As a culture, we have a fascination with outlaws, with the men and women who live beyond the bounds of conventional social restraints and rules. In few places is that as clear as our love of gangster movies. Almost as soon as we figured out how to project moving images on film we started producing movies about mobsters, with their Tommy guns, pinstripe suits, and crooked sneers. As part of their “Ultimate Gangsters Collection,” Warner Bros. has put together a Blu-ray anthology of “Classics” to go along with its “Contemporary” partner.
Not to be confused with the pizza nation-wide pizza chain, in 1931“Little Caesar” introduced movie audiences to one of their first iconic movie gangsters. Edward G. Robinson’s portrayal of Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, and a small time hood’s rise to the top of the organized crime ladder, would set the stage for countless films to follow, and is an archetype of the genre. The disc comes with a featurette called “Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of eth Antihero.” Precisely what it sounds like, this extra digs into our collective obsession with outlaws and criminals in popular culture, with a specific emphasis on how “Little Caesar” fits into that.
Released the same year as “Little Caesar,” “The Public Enemy” presented another one of American cinema’s iconic gangsters. When you think of movie mobsters from this era, odds are Robinson and James Cagney are the first two images that pop into your head. If they’re not, they should be. William A. Wellman’s film follows as similar trajectory. Cagney’s Tom Powers progresses from low-life thug and petty crime, to professional boot-legger and vengeful criminal. Prohibition would go on to play a vital role in gangster lore, from the early days up through more modern forays into the genre, say, for example, a series like “Boardwalk Empire.” “The Public Enemy” arrives with the short documentary “Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public,” which also examines the cultural fascination with mobsters and organized crime from the prohibition era.
Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, and Bette Davis headline the cast of 1936’s “The Petrified Forrest.” Bogart plays Dick Mantee, a notorious gangster who invades a small town diner, taking everyone hostage in an attempt to evade a massive police manhunt. The character is based on John Dillinger, but the film offers a different angle on the outlaw life. Instead of a rise and fall tale, “The Petrified Forrest” portrays a desperate man on the run from the forces bent on his destruction. At one point Mantee is referred to as the last remaining example of “rugged individualism,” which has always been one of the key reasons cited for the celebration of living outside the law. We view criminals as folk heroes for having the courage to exist completely outside of the rule filled, highly structured, social microcosm most of us spend our daily lives stifled by. They’re romantic figures. Accompanying the film, we get the short, 16-minute documentary “The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert,” for those of you who want to dig further into the matter.
James Cagney hollering, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” is one of most memorable moments in cinema history. Even if you don’t necessarily know it’s from “White Heat,” you know that moment that has been quoted and referenced countless times in popular culture. More akin to film noir than straight up gangster tales, Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is one of the first truly deranged antiheroes of film, the first really twisted mind that you saw. Think of him as an old timey iteration of the Joker. This wasn’t just a cold, calculating, brutal thug, Jarrett was all in for the sheer glee of the act, reveling in his own outlaw livelihood. The guy has some serious mother issues, he could hang out with Norman Bates and they could talk about their dear old moms. On the disc you’ll also find “White Heat: Top of the World,” a 17-minute documentary from 2005 that digs into the history and influence of the film.
Beyond four classic movies that you should pick up if you have any interest in gangster movies, the “Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics” also comes with a ton of extras. Not only do the black and white transfers on the Blu-rays looks crisp and clean, but the package also comes with a 32-page book full of facts, history, and trivia. This information offers a variety of different ways to explore these films. You also walk away an entire extra disc. Okay, the extra disc is really just another movie, the feature length documentary “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.” The 2008 film, narrated by Alec Baldwin, explores the early period of gangster films, as personified by the films in this collection.