20 Thrillers with a Side of Capers

James Cagney as the intimidating Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931)

Each film in The Best of Warner Brothers 20 Film Collection: Thrillers asks, in some or form or another, Where does your loyalty lie, with the guys or your girl?

The Best of Warner Brothers 20 Film Collection: Thrillers

Distributor: Warner
Cast: Varios
Director: Various
Release date: 2013-09-03

While it might make for easier historical systemization to claim of the big ol’ Hollywood studios, “RKO did this kind of film, MGM did that kind…”, in truth each studio made different kinds of films to different degrees. One such studio, Warner Brothers, is celebrating its 90th anniversary with year-long releases attesting to the scope of its own output. The Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collections include Best Pictures, Musicals, Comedies and this Thrillers set.

As the term “thriller” encompasses quite a bit, the 20 film collection narrows it down to sub-categories: Thrills and Chases (1931-1980) and Chills and Capers (1993-2010). But then not all the films adhere specifically to their categories.

The first, The Public Enemy (1931), for example, stars James Cagney in his breakthrough role, playing not just a ruthless gangster but the ruthless gangster, the paradigm of all to come and far more chilling than most. The famous grapefruit-to-the-face scene -- possibly the most recognizable instance of “domestic abuse” in early classic cinema -- is the least of the character’s heinous actions. And Cagney’s acting is rooted so deep as to sustain decades of movie gangsterism, right through to Goodfellas.

Likewise The Maltese Falcon (1941), director John Huston’s debut, and about as perfect a film as one can get. There’s not a wasted line, scene, shot or actor in the movie, with the last element being perhaps the most crucial. Humphrey Bogart, as private detective Sam Spade, solidifies his cynical-romantic persona, hating his love for Mary Astor, who oscillates erratically between femme fatale and breathless brat. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are almost like the Laurel and Hardy of caper films, and the highly underrated Elisha Cook Jr. rivets as the watery-eyed fall guy.

All of them seek the final character, the title bird itself, which, like Beckett’s Godot, never quite makes an appearance. The Maltese Falcon is the kind of film where no one lets anyone else off the hook, no matter how much they may like or even love them. In fact, especially if they love them.

I generally prefer director Howard Hawks over John Huston, so even though The Maltese Falcon is a more coherent, better made film, Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) is more fun. The film is notorious for its lack of narrative sense, but the plot is really beside the point. The real joy comes from watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, fresh in real-life love, fight against their mutual magnetism. Bogart’s character swoons every gal in sight, including Bacall’s nymphomaniac sister, and there’s a wonderfully uncomfortable hothouse scene co-scripted by William Faulkner.

Only one director here represents the '50s: Alfred Hitchcock. Certainly Hitchcock is always thrilling, and North By Northwest (1959) is one of his best: the crop-duster scene, the innocent man mistaken, Cary Grant... it’s all here. Even better, though, is Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), in which tennis professional Farley Granger gets in a murderous mix-up with soft-sole creep Robert Walker. The film is perverse, visually inventive and actually suspenseful as opposed to just expectedly so.

The collection jumps the '60s, but the climactic cultural changes wrought throughout that decade are staggeringly evident in differences in film. The soundstage forests and synthetic Mount Rushmore of North by Northwest give way to the gritty urban locations of both Dirty Harry (1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Though Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan has become an anti-hero franchise, it is director Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon that truly shines.

Al Pacino plays hapless bank robber Sonny, looking to broker his lover’s sex-change operation. As the robbery goes all ways but right, the film becomes a screaming match between Pacino’s street-hero (“Attica! Attica!) and Charles Durning’s tethered lieutenant. Pacino’s even more hapless partner-in-crime, Sal, is played by the late John Cazale, one of the greatest character actors of the 1970s; though best known as brother Fredo in the The Godfather films, Cazale here gives an even more nuanced and touching performance.

The comparatively fallow '80s are represented by Lethal Weapon (1987) -- Mel Gibson and Gary Busey acting crazy before actually becoming crazy -- and Batman (1989). Sure, this Batman is a bit stiff and stagy (or even stage bound), but Michael Keaton remains for me the most sensible Bruce Wayne: All-American in an almost Robert Redford-like way, only not so overly handsome (a la George Clooney or Christian Bale), quick and somehow still boyish, and, crucially, more sarcastic than ironic. That may be the biggest difference, not only between this Batman film and those of the '00s, but between the films of the '80s and '00s in general: sarcasm giving way to irony, with a bit of sincerity thrown in, now and then.

Where Cagney’s gangster in The Public Enemy is actually chilling, those in Goodfellas (1990) are so wound up with anxiety, and the film so laded with stylistic flourishes, that the chills are leavened by a kind of Grand Guignol comedy. Rather than place a few choice set-pieces in different points throughout the film, director Martin Scorsese treats the entire film as one bravura performance: long tracking shots, brutal wince-inducing violence, all culminating in a paranoid, adulterating, coke-fueled drug run by Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. Though at times the music seems as if someone were turning a radio knob through a series of classic rock stations, Scorsese always finds the right musical fit, whether it’s Eric Clapton’s “Layla” coda or Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire”.

