Category Archives: Gangster Movies

Hot Stuff (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: A phony pawn shop.

Tired of seeing the criminals they apprehend getting off on legal technicalities three cops (Dom DeLuise, Jerry Reed, Suzanne Pleshette) decide to turn-the-tables by opening up their own pawn shop, which will work as a front to reel in the crooks that try to resell stolen items. They use the magic of a hidden camera and video tape, which was a new thing at the time, to record the criminals as they bring in the stolen loot and therefore leave no question as to their guilt, but their plan gets off to a rocky start and only gets more convoluted as they proceed with it.

The film, which was directed by DeLuise, starts out fast and includes a car chase before the opening credits even occur, but once the premise is established it bogs down. Supposedly much of what occurs is based on real-life accounts taken from various police cases, but it lacks cohesion. There are gun battles and a wide array of criminal characters that pop up out of nowhere with the pawn shop setting being the only thing that loosely ties it together. Any element of reality gets lost during its farcical ending, which involves all the criminals attending a party that quickly turns into a long drawn slapstick-like battle that resembles something found in a cartoon and is really inane particularly the pathetic ‘fights’ that occur between the various characters where it is clear the actors are pulling their punches and not doing a very good job of disguising it.

The film does make an effort, at least at the beginning, to show the private side of a cop’s life and many of the frustrations that go along with doing the job, but by the end the characters seem too comically inept to be believable. I also found it amusing that DeLuise uses his own children to play the kids of his character even though with their blonde hair they looked more like they should be Reed’s offspring instead.

The one funny moment comes when DeLuise smokes some weed and goes off on a long laughing binge that is genuinely memorable, but otherwise this thing, which was shockingly co-written by the normally reliable Donald E. Westlake, suffers from an uneven focus that is more content at showing slapdash comedy than conveying something that is original, interesting or multi-dimensional.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 10, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Dom DeLuise

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD

Scarface (1983)

scarface

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Refugee becomes drug lord.

Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee arriving in Miami hoping to make it big in the land of opportunity. At first he is forced to do low paying jobs, but finally gets his break when he is hired to do a job for a rich drug dealer named Frank Garcia (Robert Loggia). Soon Tony becomes infatuated with Frank’s girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the two begin a torrid affair. When Frank tries to assassinate Tony by ordering a hit on him at a nightclub Tony gets his revenge by killing Frank and becoming the top drug lord, which makes him quite wealthy, but the strain of constantly having to watch his back for whoever may be out to get him eventually wears on his personality.

This is a remake of the 1932 Howard Hawk’s classic that came about when Pacino watched the original film in a theater and felt compelled to make a modern day update with the drugs being the source of the criminal activity instead of alcohol. The result is only so-so, but it gets helped immensely by an incredible set design. Tony’s all-black office and a luxurious hot tub placed in the middle of his already kitschy living room are eye-popping as are the chic and lively interiors of the nightclubs, posh restaurants and exotic resorts. The graphic shootouts are equally arresting and keenly shot and edited for ultimate excitement.

Director Brian De Palma again digs into his bag of borrowed Hitchcock shots in order to tell his story, but here it works pretty well. My favorite one is when he uses the camera to track outside of a room where the action is occurring and onto a quiet street below. Hitchcock did the same thing in Frenzy where the bad guy strangles a woman inside her apartment, but instead of showing the violent act the camera moves out of the apartment and onto a busy street outside. Here the camera takes an equally fascinating journey from a man getting chopped up by a chainsaw to an idyllic afternoon day just a few feet away.

The supporting cast is strong particularly Pfeiffer as Tony’s bitchy girlfriend whose ongoing acerbic responses act as a good barometer to Tony’s ever changing social standing. I also enjoyed the transformation of Loggia’s character from intimidating kingpin to wilting coward. Harris Yulin is also memorable as a corrupt cop who ends up playing things a little too cool for his own good.

The thing I hated about the movie was Pacino’s over-the-top performance. Normally I’ve found him to be a great actor, but here the character comes off as too cartoonish and one-dimensional. He possesses no interesting character arch and is creepy and unlikable from the beginning and proceeds to only get worse as it goes along, which makes following his rise and fall quite boring and predictable.

The runtime is too long and encompasses a lot of lulls in between the action bits in a story that seems to telegraph where it’s going right from the start. The Cubans are also portrayed in a negative and stereotypical way with only a slight attempt to balance it. Had it not been for the excellent production values this thing would’ve been a real bore.

I was also confused as to why Charles Durning’s voice gets dubbed in during a scene involving Tony’s conversation with an immigration officer. If De Palma was unhappy with the original actor’s performance as the immigration officer then he should have re-filmed it with Durning present instead of just using his voice because his style of speaking is quite distinctive and I was thrown out of the scene completely due to wondering why I was hearing Durning’s voice, but not seeing him.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1983

Runtime: 2Hours 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Money Movers (1979)

money movers 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Employees become the thieves.

Lionel Darcy (Frank Wilson) runs an Australian armored truck business that transports payroll funds from one location to the other. After there is a robbery to one of his trucks he tries to increase security measures in order to prevent another one from occurring unaware that his own employees, with help of a local crime boss (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) are planning an even bigger attack and everyone, even the police detective hired in to investigate the first crime, are in on it in one or the other.

The film is based on a novel by Devon Minchin, who worked as head of security for The Beatles when they were on tour in Australia and also owned at one time Australia’s largest armored car security company. The story itself is based on two real-life robberies that occurred in Sydney during the summer of 1970.

To me what stands out most about this film is how everyone, with the sole exception of Darcy, is thoroughly corrupt. There is no ‘good-guy’ in this movie, but instead of that being a turn-off it becomes almost like a running-joke where the viewer waits to find out what dark vice each new character will reveal to have. Fortunately they and their vices remain strangely engaging and this is mainly because none of them are portrayed as being inertly ‘evil’, but instead people sucked into an already screwed-up system and simply trying to make a living and doing it in the only way they know how.

Ed Devereaux , who plays a retired cop named Dick Martin, becomes the film’s reluctant protagonist although his presence gets refreshingly underplayed while having him look worn, aged and genuinely overwhelmed yet still remaining dedicated to his cause and ultimately managing to put a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Darcy, the only other non-corrupt character, is equally engaging albeit in an unconventional way as his utter cluelessness as just how criminally overrun his own company is, is a perfect comical testament to how many business owners and CEOs are thoroughly detached from the companies they run and the people they supposedly control.

The violence is graphic and impactful and one of the most memorable elements of the movie particularly during the final shootout that occurs inside the garage of the armor car company. There is none of this staged nonsense where the men have ‘manly’ fistfights that always get coupled with that annoying smacking sound-effect. Instead it gets captured in quick, ugly ways where the men desperately do whatever ugly tactic they can to stop the other one. The action is stark and unglamorous while given a bestial quality like starving animals fighting over a last piece of meat that leaves the viewer feeling like they’ve just witnessed an actual crime as it happened.

The film’s beginning is admittedly confusing and there should’ve been some backstory given before it jumps right away into the crime that features a dizzying array of shootings and double-crossings before the viewer is even able to figure out who is who. Yet after this awkward first part it manages to settle down while becoming a rapid-paced, in-your-face crime thriller that has proven to be highly influential and years-ahead-of-its-time.

money movers 1

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 1, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bruce Beresford

Studio: Roadshow Film Distributors

Available: VHS, Amazon Instant Video 

The Longshot (1986)

longshot

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Betting on a horse.

Four middle-aged losers (Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Ted Wass, Jack  Weston) who’ve spent years attending the racetrack and betting on horses, but never making any money off of it, finally get a tip from an insider. Santiago (Jorge Cervera Jr.) tells them to place a bet on a horse with a longshot of winning because he will feed the animal a certain drug, which will make him run faster. Since the four do not have any funds of their own they decide to borrow the money from a local gangster (George DiCenzo) who gives them $10,000, but with heavy interest added. The men are convinced that they will be able to easily pay it back, but then just as the bet is placed they find out that it’s been a set-up, which sends the four into a panic.

The screenplay was written by Conway who has been an avid horse racing fan for years and even considered becoming a jockey before entering into acting. Like with his other films that he also scripted it is poorly paced with long stretches where nothing much happens. Very little of the runtime is spent on the actual plot and the majority of the film instead deals with meandering conversations and wacky/sketch-like comedy that has nothing at all to do with the main story.

Some of it is mildly amusing like with different euphemisms the men use to describe the male sex organ, but overall it’s pretty desperate. Some of it is too dumb to be believable: for instance what sort of person in their right mind, even a complete idiot, would light a grill inside a parked car with the windows up and not expect problems? The scene dealing with Conway’s rendezvous with the Stella Stevens’ character inside her hotel room is needlessly prolonged and pointless and the segment where Korman eats his beef stew while making loud slurping noises is gross sounding and should’ve been cut out completely.

The one thing that I found interesting is the fact that this film is a bit edgier than most of Conway’s other ones. During the ‘70s he was locked into perpetually G-rated material, but here it gets more PG-13 with one character even using the F-word and Conway close to using it himself a couple of times. He also plays more of a normal person instead of the vapid, dopey one that he usually does. Instead Ted Wass handles the duties of the numskull and in many ways is much funnier with it.

