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BLOODY BAGFUL OF JAMES CAGNEY AND HUMPHREY BOGART

The Roaring Twenties
James Cagney epitomized the classic gangster era… With a combination of snarky bravado and desperate pathos, as the focal point he was an intense and thoroughly entertaining combination of a ticking time bomb and an exploding one, and yet was always in control: Orson Welles described Cagney, his personal favorite actor as being “focused, like a laserbeam.” 

R20's Artwork
Meanwhile, Humphrey Bogart, with his quiet cool and slowburn charm, was the kind of shrugging, roguish antihero that grabbed the viewer’s attention, but his hardened intensity shared a mellow quality, allowing other actors to shine bright around him. Here are a bagful of reviews centering on classic Bogart flicks and best yet, Cagney films you might not have seen or only heard about since most of them, as you scroll further down the list, have yet to make the transition to DVD and are, at this point, bootleg only…

THE ROARING TWENTIES: Beginning with a team-up of both legendary tough guys, this excellent gangster flick has James Cagney back from the first World War and there's not a job in town, and someone else is driving his cab, so, during Prohibition and the start of the 1920's (and his twenties), he eventually becomes a wealthy bootlegger.

year: 1939 rating: *****
James Cagney's progression from soldier to veteran to crooked businessman to all-out gangster, all the while falling for a young lady with a heart of gold, are aided by a docu-style narration encompassing the titular decade, eventually crashing into the depression when our hero loses everything...

But, in protecting his cherished woman (who loves another man), he attempts gaining back his soul by paying his backstabbing war buddy turned partner-in-crime Humphrey Bogart, now running everything, a visit.

Although sparks hardly fly between Cagney and the reluctant Priscilla Lane, the scenes with a sinister Bogart are edgy and unpredictable, and the true love interest is the "dame" that Cagney pays little interest to... That being a loyal Gladys George as a gin-voiced nightclub manager who, ironically, got him into the racket in the first place.  

year: 1944 rating: ****
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT: Energetic, adventurous melodrama, which might evoke a great sense of CASABLANCA deja vu with the same basic premise: tough and independent Humphrey Bogart helps a group of foreign patriots for money, meeting within a smoky piano bar, and eventually comes around to the cause.

Only the characters are based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, changing the location from Cuba to France as Bogart's Harry Morgan, a boat-for-hire fishing guide, gets reluctantly involved in smuggling two important people with the help of sultry siren Lauren Bacall and his alcoholic shipmate Eddy (Walter Brennan).

Much of the film takes place in one setting: although this hotel has a tavern area and many rooms, each providing Bogart ample time to outwit the local authorities whilst falling for Bacall and keeping his rummy sidekick alive.

year: 1941 rating: ****
HIGH SIERRA: There's a cute little dog that, wherever he goes, gives bad luck to whomever takes him in: this happens to be both Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, who meet each other, then the pooch, in a rural small town whilst Bogart and three mysterious men plan a caper to rob a plush mountainous hotel.

Bad luck usually dogs these kind of characters, doomed from the start while plotting a big easy score. Although Bogart isn't altogether villainous as he, after meeting a down-home family which includes a beautiful young girl with a club foot, invests in real people (hoping for her hand in marriage)...

Born to lose, he's more suited for Lupino, a gun moll whose bittersweet performance adds to Bogart's seasoned usual, and from one edgy moment to the next, HIGH SIERRA is a thoroughly enjoyable ride centering on tough cookies that are human enough to crumble.

year: 1941 rating: ****
THE MALTESE FALCON: Unlike a lot of private eye/gumshoe flicks where the main character goes from one scene to another gathering clues, everyone comes to Bogie's Sam Spade since he has what they want... but what is it other than a statue of a Falcon... and is this thing all it's cracked up to be?

Who's the killer of Spade's dim partner and how long will he survive in the middle of a den of cutthroats?  And is that beautifully vulnerable "dame" one of them?

Nothing really matters but it's terrific viewing no matter. This is a John Huston directed classic that forces the audience to turn off completely but listen closely at the same time.

year: 1933 rating: ***
LADY KILLER: James Cagney plays a smart-alleck usher at a movie theater: his character’s geared towards the lights, camera and action from the very start. But he’s quickly derailed, conned by a beautiful siren into a rigged card game – and instead of getting angry, he joins and eventually leads the group into a bigger heist that lands them in real dough, and real trouble.

After his fair-weather friends betray him, Cagney hides out in Los Angeles and soon becomes an extra on a movie lot. This is where the ridiculousness begins – seeing Cagney riding a horse in Indian get-up, with fake scenery moving behind him, is a kitschy highlight. Then, as our confident hero falls for a famous (and humble) actress, and soon becomes a top-billed movie star on his own, his once unlucky life begins to pan out: but those double-crossing wise guys return and want a piece of his action.

A fun distraction in the Cagney crime film canon, and you have to continuously suspend disbelief to really enjoy it: especially scenes showing the fictional movies... Or one silly segment as he provides his girlfriend with monkeys and a painted elephant on her birthday. But as a wise cracking con artist beneath the polished veneer, it’s all about enjoying Cagney even in a silly role, because no matter what the part, he always takes it seriously.

