several tough-looking individuals who are staying at the hotel. It isn't long before Frank and the Temples learn that the men are henchmen for Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a formerly powerful Chicago ganglord who had fallen from power after the repeal of Prohibition (Al Capone, anyone?). Rocco is staying at the hotel in order to meet with former associates and transact some illegal deal which will give Rocco a foothold back in the criminal world.

Virtually the entire film takes place inside the hotel lobby, where Rocco and his men hold the Temples and McCloud hostage while they wait for Rocco's associates to arrive. To complicate things, a hurricane is bearing down on Key Largo. Things become more and more claustrophic as Rocco repeatedly bullies the Temples, McCloud, and even his own boozy girlfriend, in a effort to demonstrate his strength. McCloud is the biggest enigma, as he seems to be a man of principles and heroism, but he passes up more than one opportunity to stand up to Rocco. Things culminate after the hurricane passes and McCloud is forced to pilot Rocco's boat, with Rocco and goons aboard, to Cuba for their escape.

There is certainly enough in Key Largo to carry a viewer's attention. Bogart is always magnetic, especially when playing a morally ambiguous character such as McCloud. The movie also features great performances by some of the all-time greats such as Bacall and Robinson. Still, I found myself disappointed in much of the dialogue. Rocco and his thugs spout off the same, tired tough guy gangster lines that I've heard in dozens of other such films from the era. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone tagged a statement with "...see?!" These, along with far too many instances of Rocco exclaiming that "Rocco will be back on top!" became dull before very long. It bordered on unintentional self-parody.

Still, the finale was strong enough to redeem most of the weaknesses. The boat ride to Cuba has a nice amount of tension and suspense, making for a memorable finish. It also provides welcome closure to the most intriguing thread to the story - just what kind of man Frank McCloud is.

Key Largo is definitely not your typical gangster movie, as it feels far more like a stage play. With some tighter, more imaginative dialogue, it likely would have become one of my favorite films. As it is, though, it is a great idea somewhat dulled by imperfect execution.

Dillinger (1973)

: George Milius

If there's a movie that should be watched in conjunction with Bonnie and Clyde, this is the one.

Warren Oates is great as the title criminal, but it is Ben
Johnson as "G-Man" Melvin Pruvis (seen here, with
Tommy gun) who steals the show.
Clearly taking his cue from that 1967 Arthur Penn masterpiece, director George Milius decided to meld a polished, Hollywood sheen with a violent, nasty presentation of the other infamous bank robbers of the Depression Era. As the title makes clear, the movie depicts the felonious acts of John Dillinger, the very first "Public Enemy Number One," as he robs and shoots his way across the Mid-West U.S. during the early 1930s. Dillinger was, along with a few others such as Bonnie and Clyde, among the very first "celebrity" criminals the country had seen. He was handsome and charismatic enough to build a rather strong following among many in the public. Like his fellow bank robbers, the support for him stemmed much from the public's emnity towards a banking industry viewed as the culprit of the country's desperate economic situation.

Though the movie does show Dillinger's charisma, it doesn't shy away from showing how brutal, ruthless, and irascible he was. Penn's Bonnie and Clyde conveniently left out several very sordid details about how the pair had killed several innocent people during their crime spree. Milius does not shy away from showing Dillinger for what he was: a greedy, selfish, and self-absorbed punk who cared very little for any collateral victims caught in his wake. Though Dillinger was only ever charged with one murder - that of a police officer - his open gun battles showed little concern for anything but his own escape.

The cast is excellent. Imagine my surprise when seeing Sergeant Hulka from Stripes, Warren Oates, playing the title criminal masterfully. He plays Dillinger's impishness, petulence, and arrogance all with equal skill. The other infamous robbers in his crew - the homicidal "Baby Face" Nelson and charming "Pretty Boy" Floyd - are also done extremely well by a very young Richard Dreyfus and Steve Kanaly, respectively. The most pleasant surprise came from an actor and character I knew nothing of. Ben Johnson plays Melvin Purvis - the stern F.B.I. man in charge of tracking down many of the infamous bank robbers of the day. Johnson's performance is magnetic, as he gives Purvis an icy, calculated toughness that draws the eye in every scene in which he appears.

Dillinger was definitely one of the stronger movies on the list from which I've been pulling these gangster films. Though it was clearly aping much of the style of Bonnie and Clyde, it did include just enough alterations and additions not to be seen as a straight ripoff of that earlier classic.