July 18, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Tough Guys Collection

type
Movie
Current Status
In Season
mpaa
Unrated
We gave it a B+

Tough Guys Collection, a thematic package of films responding to Hollywood’s Production Code, with its strict guidelines regarding sex and violence, is mostly about gangster icons James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson transforming themselves from The Public Enemy and Little Caesar into heroes. Although the lead flies freely in ”G” Men and Bullets or Ballots, Cagney and Robinson both embrace the chance to play lawmen battling baddie Barton MacLane.

Two releases are about thugs in stir, but the routine San Quentin, with an uncharismatic Pat O’Brien, is mightily outshone by Each Dawn I Die, featuring Cagney as a framed journalist saved from life in the pen by dapper racketeer George Raft — also guilty of scene-stealing. The two other films rely less on brutal images: Elia Kazan plays a mobster-as-swell in City for Conquest, but the focus is on Cagney’s riveting boxer in the gritty urban melodrama. And A Slight Case of Murder shows Robinson’s comic chops as an ex-bootlegger with doubtful etiquette: ”You ain’t changed a bit. Still just as slick as a horsehair couch.”

Warner’s typical wealth of commentaries and featurettes gives depth and context with such topics as the Code, gangster slang, and molls, and there’s even a newsreel of G-men in action. (”Machine Gun” Kelly, surrounded in Memphis, coined the term, yelling, ”Don’t shoot, G-men!”) Bravo to the studio for gutsily including the Merrie Melodies cartoon ”Detouring America” and the short ”George Hall and His Orchestra”; each is preceded by a current warning of its period racism, and both will make you cringe.

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