Two super cool films you'll probably never see on DVD or hear about:
Last night I saw the WB gangster film to end all WB gangster films... and the funny thing is it was the WB gangster film that started
all WB gangster films-- called Doorway To Hell directed by Archie Mayo, from 1930. It features Lew Ayres (the young lead from Milestone's Laemmle/Universal pic All Quiet on the Western Front) as a stand-in for Al Capone. When I first saw the casting of him as a gangster's gangster, a boss of bosses who gets the whole town's worth of beer-trafficking mugs together to organize their bootlegging, force them to accept his protection and kick profit percentiles up to him in return for peace on the streets, I couldn't believe it... I thought it was the worst piece of casting in the whole precode era. Particularly because his Number Two Mug is none other than James Cagney-- in his second film role and already in full
Public Enemy Mode... he's completely and totally his Tom Powers character already, and I thought he would have eaten Ayres alive with his heavy charisma and (sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate) dominance of other actors.
Not so-- if Ayres seems slightly wooden and boyish in All Quiet
, it may
be because he's out of his element. And this film must be his element, because he plays a vicious crime boss to the hilt, and holds his own versus Cagney in the charisma dept 100%. He's sly, cool, cunning, full of nasty schadenfreude versus his enemies and competitors, and seems completely at home in the skin of his character here Louie Ricarno. In a a nutshell, the plot:
Lou Ricarno is a smart guy. His plan is to organize the various gangs in Chicago so that the mugs will not liquidate each other. WIth the success of his leadership, Louie prospers, marries Doris and retires to Florida to write his autobiography and play golf. In his absence the gang warfare flares, but he does not return as he wants to give a respectable image of life to his wife, younger brother and his Florida neighbors. While letters and telegrams from Mileaway will not influence his decision, events will.
Also, from ALLMOVIE:
Plot Synopsis by Sandra Brennan
In this early talkie, a vicious crime lord (played by Lew Ayres in a rare villainous role) decides that he has had enough and much to the shock of his colleagues decides to give the business to his second in command (James Cagney in hi second film role) and retire to Florida after marrying his moll. Unfortunately, he has no idea
that she and Cagney are lovers. Part of the reason the don wants to leave is to keep his young brother, who idolizes him, from learning the awful truth about his avocation. Soon after moving down to Florida, former rivals kidnap the brother and kill him, causing the reformed gangster to come back for deadly revenge.
This was an innovative film and featured a lot of elements that would become standards in the gangster genre including tommy guns carried in violin cases, terrible shoot-outs, and lots of rum-running rivalry.
Via the simple fact that this is the great Cagney's 2nd role, and his first appearance as a gangster
, a leadup to soon to be made The Public Enemy, I can;t believe this film has not been released by WB, not even into the dumpster of the Archive. On top of that throw in the fact that this is a great, great film, based on a short story called A Handful of Clouds
(slang for tommy-gun fire/it's resulting bouquet of smoke puffs) by the hardboiled screenwriter Rowland Brown (he's also a great director of the wonderfully vicious precodes Hell's Highway, Quick Millions
, and Blood Money
, all excellent early 30's gangster films better than the vast quantity of the filler in the WB Gangster Boxes aching to be rediscovered), it's oversight is NUTS. WIth it's sly, snappy patter, authentic sense of criminal anarchy and 'fuck you' to law & order, its soulful undertow, blasts of violence, and laying down of the blueprint for the precode gangster pictures to follow in rapidfire succession, Doorway To Hell
is a great film ripe for rediscovery.
While on the topic of pre-icon icons of the precode gangster pics, might as well switch from Tom from Public Enemy to Little Caesar, and Edward G Robinson. I recently caught a film called The Hole In The Wall, an early talkie from 1929, which certainly is not the all-round Great Film of Doorway To Hell... but in many ways it's the more interesting of the two.
It's an odd pedigree-- directed by Robert Florey, Hole In The Wall is full of touches that expose Florey's roots in the avant garde and love for Expressionism. Edward G Robinson plays the head of a bunch of bunk artists, a crew who work suckers with a sophisticated psychic con. The film, a Paramount property, was obviously shot-- like Applause from the same studio/year-- in the Astoria studios in NYC, as it features location shooting on the streets of the Lower East Side... particularly on the old Third Avenue elevated subway.
Robinson plays the part, his first gangster role, in a manner that looks ahead to his role in Little Caesar a year later in '30-- just like Cagney in Doorway his part is a major foreshadowing of things to come. The story nominally follows the exploits of this group of con artists who run a psychic racket... specifically "mediums", who, for a fee, communicate with the beloved dead. Trouble hits the crew early on as their "madame", the lady who acts as the actual medium with clients to receive the spirits of the dead, dies in a subway disaster (it seems that in the 20's and 30's, every major studio and director with high aspirations had to produce a film featuring a train wreck... did it start with Orlac's Hande?). Who walks in to the narrative afterwards to wind up covering for her but a very young Claudette Colbert in her first major role. The direction, camerawork, and sets are highly stylized, even more so at times than Florey's Murders In The Rue Morgue for Laemlle/Universal. Some screen caps:
Edward G getting out of his disguise:
Eddie and one of his mugs.. this guy is a complete lunatic, literally, in the film:
The backroom, where Robinson listens in to 'medium' sessions and communicates with the madame by typing electrified code of mild shocks into an electrified chair-arm. Note the wild masks on the wall:
With the motorman on the 3rd Av el:
Probably the most stylized morgue in all cinema:
A one way mirror apparatus to observe entrants to the suite:
The front door-- check out the angles, and the wall-paintings:
Claudette, as young as you'll ever see her:
A 'session'.. check out this set: