Thursday, December 27, 2012

What is the Best Roaring Twenties Gangster Film?

Confessions of a Film Junkie: Best Roaring Twenties Gangster Film
By: Brian Cotnoir & Lauren Ennis

     Once again we have decided to do another debate on “Confessions of a Film Junkie”; this week’s topic is what is the “Best Roaring Twenties Gangster Film”?  Me and another critic will face off and present our sides of what we feel is the Best Gangster film to be set in “The Roaring Twenties”—the birth of the American Gangster Genre.  The other writer is a good friend and a writing mentor of mine, Lauren Ennis.  So Enjoy and as always don’t forget to lets us know who you felt was more right.
Once Upon a Time in America: By Brian Cotnoir

 Italian Director Sergio Leone’s 1984 film “Once Upon a Time in America” may not be as popular and successful as other Gangster films such as “The Godfather” or “Scarface”, but it is not only Leone’s finest work, but quite possibly the Best Gangster film ever.  Now before I continue I want to give you a little background.  The film is based off a novel called “The Hoods” by Harry Grey, and the original Screenplay written for this film was 317 pages long (which translate out to over 4 1/2 hours of film material).  Leone was forced to make a lot of cut to the film and the film was eventually settled at a running time of roughly 3 hours and 45 minutes.  There were even more cuts made for the U.S. release and the films average running time in America was 2 hours and 19 minutes.  Because of all these cuts to the film many critics hated the film when it was released in the U.S.  Some critics even called it the Worst film of 1984, and years later when they saw the “uncut” version their opinions changed and some called it the Best Film of the Decade.  So for argument purposes, in this debate, the version of the film I am talking about is the one that is 3 hours 45 minutes long, which I believe is the best cut of the film abridgments.      

Robert De Niro & James Woods play
 the adult versions of Noodles & Max
    So as I said “Once Upon a Time in America” is based off of a novel called “The Hoods” and it details the lives of 5 boys growing up in the Jewish Ghetto New York City, and eventually how they became involved in Organized Crime, and their rise up success.  The story to the film is told in flashback form and stretches all over from 1920-1968.  I know that this is supposed to be a best “Roaring Twenties Gangster” film and the 1960’s don’t really count, but most of the film is set in the Prohibition Era and the scenes set in 1968 are there to help set up the flashbacks.  The two main characters in the film are two friends David “Noodles” Aaronson (played by Scott Tiler as an adolescent and Robert DeNiro as an Adult) and Max Bercovicz (played by Rusty Jacobs as an adolescent and James Woods as an adult).  I really like how it shows how the friendships of the Noodles & Max started back when they were young teenagers and show they got involved in organized crime and became notorious gangsters.  This film takes its sweet time introducing its characters and letting them develop and it definitely shows that Sergio Leone put a lot of thought into how each scene was going to play out and how the adult actors would have to reflect the version of their younger selves portrayed by the child actors and visa versa.                                       

12-year-old Jennifer Connelly makes her big screen debut
in "Once Upon a Time in America" as Young Deborah.
Robert DeNiro & James Woods this film also features a plethora of other famous actors and actresses such as Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Joe Pesci, James Russo, Danny Aiello, and this film was also the big screen debut for a young actress by the name of Jennifer Connelly.  All the characters in the film have unique and interesting stories and it’s great that we get to see them as both adolescents and as full grown adults.       Besides the acting and the cast, I have to say my favorite thing about the film is the sets.  I swear the sets and the scenery in this film are phenomenal, it’s like director Sergio Leone took the cast & crew back in time and actually shot the whole film in the real “Roaring Twenties”.                            

Director Sergio Leone, working out the details of the
scene with the cast of "Once Upon a Time in America"
    “Once Upon a Time in America” truly is a great film and does not get a lot of the credit and recognition that it deserves.  This was the last film that Sergio Leone ever directed and it is also the film that he put the most work into and all his hard work, dedication, and persistence shows in this film.  To this date this is the only film over three hours long that I can sit through and watch and be constantly entertained, but remember only see the version of the film that says “Color/229 Minutes” on the back because if you watch any of the other abridged versions of this film you will probably be disappointed. 

