- Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
- Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
- Resolution: 1080p/24 (23.976Hz)
- Audio Codec: English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 (48kHz/24-bit) (all films); German & Spanish (Castilian) Dolby Digital 1.0 (Little Caesar); German Dolby Digital 1.0 (The Public Enemy); German, Spanish (Latin American), & Portuguese Dolby Digital 1.0 (The Petrified Forest); German, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin American), & Portuguese Dolby Digital 1.0 (White Heat)
- Subtitles: English SDH, French, German SDH, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin American), Portuguese (Little Caesar); English SDH, French, German SDH, Korean, Spanish (Latin American), Portuguese (The Public Enemy); English SDH, French, German SDH, Portuguese, Spanish (Latin American) (The Petrified Forest); English SDH, French, German SDH, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin American), Portuguese (White Heat)
- Subtitles Color: White
- Region: ABC (Region-Free)
- Rating: Not Rated
- Discs: 5 (4 x Blu-ray + 1 x DVD)
- Digital Copies: N/A
- Run Time: 78 Mins. (Little Caesar); 84 Mins; (The Public Enemy); 82 Mins. (The Petrified Forest); 113 Mins. (White Heat)
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Blu-ray Release Date: May 21, 2013
- List Price: $49.99
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(The below TheaterByte screen captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray Discs and losslessly compressed in the PNG format. There should be no loss of picture quality with this format. All screen captures should be regarded only as an approximation of the full capabilities of the Blu-ray format.
From the early 1930s through the 1940s, Warner Bros. laid the foundation for what we recognize today as the classic American gangster films. Beginning with 1931’s Little Caesar, the first major “talkie” gangster film to break through and have a real impact on audiences, Warner rode the wave of the genre, even through the era of the stifling Production Code, well into the late 1940s, putting out films that would give us icons of the cinema, such as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. This collection from Warner, Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics, gathers together four of those classic films, appearing for the first time ever on Blu-ray Disc, in one deluxe collection for cinephiles to enjoy.
The collection starts with the aforementioned Little Caesar (1931) in which Edward G. Robinson plays the classic street gangster Enrico “Rico” Bandello. Made up to look like the very real-life Al Capone, Robinson’s character and the film in general created the mold for the visceral violence that would come to define the gangster genre. A tale of Rico Bandello’s relentless drive to become the big man in the underworld, even at the sacrifice of his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), a more respectable member of Rico’s gang who finds love and tries to go straight, but can’t, the story eventually shows Rico’s overreach, an unexpected eruption of violence, and Rico’s downfall. Although tame by today’s standards, the rough edges and frankness (only a couple of years into the talkie era) were a shock and a thrill to audiences of the day.
Ultimate Gangsters moves on to The Public Enemy (1931). It features James Cagney in his first starring role, and he is immediately charismatic and riveting in the role of Tom. This one chronicles the rise and fall of Chicago street urchin Tom, alongside his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), during the prohibition era. Starting out showing us the beginnings of their involvement in crime, with petty theft, hanging around parlors, and eventual involvement with local hood “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell), we get to see the boys grow into men, and successful bootleggers, living the glamorous lifestyle of booze, fancy cars, and gorgeous women (among them one Jean Harlow). But violence, revenge, and the law eventually claim them. This is the birth of the antihero, although it is still far from anything but what we would expect from a gangster film of the era, neatly wrapping up the story. However, the shocking gunplay, the liquid aspect of sexual relationships, and hints of domestic violence (Tom shoves a grapefruit in a woman’s face) makes this one quite edgy for the time.
We move on to The Petrified Forest (1936), and with begin to move into territory where the “gangster” as it were, begins to expand beyond the common cliché. No longer painted with broad strokes, the gangster here is allowed to expand, be more enigmatic. Humphrey Bogart, after a successful stage career, had played several roles on the screen with little success, and was now just about at the end of his run in Hollywood. Having played the role of gangster Duke Mantee alongside co-star Leslie Howard on the stage, Leslie held out for Bogart to also play the part for the film adaptation (the studio wanted the more marketable Edward G. Robinson). It paid off, as Bogart imparted the right amount of menace and humanity in the part. Taking place almost entirely in one room apart from a few scenes, Howard plays Alan Squier, a washed up writer who wanders in to a diner where the pretty young waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), the owner’s daughter, becomes fascinated with him. The starry-eyed Gabrielle dreams of skipping out of the empty desert and making her way to France, and Alan is just the sort of mysterious and handsome artsy type to catch her attention. It invokes the jealousy of footballer Boze (Dick Foran) who wants to clobber Alan, especially when he can’t pay for his meal, but Boze’s problems are solved when wealthy customers Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin) stop by for gasoline with their driver and offer to give Alan a ride out of town – but they don’t get far. Escaped bank robber Duke Mantee and his gang accost them on the road and steal their car. The lot of them eventually all end up back at the diner to wait out a sandstorm and for the arrival of Duke’s girlfriend, laying low from the cops. A serious character study ensues, especially between Alan and Duke, who seems to seriously admire Duke, calling him “the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” The melancholy Alan has a surprising plan up his sleeve to help Gabrielle get to France, however, that he feels will give his life meaning, and it involves Duke Mantee.