The supporting cast is the only thing that saves this otherwise limp excursion. Anne Meara is great as Conway’s sarcastic wife and Jack Weston becomes a scene stealer as his pal. Other familiar faces pop-up in minor bits including Frank Bonner as a real estate agent, Susan Tolsky as a would-be topless waitress, Jonathan Winters as a pick-up truck driver and Eddie Deezen as a carhop. Edie McClurg is seen briefly as Korman’s wife and Paul Bartel, who has the dubious honors of directing this flick, can be spotted as a racing spectator during the opening credits.

Conway fans will most likely be more forgiving, but others beware. If you do watch it you’ll be treated to an opening rap duet between Conway and Ice-T, yes you read that right, and a closing song done by Irene Cara.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 17, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 29Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Paul Bartel

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Busy Body (1967)

busy body

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Find the dead body.

George Norton (Sid Caesar) is a nebbish mama’s boy who, for whatever reason, gets taken in by Charley (Robert Ryan) a Chicago mob boss. Charley even gives George a seat on his board of governors. When a fellow crime boss (Bill Dana) gets killed in a freak accident it is George who selects a blue suit for the corpse to wear at the funeral. Unfortunately that blue suit was lined with a million dollars and Charley demands that George dig up the body and retrieve the money, but when he does he finds that the body is gone and thus begins a long, winding, ‘madcap’ search for the missing body and money.

Noted horror director/producer William Castle decided late in his career to give comedy a stab and this is the result. The beginning is mildly amusing, but the humor gets terribly strained and a 100 minute runtime is just too long for such trite material. Everything gets suppressed into silliness with an overplayed music score that has too much of a playful quality to it making the whole thing thoroughly ingrained on the kiddie level from start-to-finish.

Dom DeLuise has an amusing bit as a mortician that would really rather be a hairdresser and Kay Medford is quite funny as George’s doting mother, but the rest of the supporting cast is wasted, which includes Richard Pryor, in his film debut, playing in a role that does not take advantage of his comic skill. Caesar is just not leading man material and his vaudeville-like shtick is quite passé and predictable. His co-star Ryan is far funnier and without having to try half as hard.

The plot goes off on wild tangents until it becomes impossible to follow and quite pointless. The whole production is horribly dated and will not appeal to kids or adults. In fact the film’s intended audience has long ago passed away making this thing a silly relic of its time and nothing more.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 12, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Not Rated

Director: William Castle

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Outside Man (1973)

outside man 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hit man is marked.

Lucien (Jean-Louise Trintignant) is a French hit man hired by an American family to assassinate a mob boss (Ted de Corsia) who’s living in Los Angeles. He’s able to pull off the job relatively easily, but then after it’s over he finds that he’s been targeted by another hit man (Roy Scheider) who is relentless and chases Lucien all over the city. Nancy (Ann-Margret) is the stripper who comes to Lucien’s aid by getting her boyfriend to create a passport for him so he can return to France, but just as he is about to board the plane he decides instead to stay in the states and turn-the-tables on the man who’s chasing him while finding who is behind the double-cross.

The film, which was done by a French production company, but filmed on-location in the states, is a lot of fun. The many offbeat touches and various stabs at dry humor keep it interesting and original while still remaining suspenseful and exciting. Some of the best moments include a hitchhiker (Edward Greenberg) who tries to convert Lucien to ‘Jesus’ as well the funeral, which eventually turns into a wild shootout amongst the various mob factions and has a corpse embalmed in a sitting position with a cigar in hand.

I also liked the way director Jacques Deray captures Los Angeles. Usually when a film is done in the City of Angels we always get shown shots of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, movie star homes, the beachfront and of course the great Hollywood sign, but here we see none of that. Instead the film captures the city’s less glamorous side including the rundown neighborhoods and even a shootout that takes place in abandoned buildings from an amusement park, which all helps to give the movie a unique vision as well as allowing the viewer to appreciate a side to the city that they may have not known even existed.

Trintignant is terrific and his perpetual look of confusion as he gets faced with one unexpected surprise after another is memorable and helps carry the film. Ann-Margret is solid as the streetwise, but kindly stripper and Scheider is quite good as the steely killer. Georgia Engel, who later became famous for playing Georgette on the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ is funny as a spacy housewife who comes into contact with Lucien as he is trying to run from his killer. I especially liked the way that when a gun is pointed in her face she doesn’t scream or panic, but instead responds with silence and a deer-in-headlights look. This is also a great chance to see a young Jackie Earle Haley in his film debut as her precocious 10-year-old son.

