In today's Slate, Stanley Crouch takes a look at the Warners' DVD anthologies Gangsters and Tough Guys, which gather together the best of the shoot-em-ups of the 1930s and 1940s, and helpfully puts the genre in some historical context:
The gangster is never less than arrogant, resentful, and possessed of an optimism so naive that it might become ruthless. He represents a perversion of the anti-aristocratic attitude that began in the United States after the Revolutionary War. By the time Andrew Jackson became president, the popular sense of American democracy was that triumph was superior to a "noble" bloodline; that refinement was usually no more than the glaze of pretension; and that education did not necessarily make anyone better—or more clever!—than anyone else.
From the second half of 19th century forward, American slums became locations for social diseases, vermin, filth, and overcrowding as immigrants poured in from a class-bound Europe. In that context of urban poverty, the modern criminal emerged with the 20th century. He offered vice and defended both his territory and his corrosive wares with violence. Bloody action could travel all the way up the thermometer of crime until it reached murder, the most conspicuous of which was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929. The murders were ordered by Al Capone and executed with such contemptuous brutality that the public howled for law and order. The mood was perfect for the emergence of the gangster film, which arrived from Warner Bros. with the startling realism of The Public Enemy and Little Caesar in 1931.
The studio not only made the most of the classic machine-gun operas but provided the basic plotlines and the iconographic figures. These movies brought a casual but attentive accuracy to a new Wild West that had been reincarnated in the big cities of the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. Warner Bros. also gave us James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart, the three most important innovators in a style defined by the portrayal of gangsters, outlaws, and gunmen.
I got the Gangsters set last Christmas, which I've watched here and there ever since and occasionally reviewed in this space. Some, like White Heat, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Angels With Dirty Faces, hold up amazingly well; others, like The Roaring Twenties and The Petrified Forest are mostly interesting as period pieces.
The difference between them can be striking, too; if you watch The Roaring Twenties back to back with Angels, you'll see the immediate difference between Raoul Walsh's functional crime story, in which James Cagney seems to be relying on schtick, and Michael Curtiz's truly inspired one, with Cagney bringing all his whadda-ya-hear-whadda-ya-say panache to the occasion.
I've said before that I don't much care for the commentaries on these boxes, which seem to me rushed and hasty and not nearly as interesting or as illuminating as what you get on the Criterion sets; however, film scholar Drew Caspar does make quite a case, in the Angels featurette, for Michael Curtiz as the most underrated director in Golden Age Hollywood.
Setting something of a template for Fassbinder, Curtiz churned out five films in 1938, two of them classics: Angels and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He would go on to make two more immortals of Hollywood, Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy (also in the same year, 1942), terrific war adventures like Passage to Marseille (1944), the Joan Crawford show case Mildred Pierce (1945) and Life with Father (1947).
I'm not sure that all that makes him a great director as we normally think of great directors -- that is, people possessed of a unique and compelling artistic vision -- but he is without vquestion a superb visual storyteller, and you see that in Angels literally from beginning (sweeping shot of tenement New York) to end (Cagney's long walk to the electric chair, rendered with purely expressionistic lighting.)