Frenzied filmmaking reaches extra-high levels of oversaturation in Natural Born Killers (1994), Oliver Stone’s 40-year-too-late experimental narrative. The film’s blend of film stocks, cartoonish crazy-couple on the lam and self-indulgent/self-inclusive pop culture “commentary” seems, at this point, queasily quaint. Sandwiched between Goodfellas and Natural Born Killers, The Fugitive (1993) is staid by comparison, a solid, if not too hard to figure out cops-as-rogues film.

After all that murder and mayhem, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) appears positively feel-good. Where Scorsese’s use of voice-over aids and abets the frenetic telling, the voice-over in Shawshank, provided by the lulling vocal prowess of voice artist extraordinaire Morgan Freeman (who also plays the prison’s go-to guy, Red), lends the film a kind of storybook quality, despite the prison locale. True to its title, the film feels redemptive, if too pat, with “bad” guys getting their comeuppance while the “good” guys escape to the beach.

All the fraternal or fatherly good-guyism of Morgan Freeman is sunk in Seven (1995), director David Fincher’s film soaked in murk. Freeman plays a veteran detective haunted by all the horrors of his career choice; set to retire, he’s in for one last bloody Biblical blast provided by visionary serial killer Kevin Spacey. Brad Pitt, in what may be his only great role, plays a hot-trigger rookie whose teapot temper gets the best, or worst, of him.

The lurid murkiness of Seven is countered by the hard-edged gloss of Heat (1995), director Michael Mann’s police procedural about high-end thieves hoping for one last score. The film is textural and visceral, with Mann’s usual attention to detail evident in the high-powered shoot-outs wherein well-known actors, six months into production, come off like twenty-year firearm’s veterans. It seems the film’s two leads, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, never actually appear in frame together, and this makes sense as their characters are in some ways the same man. The film is a kind of Jekyll and Hyde/cat and mouse love story between two men who have equal parts contempt and respect for one another.

Mann’s coolly abstract version of Los Angeles goes retro in L. A. Confidential (1997), an adaptation of author James Ellroy’s take on 1950’s Hollywood doubling and double-crossing. Ellroy’s tough telegraphic prose is rendered more luxuriant, the tawdriness of his source material made more glamorous by the levitating presence of Kim Basinger, and Russell Crowe’s fineline embodiment of Ellroy’s perennial wounded warrior.

A different sort of warrior inhabits American History X (1998). Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi White Power punk who, after curb-jobbing the face of an African-American rival, gets sent to prison, where all his prejudices and Hitlerisms are challenged and eventually quashed. Though a bit of a Programmed Film, with a requisite number of buttons pushed -- the Jewish Button, the Good Black Guy/Bad White Guy Button -- the film is anchored, or carried really, by Norton’s immersion in the role, an affecting performance of tattooed hatred, confusion, disgust, anger and, most forcefully, contrition.

Which brings us to The Dark Knight (2008). Where the first Keaton Batman was stiff and stagy, this version (and the subsequent Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan films) is all split-second cacophony and seizure-inducing movement. Taking the two words of its title to its dark, beknighted heart, the film is emotionally and visually pitch black, blowing up its comic book -- excuse me -- graphic novel mythology and paneling to epic proportions.

The Dark Knight is what film critic Manny Farber would’ve called a “White Elephant” film -- oversized effects and “showy” performances -- with Gary Oldman gnawing away at his scenes from the inside out like a true “termite”. Nolan’s Inception (2010), too, is elephantine (with not a termite in sight), a fairly rudimentary puzzle film that managed to generate what I considered an outsized level of discussion. But it certainly looks and sounds good.

The collection concludes with The Town (2010), director/actor Ben Affleck’s very effective street-gang film, with Jeremy Renner giving a strong performance as the classic loose-screw buddy (think Joe Pesci’s Tommy from Goodfellas meets DeNiro’s Charlie from Mean Streets). The film is tense, taut and even romantic, as it posits that classic gang-film question: Where does your loyalty lie, with the guys or your girl?

The collection itself achieves a kind of rounding out with this question. Having commenced with James Cagney’s Public Enemy expressing his choice by slamming a fruit into his moll’s face, it ends with The Town’s Ben Affleck balancing a more selfless yet dangerous attitude.

It’s nice to know that 90 years has brought some kind of change.

The Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Thrillers includes: The Public Enemy (1931), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), North By Northwest (1959), Dirty Harry (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Lethal Weapon (1987), Batman (1989), Goodfellas (1990), The Fugitive (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Seven (1995), Heat (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), American History X (1998), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010) and The Town (2010).

Also included is a booklet with brief synopsis of each film.

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