The film’s only real downfall is its ending, which is too downbeat and ambiguous. It’s almost like they spent so much time coming up with creative concepts for the rest of it that by the time they came to the end they just plain rang out of ideas, which is a disappointment, but as a whole it’s still a gem.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 18, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jacques Deray

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD (MGM Limited Edition Collection), Amazon Instant Video

Lucky Lady (1975)

lucky lady

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Three’s not a crowd.

Walker (Burt Reynolds) and Claire (Liza Minnelli) make money by helping people illegally cross the Mexican border into the states, but when their third partner in the business dies and they almost get arrested they decide to get into an easier line of work. With the help of Kibby (Gene Hackman) they become rum-runners who transport liquor by boat under the cover of night during the prohibition era. As the three start to have some success and get to know each other they also form a love triangle and spend their evenings involved in a ménage-a-trois.

If you’re in the mood for non-think, grandiose style entertainment made in the same vein of classic movies from Hollywood’s golden era then you should find this more than satisfying. The plot moves along at a nice breezy pace with characters that are distinct and fun and full of snappy dialogue. The majority of the story takes place on water, but manages to remain quite exciting and ironically only becomes waterlogged when it goes on land. The lavish sets are splendid and the film could be enjoyed by simply taking in those alone.

The three leads are in top form and play against type. Minnelli, who actually looks sexy here in a flapper styled hairdo, is quite amusing with her acerbic one-liners. Reynolds is great as the klutzy member of the trio and Hackman is solid as always playing someone who seems meek at first, but eventually takes over things with his patented strong personality. Unfortunately John Hillerman, best known for playing Higgins in the ‘Magnum P.I.’ TV-series, is the only weak link of the cast playing a bad guy that never conveys enough menace to be truly threatening.

A young Robby Benson who was 18 at the time, but more looks more like 14 is quite good in support. I was never all that impressed with the former teen heart throb, but here he is effective playing a shy kid who says little, but when he does say something it’s a gem. Geoffrey Lewis is also quite funny as an inept Captain of the Coast Guard. Mills Watson, who is best known for playing Deputy Perkins on the ‘The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo’ TV-series can be spotted in a couple of scenes. IMDb does not have him listed here, but I recognized him and his name does come up on the closing credits as a character named Giff.

For lightweight entertainment the film does have quite a few action sequences that are surprisingly well choreographed and even quite bloody, but the climatic sequence becomes too cartoonish. I was also disappointed that the one unique element of the story, which is the three getting into a relationship, is only mildly touched upon and basically forgotten after the first hour. The film could’ve gone a lot farther with that and even made it the centerpiece of the plot, which would’ve helped make it more character driven and groundbreaking.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stanley Donen

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

 

And Hope to Die (1972)

and hope to die

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kidnapping a dead girl.

Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is on the run from a gypsy group out for revenge and as he is being chased by them he encounters another group of criminals headed by Charley (Robert Ryan) who after some conflict take him into their fold and gives him the nickname of Froggy. Their plan is to kidnap a teen girl who is set to be the star witness at a trial of a major head of a criminal organization. Unfortunately she commits suicide before they can get to her, so they pretend that she is still alive and go through the motions of the kidnapping so as to be able to collect the payout by the organization that hired them.

This is the second of director Rene Clement’s trilogy dealing with the theme of kidnapping. The first was The Deadly Trap and the third being Scar Tissue. Of the three this one is the best mainly because of its many offbeat touches. The wry sense of humor, which is deftly interwoven into an already intricate plot, is terrific and helps make the entire thing engaging from beginning to end. My favorite parts include a contest that Froggy plays with Charley where he can stand three cigarettes on end straight into the air, which he can do with ease while Charley can’t despite his repeated efforts. The eulogy that Charley gives during a makeshift burial of one of their cohorts is priceless and the action isn’t bad either including an exciting sequence in which the group walks across a thin ladder hundreds of feet in the air that connects one skyscraper to another.

The characterizations are well done and played to the hilt. Trintignant plays another one of his outsider-looking-in roles and the way he manages to mesh himself into the group that is initially reluctant to have him is quite amusing. Aldo Ray is a scene stealer playing the gang’s resident bonehead and Tisa Farrow, who is Mia’s younger sister and looks almost like she could be her twin, is appealing in her role as a volatile young lady who knows how to use a gun and not afraid to shoot it whenever she gets the least bit riled.

