In 1931, Warner Brothers released the compact, brutish gangster classic Little Caesar to a movie-going public that had escaped the eye-opening inhumanity of the Industrial Revolution and World War I, only to land in the thick of Prohibition and the Great Depression. The audience's familiarity and frustration with all four historical events set up the film's success, spurring a subsequent decade-long boom in gangster films. But nothing factored more than Prohibition, which had already given millions of Americans their first real taste of lawlessness. As much as drinkers welcomed Prohibition's end in 1933, some must've missed the illicit thrill of ducking through secret doors and learning code words in order to get a shot of gin. Little Caesar's slangy dialogue and cool hideouts just put people's private vices on a grander scale.
Little Caesar also forged the mold that later gangster films would follow. Edward G. Robinson plays a small-time crook who finds an angle and rises in the rackets, bumping off rivals until he's empowered beyond his capabilities. It's like Horatio Alger with tommy-guns, except that Little Caesar includes the cautionary epilogue that Alger skips: Robinson hits the skids, after his loyalty to an old friend (played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) proves ruinous. The same year, The Public Enemy put James Cagney in Robinson's shoes, rocketing to the top of the mob alongside his pal Edward Woods, and falling when Woods falls. Robinson's thuggish face and marble-mouthed diction made him a natural gangster, but Cagney was a different animal. A handsome, graceful, quick-witted man, capable of conveying great compassion on screen, Cagney seemed more ominous in his frequent portrayals of savage criminals. In The Public Enemy, he's like the darkly alluring shadow of The American Dream.
Cagney stars in four of the six films in The Warner Gangsters Collection DVD set. After The Public Enemy, Cagney returned to crime in 1938's Angels With Dirty Faces, playing an ex-con unable to go straight, even with the help of childhood-friend-turned-priest Pat O'Brien. In 1939's The Roaring Twenties, Cagney is a World War I veteran who falls into bootlegging by happenstance, and gets his comeuppance because of two army buddies: straight-arrow Jeffrey Lynn and sleazeball Humphrey Bogart. And 1949's White Heat has Cagney playing an arrogant minor-league crime boss who mistakenly befriends an undercover cop, once again making the subtextual case that America (and American entrepreneurs) would do well to avoid alliances.
Cagney's magnetism stems from his note-perfect combination of broad gestures and subtle shifts of posture, but the keen eyes of his directors are what make his gangster pictures classics. William Wellman controls the frame masterfully in The Public Enemy, staging a tense family dinner with a beer barrel always in the shot, representing the moral problem that's setting brother against brother. Wellman also balances on- and offscreen violence, showing Cagney smashing a grapefruit into his girlfriend's face at one moment, then putting climactic gunfights behind closed doors the next, before closing the film with the nightmarish image of a corpse falling through a door. In Angels With Dirty Faces, Michael Curtiz's clipped camera moves draw attention away from the exhausting comic relief of The Dead End Kids, and in the movie's memorable death-row climax, the director moves from close-ups to obscured shots, reflecting the ambiguity of the anti-hero's feelings as he marches to the electric chair. In The Roaring Twenties, Raoul Walsh bulls the movie forward with delirious newsreel recreations, giving vulgar sensation the imprimatur of history.
The Gangsters Collection set also includes The Petrified Forest, a 1936 Bogart thriller that doesn't really fit the mold of its setmates, entertaining though it is. Each disc features commentaries that run the gamut from the dry, sputtering tracks on Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties to Drew Casper's engaging, enlightening discussion of White Heat, which includes an incisive analysis of Walsh's directorial style. And each offers a "Warner Night At The Movies" option, with trailers, shorts, cartoons, and newsreels—including a telling one-reeler with Spencer Tracy as a veteran contemplating a life of crime. The historical context isn't just window-dressing, since this set's core films span eras deliberately. The Public Enemy starts in 1909, Angels With Dirty Faces in the early '20s, and The Roaring Twenties in the trenches of World War I, where the narrator explains that the soldiers have been drilled to "safeguard humanity." The Roaring Twenties feels like a grand summation of the whole genre, with a greater emphasis on the nuts and bolts of bootlegging, and an explanation of how the rackets expanded until the end of Prohibition wrenched organized crime away from the amateurs.
After four versions of a single story, White Heat serves as a "10 years later" epilogue. The '30s gangster pictures were stylish and set-bound, with snappy visual storytelling derived from silent-movie grammar. White Heat is more in the vein of film noir and documentary realism, as it takes to the streets of Los Angeles and the outlying California farms. The darkly funny banter remains, continuing the tradition that bridges Little Caesar and The Sopranos, but though Cagney still personifies underworld cool, with a gun in one hand and a chicken leg in the other, he's also become a little pathetic. The man on the rise has become a man out of time, his ambition accompanied by blinding headaches and a Freudian mother fixation. If the Warner Gangsters Collection traces America's perception of its place in the world, from Prohibition to the end of World War II, then White Heat completes the thought with a nuclear-era exclamation point, as Cagney shouts, "Made it, ma! Top of the world!" before the refinery he's standing on explodes into a mushroom cloud.