DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Big Boss

The Big Boss is a film that gives meaning to the phrase, “you can always go home.” After co-starring in the television series The Green Hornet, Bruce Lee’s Hollywood experience was not going the way he hoped. Studios were reluctant to cast an Asian actor as a lead in anything. Lee was experiencing financial issues so he returned to Hong Kong where he signed on to film The Big Boss. By returning home, The Big Boss would prove to be the breakthrough Lee had been searching for and would launch him to movie immortality.

One interesting thing about The Big Boss is that while Lee gets top billing, he doesn’t take center stage until the second half. The first half of the film is used as a trial to see who was the more charismatic, Lee or co-star James Tien. The end results of the first half catapult Lee and unleash him. Also of note is how Lee is shown as a sexual being. Almost like Shaft.

I though there were two elements of interest in The Big Boss. One is the focus on Lee as a force to defend the Chinese people against their being taken advantage of, mistreatment and disrespect. The other is how the film steadily builds up the violence in order to fully justify Lee’s character to break his pacifist vows. I wonder is the film trying make that a message? Not necessarily that pacifism is pointless, more so that extremes (whatever they were to Lee’s character) make and break this philosophy. 

While entertaining, The Big Boss falters for me with its pacing and length. I think it’s maybe 15 minutes too long. The main conflict in the film is pretty evident and there isn’t too much by way of character development for its low budget leanings. So by that it could have been trimmed a bit.

Still, The Big Boss is a film to be enjoyed and appreciated as being the vehicle that finally allowed Bruce Lee to show the world what he wanted them to see and with it, a superstar was born. 

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Angels with Dirty Faces

Angels with Dirty Faces, while starring James Cagney as a gangster is more than a gangster film. It’s an examination of media impact. It’s about the construction of mythology. It’s about the effects of charisma. 

The mythological aspect of it is shown with the diverging destinies of Rocky and Jerry as young men. Jerry runs just a little faster and is able to jump the fence. Rocky is caught and sent to reform school. The idea is made that time in the system in fact made a criminal out of Rocky as opposed to changing him for the better. Fate has changed life for both men. Once released, Rocky returns to a life of crime while Jerry has become a priest. Rocky’s reputation begins to take hold over a group a young boys. Jerry spends his time during the film to dispel that myth of Rocky. It doesn’t help that as Rocky’s activity increases, the impact of the media plays it up which makes the charismatic effect he has on the youth stronger.

Rocky also has struggles in the film. He gets out of jail to a criminal world that isn’t like what his character dealt with in The Public Enemy. This is world of legalities highlighted by corruption. Lawyers, accountants, politicians are the bosses, not simple bootleggers. These new crime bosses too use power of persuasion and charisma to try to play Rocky but through the story he adapts, he learns the new rules. Just like the new rules also include the media impact which will be here to stay. 

Questions have been raised about the death row ending of the film. I never felt Rocky’s end was him genuinely scared, I felt it him doing one last favor for his childhood friend. Rocky’s final act, shakes the myth of him to the young boys and Jerry, in a case of irony as a religious figure, leads the boys to a new truth based on a lie. Despite being about crime, Angels with Dirty Faces is quite the ambiguous film. In The Public Enemy, Tom Powers isn’t really redeemable. With Rocky Sullivan however, the film has to go out of its way to give you a reason that he should die. Cagney May have been typecast a few times with roles like this, but this nuanced performance is one his best.

Angels with Dirty Faces provides some space to genre that always had to stick its morality front and center.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Public Enemy

It’s easy to take an initial look at The Public Enemy and assume it’s a stepping stone to larger and greater crime films like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas. However, The Public Enemy is a great piece of crime fiction that not only sets the tone for the genre to come, it pulls its own weight just like those classics I named earlier.

The first positive is obviously James Cagney who provided charisma and menace in equal parts. Originally signed in a secondary role, his screen dominance was so undeniable that Darryl F. Zanuck made the change to have Cagney play the lead. It worked and Cagney’s career was born with us watching the rise and fall of Tom Powers. 

