Couch Trip

Warner Gangsters Collection Vol. 3
Warner Home Video

Like last year's Film Noir Collection Vol. 3, Warner Home Video's Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 is characterized as much by its deviation from its alleged genre as its adherence to it. Of the six Depression-era films collected here, not one can really be considered a gangster movie in the violent, pulpy tradition of The Public Enemy, White Heat or Howard Hawks' Scarface. There are great movies here, but despite the presence of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in nearly all of them, they're either uninterested in the gangster-movie formula or are already postmodern enough to toy with what was then a fresh form of crime film.

Three titles are lighthearted enough to achieve the latter. The Picture Snatcher sees Cagney as a criminal just released from Sing-Sing. He attempts to reform his life as a productive member of society by joining a newspaper — except the rag in question is The Graphic-News, a dirty tabloid that makes money off scandalous shots of crime, celebrities and politicians. It's witty and suspenseful with the kind of snappy writing that defined the best of the early talkies.

The Lady Killer similarly subverts Cagney's image as a menacing gangster, casting him as a bandit on the run who unwittingly becomes a major movie star. It's a film that satirizes both itself and Hollywood, with sly inside jokes decades before their time. Brother Orchid is the sweetest movie here (and, ironically, the closest to the gangster paradigm). Robinson's a don returning to his gang after a five-year absence only to discover he's no longer welcome. A gang war ensues between him and his former No. 2 man Humphrey Bogart, resulting in a near-death experience at the hands of his former friends and a subsequent rebirth — thanks to some monks at a rural monastery who find his unconscious body just in time. Gradually forgetting his old life and devoting his new one to the monastic order, Robinson goes through the motions of a classic character arc with subtlety and depth.

Robinson had more range than Cagney and was an even more explosive presence on screen. This is best conveyed in Smart Money, less a gangster film than an anti-gambling moral fable. As the self-delusional and power-hungry high roller who stops at nothing to remain on top, Robinson is amazing as this tragic figure for Depression-era America.

The strangest choice for this collection is one that isn't even the same stratosphere as gangster cinema, but it's a masterpiece that's been long overdue on DVD. The first major starring role for Humphrey Bogart, 1937's The Black Legion is an early indictment of pre-McCarthyist fascism and xenophobia in a city that could well be Detroit. Bogie's Frank Taylor is a machinist who loses his promotion to a Polish-born worker. After hearing some hate speech from a talk-radio demagogue, he decides to join a group called the Black Legion, a KKK-like lodge of bigots who aim to eradicate the world of the "anarchic" foreigners that steal American jobs and culture. What's most sobering about this cynical, despairing assessment of America is what little has changed in 70 years, as if the film's screenwriters were prophesying the bile-filled rhetoric of the Lou Dobbses and Pat Buchanans to come. —John Thomason

Fear House
Life Size Entertainment

So you think you can make your own indie horror flick? Let's see then. You've got the digital camera. You've got a premise and have written something that resembles a script. Your cast of unknowns seems willing to bring your vision to life. The decrepit mansion you just passed on the road will make a great locale. Hell, you've even got a special effects budget to boot. This'll be easy, right? Hey, not so fast. Just because horror is treated like the bastard offspring of film genres doesn't beget a fright flick that's good, or easy. Lots can go wrong if Fear House is any indication.

This first-time flick by writer-director Michael R. Morris is misguided from the opening credits right though to its convoluted twist ending. The shoddy production values red-flag its direct-to-video market status. The image quality is murky at best, the CGI looks fake and the acting, while not horrible, isn't going to earn anyone an Independent Spirit Award. But the fatal flaw is the lazy script that has a bestselling author along with her friends and family trapped in a house with a 100-year-old family curse. Anyone who tries to leave is killed by their innermost fear. This might've sounded sweet on paper but it's nothing more than a retread of smarter films like 1408, Candyman and Galaxy of Terror. Never mind that the plot is full of loopholes, like when the author's husband is electrocuted by a downed power line. Oooh, scary, he must have had a deep-rooted fear of lightning, or better, his skyrocketing electric bill — neither of which, you'll note, were ever foreshadowed as his fear. —Paul Knoll

Alain Delon 5-film Collection
Lions Gate

Lately, Lions Gate has been admirably unloading the canons of Europe's biggest film icons, from both behind and in front of the camera. Having already unearthed some of the more neglected works of Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Luc Godard, the bold distributor's latest boxed set honors French matinee icon Alain Delon, most known to cinephiles as the steely mercenary in Jean-Pierre Melville's spellbinding Le Samourai. Unfortunately, it proves to be Lions Gate's spottiest collection yet, exposing Delon's inability to distinguish decent material as much as it shows off his remarkable versatility.

Delon has worked with legendary directors, boasts the box art of the Alain Delon 5-film Collection, such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Melville, Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey. None are represented here, as L'Eclisse, Le Circle Rouge, The Leopard and Mr. Klein are already on DVD. Instead, out of an 80-plus-film career spanning 50 years, Lions Gate has amassed five films that are mostly duds.

Of the two major directors whose work is included here, the best is Julien Duvivier's Diabolically Yours. It's great compared to others in the set, but this story of an amnesiac swindled by a bourgeois femme fatale is as satisfying as average Chinese food, a rote Claude Chabrol knockoff providing only faint echoes of such Duvivier classics as Pépé Le Moko.

Bertrand Blier, who directed the Oscar-winning Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, delivers a fascinating mess called Our Story (inexplicably renamed Separate Rooms for its U.S. release), which finds the usually debonair Delon cast against type as a soporific, speechless alcoholic falling obsessively for Nathalie Baye's promiscuous sexpot. It could be an interesting psychodrama, but Blier instead steers his confused film toward a tone of manic slapstick, which works until the joke isn't funny anymore, and the story — which the characters obnoxiously refer to in self-reflexive terms — flounders toward a final third that could've been lopped off entirely.

The most shameless entry here is The Swimming Pool, a frivolous love story between a man, his wife and an old family friend. It's a feast of wet, undulating flesh, with a perpetually shirtless Delon objectified as much as sexy co-star Romy Schneider. It's a film for lecherous viewers for whom the phrase "art film" promises the potential for exotic sex, and director Jacques Deray pushes his trivial triangle to its nearly softcore limit. To be fair, Pool finally gets interesting around the 70-minute mark, but Godspeed if you can make it that far.

Then there's The Widow Couderc, with Delon as an escaped convict who finds shelter working on Simone Signoret's farm and shakes up her already fractured community. Turgid and uninvolving, The Widow Couderc lacks the Malickian lyricism and sensuality to achieve the mood of tragic romanticism it's aiming for. Finally, Jose Giovanni's talky crime story The Gypsy is directed with the flatness of an ironing board, with a mustachioed and sunglass-sporting Delon looking every bit the extra from The Beastie Boys' Sabotage video.

This set is worth a look for those who've seen Delon's most notable work. Otherwise, treat yourself to his exciting Melville and Antonioni output before investing in a collection this doggedly static. —John Thomason

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