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- Published on Amazon.com
A couple years ago, Warner Brothers issued a top-notch set of its classic gangster movies. Included were such all-time greats as Little Caesar, Public Enemy and White Heat. On the heals of that boxed set, a new one was issued: the Tough Guys boxed set. This companion piece to the Gangster set features slightly less well-known movies but is definitely worth watching.
The big difference in the two sets are the roles of its principal players. In the Gangster set, the stars - in particular, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson - were criminals. As the studio got more pressure to stop producing movies in which the heroes were crooks, they merely switched their actors from one side of the law to the other.
In more-or-less chronological order, the first in this six-movie set is G-Men, featuring Cagney as a struggling lawyer who joins the fledgling FBI. This puts him at odds with his friend, a genial crime boss who opts to retire rather than contend with Cagney. Unfortunately, his successors are not so nice, setting up a lot of gunplay. Of the three Cagney movies in this set, this is the weakest, although it is still decent.
Also relatively weak is Bullets or Ballots which features Robinson as a cop who joins the mob after he is fired (an obvious ruse that not even the villains totally buy). Once again, there is a "good" mob boss who is Robinson's friend. Humphrey Bogart, in a standard role for him in the 1930s, is a much more evil gangster.
Bogart returns in San Quentin as a small-time crook sent to the title prison. The principal character, however, is Pat O'Brien as a reform-minded Captain of the Yard, who tries to turn Bogart around, partly out of good intentions and partly because he's dating Bogie's sister. Unfortunately, as also shown in Angels with Dirty Faces (in the Gangster set), O'Brien isn't that interesting a character: he's too straight and narrow and this allows Bogart and the other cons to steal the show.
If the first three movies are merely good, the next three are top-notch. A Slight Case of Murder is a comic gangster movie with Robinson as a crime lord gone legitimate after Prohibition ends. He sells the same beer that he sold in the speakeasy days, little realizing that the only reason people bought his stuff was because it was the only drink available. It tastes like swill, however, but before Robinson can do anything about it, he faces financial ruin. Complicating things are some dead bodies, some missing bank loot and his future son-in-law, a law officer. It may be an old movie, but the humor still works well.
Probably the best movie in the set is Each Dawn I Die, with Cagney back as a reporter who is framed for a crime after reporting on corrupt politics. Initially convinced that the truth will set him free quickly, he soon realizes that it's not going to be that easy; as time goes by, he begins to fall apart. George Raft also stars as a fellow con who is wise to the ways of prison.
Finally, there is City for Conquest, which is more of a romance than a crime movie (although there is a little bit of crime). Cagney is a boxer who is strung along by his long-time girlfriend Ann Sheridan. Her ambitions to become a famous dancer will override her love of him, with bad consequences. Among other actors, this movie features Elia Kazan in a rare acting role.
Besides the fact that these movies probably average a high four stars, we get a lot of extras, including commentaries on all the movies and "Warner Night at the Movies" for all the films as well: in addition to the movie, you get an old movie trailer, a news reel, a short subject and a cartoon. Add to this a set of mini-documentaries and some miscellaneous shorts (including several blooper reels) and this set easily rates five stars and should be watched by anyone who enjoys crime films.