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Blu-ray review: ‘Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics’ / ‘Ultimate Gangster Collection: Contemporary’

Gene Triplett Published: June 12, 2013

Looking for gifts to make Dad glad on Father’s Day?
How about “stories ripped from the headlines,” as the old Hollywood cliché goes. As in Warner Bros. gangster movies of the ’30s and ’40s, such as the four immortal machine-gun-and-

mayhem masterpieces contained in “Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics” Blu-ray box set.
Director Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar” (1931) features Edward G. Robinson in the role that made him a star — and typecast him in gangster parts for years — as Enrico Caesar Bandello, a character clearly based on real-life Chicago crime boss Al Capone. James Cagney also got the star-making and typecasting treatment that same year under the direction of William “Wild Bill” Wyler in “The Public Enemy,” as streetwise tough guy Tom Powers, making a killing in more ways than one during Prohibition.
Playing killer Duke Mantee in director Archie Mayo’s taut screen version of the Broadway hit “The Petrified Forest” lit the fuse on Humphrey Bogart’s career in 1936, and the so-called golden age of the gangster went out with a very big bang in 1949 — along with Cagney’s psychotic Cody Jarrett — in Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat.”
And speaking of that era of fascination with criminals, the bonus disc, “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film,” features an assortment of film scholars dissecting the genre and the period, and the fact that Warner Bros. Studios had the courage to make topically tough
films while the other outfits were making musicals, comedies, Westerns and what one historian calls “romantic idealist realism” fare. There are dozens of scene clips, both famous and obscure, and Martin Scorsese is among the analysts, smiling with mischievous relish as he talks about what he describes as the “anti-American-Dream stories.”
Of course, Scorsese has been doing his part to carry on that tradition, and no fewer than three of his best are included in the companion Blu-ray set, “Ultimate Gangsters: Contemporary.” There’s his superb low-budget indie “Mean Streets” (1973), his semi-autobiographical tale of survival in New York’s Little Italy, which put a big crack in the wall between obscurity and fame for Scorsese and his stars, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro (a year before his breakthrough in “The Godfather Part II”).
Two other Scorsese hood-a-ramas are the epic, fact-based “Goodfellas” (1990), inspired by Nicholas Pileggi’s biographical bestseller “Wiseguy,” with Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and De Niro (again), and “The Departed” (2006), a tale of honest and crooked cops and ruthless mobsters, double-crosses and triple-crosses, starring young lions Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg, and the King of the Beasts himself, Jack Nicholson, giving his best performance in nearly a decade. Scorsese won a long-overdue directing Oscar for this one.
Then there are writer-director Michael Mann’s big bank-heist blockbuster, “Heat” (1995), which pits (guess who?) De Niro as a master thief against Al Pacino’s relentless (and pretty over-the-top) cop. Finally, there’s director Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” written by David Mamaet and starring Kevin Costner as straight-arrow Prohibition agent Eliot Ness and De Niro getting villainous yet again, as a head-bashing Al Capone. This one is actually a Paramount Picture that plays like a Warner Bros. thriller.
There are some great short-subject surprises in the classics package - including a moving 1930 two-reeler with a very young Spencer Tracy as “The Hard Guy” - and both of these box sets come with compact hardback books full of essays about the films and the people who made them, with lots of behind-the-scenes photographs and production stills, to complete pistol-packing packages designed to blow Dad away.
— Gene Triplett<code_qr>