The Roaring Twenties: By Lauren Ennis

The Gangster film is a genre which is uniquely American in its ability to utilize the ethnic identities, family loyalties, and financial ambition that came to define American life in the transformative years following the First World War. The modern gangster film is often characterized by a reverence for its criminal protagonists and disdain for the ‘sucker’s’ that they are able to dominate. Compared to modern, now formulaic, depictions of the mob subculture as one of grit and glamour,  it is ironically one of Hollywood’s earlier efforts that remains unique. The 1939 film The Roaring Twenties portrays Prohibition era gangsters and the world that they inhabit with a complexity and honesty that sets it apart from other gangster films in both the modern and studio eras.                                   

The film opens not in a back-alley joint or criminal hideout, but instead in a fox-hole in France during World War I. The opening scenes introduce a trio of friends who will later find their paths crossed with tragic consequences when they return to the States.  James Cagney’s performance as the protagonist, Eddie Bartlett, is a perfect example of his naturalistic acting style. In Cagney’s hands Bartlett is both passionate and practical; an average American whose life is turned upside down by the extraordinary times in which he is struggling to survive. After celebrating the Armistice with friends George (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn), Eddie returns home to a country that has moved on without him. In America, Eddie makes ends meet driving a cab and comes into contact with brash bootlegger Panama Smith, (Gladys George in a portrayal based off of notorious nightclub hostess Texas Guinan) who offers him entrance into an alternative world of easy money and fast living. With her help, Eddie eventually builds himself a successful business, which he later enlists his old war buddies into joining. Complications follow when ruthless George tires of playing second fiddle to Eddie and Lloyd strikes up a romance with chorus girl Jean (Priscilla Lane), the object of Eddie’s unrequited affection.                                

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this film is the fact that it was inspired by the real events and people that screenwriter Mark Hellinger encountered during his time as a reporter. Because the film is inspired by reality, it follows a realistic plot line which ultimately results in the demise of the gangsters and their way of life after the fall of Prohibition. Prior Warner Brothers’ films generally portrayed gangster’s as one of two things, either a ruthless psychotic or, more often, a tough kid hardened into a criminal by society. The Roaring Twenties does its characters justice be refusing to pigeonhole them into either category, and instead allows each character to act based upon his personal motives and moral code. For instance, while Eddie is forced into crime by economic circumstance, he and privileged lawyer Lloyd are hardly social victims. Similarly, Bogart’s villain, although ruthless, acts according to logic and reason.                                

Actors James Cagney (L) & Humphrey Bogart (R)
The film also does excellent work in its depiction of female characters. On the surface, Panama and Jean represent opposite sides of the traditional Hollywood spectrum; the brassy bad-girl and the pure heroine. As the film progresses, however, both women are proven to be more complicated than audiences may initially suspect. Although Panama puts up a tough front while acting as ‘one of the boys’ in Eddie’s operation, she is one of the only characters to display true tenderness when she stands by Eddie after his business collapses in 1929. She also demonstrates a sense of self-sacrifice when she steps aside and asks him to help former flame Jean at the end of the film despite her own feelings for him. Similarly, Jean proves herself to be a dynamic character as she grows from Eddie’s wide-eyed admirer to a shrewd woman. Priscilla Lane portrays Jean’s moral conflict between condemning Eddie’s criminal lifestyle while simultaneously enjoying its benefits in such a way that audiences are more inclined to identify with than criticize her.        

Thus, while it may not possess the flashy ‘shoot ‘em up’ style of its later counterparts, I whole-heartedly recommend The Roaring Twenties as one of the most realistic and honest gangster films. The film’s combination of realism, excellent performances, and snappy dialog will keep viewers engaged despite its more restrained style and black and white cinematography. The film also provides movie buffs with a snapshot of James Cagney at the prime of his career as the king of Warner Brothers’ ‘Murderer’s Row’, and Humphrey Bogart on the verge of making his mark as the poster-boy for film noir. Just try and watch that final scene without getting a tear in your eye, ‘big shot’.               


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