The film is directed by William A. Wellman and with it we have some really good direction. Wellman presents things a a sort of documentary of pre-prohibition and the impact of prohibition leading to Tom’s journey. One creative choice I really liked was the off-screen violence. Despite not being seen, Wellman manages to still convey sheer brutality. There are 3 instances of this and they all work due to Cagney’s character seeking vengeance. These scenes are very effective. There is also another beautiful scene of Cagney stumbling through the rain that’s absolutely gorgeous. 

The Public Enemy does possess the sort of morality you would expect for a film made in 1931. You have the character of Tom as the bad brother to go against the good brother. Certainly Tom gets his at the end, which is to be expected. I watched it the film twice, the second viewing with commentary by the late Robert Sklar who mentions how Tom is never a character we root for. He never even really had a moment where you can sympathize with him. He’s violent, he assaults women, he’s impetuous. Yet Sklar remarks how the audiences reacted so positively to Tom as a result of Cagney’s performance. The iconic scene of him smashing a grapefruit into a woman’s face elicited laughter in a moment of abuse. We like to point to The Godfather and De Palma’s Scarface as films that romanticize the criminal world, but it seems audiences in the 30s did the same.

With a pseudo-historical visual style combined with an electrifying lead performance amidst a basic morality tale, The Public Enemy is an entertaining crime film. It’s one that deserves to sit comfortably with other classics in the genre.

DeaconsDen Reaction – Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods will certainly be considered as a timely release, however there’s always a time for this type of story to be told. While there are films on the Vietnam war, very few speak on the black perspective. Spike Lee has crafted a compelling human drama and mixing it with a second half that really invokes the vibe of a film like The Wild Bunch.

Four black Vietnam vets reunite to bring home the remains of their fallen comrade and squad leader. The plot is set into motion early, however the journey is one of brotherhood, trauma and heartbreak. Often we talk about how blacks in the military diligently fought for the United States and in Da 5 Bloods we see the aftermath of all these events and how they shape these men going forward. The character we are most attached to for this story is Paul who is played by Delroy Lindo. Lindo gives an amazing performance that deserves every bit of recognition. Paul is the character who is most damaged by these events. The end result you’ll see is the relationship with his son. As the film goes on you’ll see how this trauma can make its down through generations and it be of no fault of anyone but the powers that be. Spike Lee, as always does not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of America being the land of opportunity, but these soldiers who already fought for an unpopular cause, return to be mistreated even more.

My favorite Spike Lee Joint is Malcolm X and it still is, but Da 5 Bloods off one viewing makes its way into my favorites of his films. It’s 2.5 hour runtime coasts along as it continually peels back layer after layer and reminds us of another element of the black experience in America.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – White Heat

Anchored by a ferocious performance by James Cagney, White Heat is a thrilling peace of post-war cinema. I watched this film back to back to back with The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces and they really tell the story of crime in America. Public Enemy focuses on one man’s rise in crime, Angels with Dirty Faces introduces the new bosses of crime with lawyers and politicians. White Heat brings into focus the overwhelming power of the state in crime prevention. 

New social ideals are forming post World War II. In The Public Enemy, Tom Powers represents individualism, the sole criminal in charge of his own destiny. In White Heat the treasury agents represent the idea of conformity that arises. Cody Jarrett represents a deviation from that idea that must be snuffed out. This is timely with the rise of the Cold War.

White Heat also examines the psyche of the American man. Cody Jarrett is a man clearly struggling with his demons. However he knows no way to handle them but to lash out and the only person he can be with where he functions best is with his mother. He is extremely paranoid and doesn’t trust anyone. He has bad relationships with any woman that is not his mother. The one person outside of her that he trusts, is not who he says he is and it just pushes him over the edge.

White Heat may be an old school gangster film, but like others of this era it is extremely layered beyond just cops and robbers.