More cerebral in tone than much of the gangster films up to that point, The Petrified Forest can be a bit flowery in its language and a little melodramatic, especially the love story between Alan and Gabrielle, but it never fails to hold your attention. This is a serious turning point in the genre that blurs the lines of good and bad.
Finally, last but not least, White Heat (1946) finds an older James Cagney returning in a film that would really lay the groundwork for the deconstructed gangster films of the 60s, 70s, and beyond. Playing Cody Jarret, head of a gang of train robbers, this one more than blurs the lines or stretches the boundaries of what a gangster is, it blows right through them. Cagney’s Jarret has unnatural, almost incestuous ties to his mother, suffers terrible epileptic fits, and is at any given moment on the verge of violent outbursts. In this film, we are given a rather complex story of Jarret and his gang’s train robbery, their failure to tie up loose ends, a violent stint in prison, and an undercover infiltrator of the gang. The film is tough, it’s edgy, and at times downright subversive for the times. Cagney’s portrayal of Jarret is one of the best of his career and stands the test of time.
This is the first time any of these films are appearing on Blu-ray, unlike the companion set from Warner, Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Contemporary, which was made up of all previously released films. Every disc comes with a relatively clean, crisp, beautifully rich looking black and white AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encodement on Blu-ray. Little Caesar and The Public Enemy show the most inconsistency, and also are the softest looking of the four films, while The Petrified Forest and White Heat both carry the most consistently sharp and textured image with the fewest lapses into overwhelming graininess or film softness. The latter two films also appear to my eyes to have the least bit of grain suppression applied.
Each film in the set comes with a competent and more than listenable lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 (48kHz/24-bit) track of its original monaural soundtrack. While they sound a bit boxy and restrained by today’s standards, they are also remarkably effective, and have little in the way of crackle, especially the latter two films. They more than work for this material.
The entire set is housed in a deluxe glossy slipcover with artwork and comes with a 32-page hardcover book with additional images and essays on the films. Further information on supplements included are as listed below.
- Hardcover book – 32-page hardcover book with photographs and essays on the films.
- DVD – A standard DVD is included that houses the documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film (01:45:43) narrated by Alec Baldwin and features interviews by various film experts and historians. It’s an interesting look at the history and evolution of the gangster film in Hollywood, from the very early days on. The DVD also includes a few Merrie Melody and Looney Tunes animated shorts:
- Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes:
- I Like Mountain Music
- She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter
- Racketeer Rabbit
- Bugs and Thugs
Additionally, each film’s disc has its own commentary and set of featurettes exploring the actors, filmmakers, and the film’s place in cinematic history, all in standard definition:
- Commentary by Richard Jewell
- Special Feature: Warner Night at the Movies with intro by Leonard Maltin (1.33:1; SD; 00:17:29)
- Short Feature: Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero (1.33:1; SD; 00:17:09)
- Short Feature: Rerelease Forward (1.33:1; SD; 00:00:45)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.33:1; SD; 00:02:11)
The Public Enemy:
- Commentary by Robert Sklar
- Warner Night at the Movies with Introduction by Leonard Maltin (1.33:1; SD; 00:21:09)
- Short Feature: Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public (1.33:1; SD; 00:19:37)
- Short Feature: Rerelease Forward (1.33:1; SD; 00:00:45)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.33:1; SD; 00:00:48)
The Petrified Forest:
- Commentary by Eric Lax
- Warner Night at the Movies with Introduction by Leonard Maltin (1.33:1; SD; 00:32:51)
- Short Feature: The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert (1.33:1; SD; 00:15:51)
- 1/7/1940 Gulf Screen Theater Broadcast (Audio-Only; 00:28:58)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.33:1; SD)
- Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper
- Warner Night at the Movies with Introduction by Leonard Maltin (1.33:1; SD; 00:21:28)
- Short Feature: White Heat: Top of the World (1.33:1; SD; 00:16:55)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.33:1; SD)
The Definitive Word
Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics is appropriately named. These are the films that defined the so-called “gangster” genre and they look as good as ever in their first appearances on Blu-ray here from Warner. Grab them up ASAP.
Additional Screen Captures