1931 rating: ***1/2
BLONDE CRAZY: What is it about James Cagney – he brings out the best, and worst, of his leading ladies: the best performances and the worst attitudes...

And Joan Blondell’s dealing with Cagney’s conniving Bert Harris is half the fun of this 1930’s comedy/melodrama centering on Harris, a suave hotel employee who sees the right girl is hired: and it’s the blonde bombshell Joan, as Anne Roberts, who fits the bill.

She’s not only sought after by Harris, but seedy rich guys melt at her feet. Here’s where our climbing antihero sees his future mapped out: and together this made-in-heaven duo goes from one sucker till the next, swindling relativity small time cash till meeting Louis Calhern, a successful con artist with a tempting-apple for the couple with a bigger worm inside.

One scene involving a horse race and revenge against Calhern is confusing, and not all the con games are fleshed-out yet the chemistry between Cagney and Blondell, and the hidden desire for his platonic partner that slowly comes to light, is what makes this CRAZY shine.

A very young Ray Milland plays Joan’s sophisticated new gent – making Cagney realize what, or rather, whom his drive’s been centered. And while a tacked-on “crime will pay” ending is a letdown, the rest works just fine: Especially a pre-Code bathtub scene with Blondell that’s quite… revealing.

1932 rating: ***
WINNER TAKE ALL: James Cagney plays a down-and-out boxer named Jimmy Kane who, from the outset, isn’t boxing. Not only has he reached rock bottom but swallows his pride as a crowd of fans during fight night… someone else’s fight… throws him loads of pocket change to get by.

Cagney’s manager sends him to New Mexico to recuperate. Here he meets former nightclub waitress/single mother who, as fate would have it, is about to lose her home unless she has the exact amount of money needed for Cagney to get back into the ring: only he does it without being persuaded.

The title of the movie fits the pivotal bout, and thus the film truly begins: Kane's back in the city on a winning streak till meeting a conceited, good-for-nothing society girl (are there any other kind?) who takes him for a ride. That ride, for both fans of James Cagney watching the movie and Jimmy Kane fans watching the fights, is very frustrating indeed: For not only does he get plastic surgery to mend his dented puss, but becomes a cowardly “dancing fighter” and worst yet, enrolls in etiquette classes.

While not one of Cagney’s best, it’s great seeing him slugging his opponents with the energy of a bionic jumping bean. And his performance as a dimwitted boxer, straying from the usual snarky gangster, has just the right touch of punchy pathos.

year: 1949 rating: *****
WHITE HEAT: Okay so this one's not rare... In fact it's the masterpiece that James Cagney's best known for and there are several stories within, and Cagney stars in each as Cody Jarrett, possibly the most sinister and at the same time, endearing gangsters to appear on the silver screen...

One story centers on the leader of a group of thugs who rob a train and and hide out. Another is about the demented son of a overbearing, meticulously wicked mother who will protect her boy till the bitter end. Then there's the husband of a two-timing gun moll Virgina Mayo, holding out for a taller, handsome thug who wants Jarrett out of the way. And finally a prisoner slowly conned by an undercover cop in the big house.... And that's the best yarn of all.

Edmund O'Brien is the "narc" who eventually gains Jarrett's trust. Their relationship, as the two bond behind bars, is the highlight. And although O'Brien, after a jailbreak, turns his back on Cody much too quickly during the famous "top of the world" climax, this perfectly solid classic gangster film... the peak of Cagney's tough guy career and return to the gritty genre after almost a decade of WWII propaganda films... is like reading a multilevel book you can't put down.

Cagney performance is top-notch and not just when he's suffering from those horrible headaches, causing him to writhe on the ground like a poisoned viper. It's the subtle moments that count, because after all, it's Cody's world we're inside and on top of: and he's not going down without a fight.

year: 1932 rating: ***
TAXI: Begins as a predictable, cliché melodrama dealing with the haves… a monopolizing consortium cab company… against the have-nots: independent cabbies trying to make it on their own without getting whacked in the process.

Soon the message peels away into an involving gangster-driven fare with James Cagney as Matt Nolan, who may really utter the famous “You Dirty Rat” line despite movie trivia saying otherwise... Here's why...

In one scene he states very loudly: "Come out and take it, you dirty, yellow-bellied rat, or I'll give it to you through the door!" This, to film historians, has been mistakenly condensed into the famous three word motto, making up every and any Cagney imitation. But in the beginning of the film, as Cagey's Nolan exits his cab – sandwiched between two trucks – he seems to mutter under his breath: “You dirty rat, I'll beat the lemon off ya!" (Watch the video below to find out if he says "rat" or something else.)

Now for the movie itself, which gets better as the more stress enters Nolan's life – thugs from the consortium move in, and every woman, from the good to the bad, annoy the hell out of him: providing the famously stocky firebrand his usual classic tantrums.

Matt Nolan is like most of Cagney’s tough guys, and angrier here than ever. He's fighting the good fight and you'll back him all the way, so much so the other characters seem nonexistent whether he's on, or off, the screen.
Loretta Young with James Cagney and purchase hard-to-find Cagney films at this seller
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