The vaults of the powerful studio, haunted by the Golden Era’s most idiosyncratic character-stars, open in a gout of totemic classics that were once ubiquitous on TV and common coin for comedians and college students. Today they represent a cultural tremor that changed the shape of our landscape—they are, as Robert Warshow famously put it, “the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes.’ ” The lesser films here are all seminal: Mervyn LeRoy’s creaky Little Caesar (1930) introduced Edward G. Robinson, who became an instant star despite the hoariest acting of his career; William Wellman’s more graceful The Public Enemy (1931) unleashed the fighting Irish pit bull known as James Cagney on the world; and Archie Mayo’s flat-footed play on film The Petrified Forest (1936) introduced Humphrey Bogart, who became the most mesmerizing and unlikeliest star of the ’40s. Better are Michael Curtiz’s Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), a sentimental hit that wasted time on the Bowery Boys but let Cagney rip; Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), which gave Cagney a meatier milieu and Bogart to terrify; and best of all, Walsh’s White Heat (1949), which re-examined the aging Cagney’s psychopathic persona amid a whirlwind of Oedipal self-torture and autumnal angst. The box’s ancillary materials are unfortunately dominated by muttonhead Leonard Maltin “re-creating” the matinee experience for the nostalgia-dopey.
Also worth considering:
Rendez-Vous (Home Vision) Juliette Binoche’s sexy turn as a free-spirited actress lights up André Téchiné’s 1985 drama of artistic and erotic entanglements in the Parisian theater world. Co-scripted by the great Olivier Assayas.