The actual kidnapping, which is based on the novel ‘Black Friday’ by David Goodis, doesn’t occur until the final thirty minutes with the first hour dealing exclusively with Froggy’s assimilation into the group, which may sound boring, but really isn’t. In fact there is very little about this movie that I didn’t like and my only complaint would be the lackluster ending that doesn’t offer much of a payoff. Otherwise I feel this is a great example of how to mix humor with action, but still managing to keep things believable, fresh and inventive.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 15, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Rene Clement

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD (Region 2)

Mickey One (1965)

mickey one 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Comic hides his identity.

Warren Beatty plays a successful night club comic who’s living the good life until he falls into disfavor with the mob. He decides to go on the run by burning his social security card and getting a new one with a Russian name on it that is so hard to pronounce that everyone just calls him Mickey One. After spending time on the streets of Chicago he finally gets himself another gig at a club run by Ed Castle (Hurd Hatfield), but the better things get for Mickey the more paranoid he becomes convinced that he is being watched and followed at every turn and unable to relax for even a second.

This film marks the first pairing of Beatty and director Arthur Penn and their next project, Bonnie and Clyde, was a great success, but the results here are only so-so. The idea of trying to replicate the artsy French New Wave films of the late ‘50s and early 60s is intriguing, but poor pacing and a lack of consistent style hurts it. An early scene taking place inside an automobile junkyard has just the right combination of crisp editing and camerawork to give it an enticing visual quality, but then the film veers off into too many talky segments. It manages to recover at the end by giving the viewer a strong sense of the paranoia that the main character is feeling, but wide shifts in the film’s dramatic tone hurts it overall making this more of an interesting curio than a classic.

Beatty is okay, but he tends to be a bit too detached and his attempts at stand-up comedy are unfunny despite the many shots of audience members laughing. Hatfield is terrific in support and his presence significantly helps. Franchot Tone is also quite good in a part that features no lines of dialogue.

The film does have some unique and memorable moments. Tone’s strange art exhibit that he names the Yes Machine that he constructs on the ice rink of the Marina Towers is engaging particularly when he sets it on fire only to have it put out and ruined by the Chicago fire department. The best moment though is when Beatty tries to do a stand-up routine in an empty and darkened room with only a bright spotlight shining on him and a mysterious, unseen man sitting behind it, which has the perfect blend of mood and style and a scene I wished had been extended.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 27, 1965

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Arthur Penn

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Instant Video

Watch Out, We’re Mad! (1974)

watch out were mad

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Replacing a red buggy.

Kid (Terence Hill) and Ben (Bud Spencer) are two race car drivers who participate in a race that ends in a tie that forces the two to settle on sharing the prize, which is a red dune buggy. The two though want the vehicle all for themselves and decide to settle on who gets to keep it by having a hot dog eating contest at a local bar. As they busily eat their hot dogs a local mobster known as The Boss (John Sharp) orders his men to destroy the place in an effort to get local businesses to leave, so that they can then use the land to build a giant skyscraper. Ken and Ben don’t mind the chaos, but when the mobsters then destroy the buggy they get mad…really mad! They confront The Boss and his equally nefarious psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) insisting that the buggy MUST be replaced and it MUST be the same red color, or there will be trouble. The mobsters initially scoff, but find that these two men are far more resourceful and determined than they could’ve imagined.

This is the seventh teaming of Hill and Spencer who did their first movie together in the 1967 spaghetti western Blood River. They work well together and it is clear that they share a deep camaraderie. The film is full of all sorts of zany slapstick and I enjoyed most of it particularly the bar scene as well as a bumper car segment at a carnival. The best moment though is when they ram their car through the doors of a ritzy restaurant where the mobsters are dining and proceed to drive the car through every inch of the place while popping hundreds upon hundreds of giant balloons that lay all over.

The biggest issue though it that it doesn’t make any sense why these two would be so cocky and arrogant in the face of otherwise dangerous mobsters. Yes, it’s funny that these two ordinary schmucks seem oblivious to danger and can more than handle themselves, but it would’ve worked better had they been initially intimated and then slowly evolved into being more confident. You also have to question how these men acquired such powerful fighting skills, which made me believe that the characters should’ve been portrayed as police or government agents with some kind of combat training instead of just ordinary car mechanics that would not in any way be able to fight these bad guys off as consistently as they do.

The story is one dimensional and there really isn’t much of a third act with the broad plot simply an excuse to showcase a lot of slapstick. The humor is clearly on a kiddie level, but funnier than you might think even though there are certain routines that go on longer than they should and some that seem to repeat themselves. Still it’s refreshing to watch a film made in an era where slapstick was still considered a legitimate form of entertainment and not simply relegated to kid flicks and cartoons.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 29, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated G

Director: Marcello Fondato

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD