Saturday, October 28, 2023

#2,933. Citizen Gangster (2011) - Double Feature of Off the Beaten Path Gangster Films


I knew nothing about the real Edwin Boyd going into 2011’s Citizen Gangster. A veteran of World War II who had dreams of becoming an actor, Boyd, a Canadian, found it difficult to adjust to life after the war, and turned to robbing banks to support his wife and two children.

Boyd was eventually captured and imprisoned, but joined forces with several fellow inmates and managed to escape. Once loose, Boyd and his new pals started robbing banks, and the media, anxious to give their audience a glimmer of hope in desperate times, turned Edwin Boyd and his cohorts into folk heroes.

Written and directed by Nathan Morlando, who actually befriended the real Edwin Boyd, Citizen Gangster sets out to tell Boyd’s story, and aside from some sections that feel a bit rushed, the movie has enough going for it that it accomplishes just that.

As Citizen Gangster opens, Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman) iss working as a bus driver in Toronto. To make ends meet, his wife Doreen (Kelly Reilly) takes in washing while also keeping an eye on the couple’s two children. Tired of his job, and frustrated that his acting career isn’t going anywhere, Boyd abruptly quits and, painting his face with his wife’s make-up, robs his first bank.

Then another...

...And another.

At first, he tells Doreen that he landed a lucrative acting gig, but she discovers the truth right about the same time that the police, led by ace Detective David Rhys (William Mapother), catch Boyd in the act.

In prison, Boyd meets both Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), a fellow war veteran who lost a foot in a railway accident; and Willie (Brendan Fletcher), aka “The Clown”. Together, the three saw their way through the cell bars, climb the wall, and are met on the other side by Jackson’s buddy Val Kosak (Joseph Cross), who drives them to a safe place where they can lay low.

But they don’t “lay low” for very long!

Soon, Boyd and his new “gang” are back at it, robbing banks and stealing more money that any of them have ever seen before. Along with Lenny’s fiancé Ann (Melanie Scrofano) and Kozak’s mistress Mary Mitchell (Charlotte Sullivan), the “Boyd Gang” makes quite a name for itself, and all are portrayed as folk heroes in the media.

Despite Doreen’s repeated requests that he give up his life of crime, Edwin Boyd presses on. But how long will he and the others stay one step ahead of the law, which is doing everything in its power to bring them to justice?

Shot on-location in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Citizen Gangster, with its snowy landscapes, feels every bit a Canadian film, and Morlando and company do a fine job recreating the time period (early 1950s), when Boyd and associates carried out their misdeeds. The performances are all solid, led by Speedman’s charismatic portrayal of Edwin Boyd, who robs banks with style and panache (he seems to be putting on a show with each and every heist). Reilly is also good as Boyd’s long-suffering wife, though the scenes with the two of them together, after Boyd turns to a life of crime, are my least favorite in the movie. It’s not the actors’ fault; their relationship, as portrayed on-screen, felt too predictable, hitting all the beats you would expect, to the point I stopped caring about them as a couple.

Also good in support is Brian Cox, who plays Boyd’s father Glover, a retired cop! But my favorite turn in the entire film is Kevin Durand as Lenny Jackson, Boyd’s very angry associate. We recognize right away that Lenny may be a loose cannon (which proves to be the case at a key moment in the film), yet we also like the guy, who has overcome a lot of adversity and truly loves his fiancé. In one of the film’s best scenes, the gang takes off for Montreal so that Lenny and Ann can get married. Durand was so impressive that, even in those scenes when Speedman’s Boyd is nowhere to be found, his Lenny Jackson carries the movie, and we never once miss Edwin.

Speedman and Durand, along with Fletcher, Cross, and Sullivan, bring a substantial energy to their scenes together, and like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, we find ourselves rooting for the bad guys, hoping they will somehow get away with it and live happily ever after.

As I mentioned above, some scenes in Citizen Gangster feel rushed, starting with Boyd’s initial crime spree and his escape from prison, all of which play out like an accelerated “origin story”, simply to get us as quickly as possible to the scenes with Boyd’s gang. But since those later moments are my favorite in the movie, I guess I can’t complain.

Despite its flaws, Citizen Gangster is a strong crime film that sheds light on an historical figure who, before this movie, I never even knew existed.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, October 21, 2023

#2,932. The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) - Double Feature of Off the Beaten Path Gangster Films


Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond was spawned in the 1920’s -
An era of incredible violence

This is the way it happened”.

Budd Boetticher, who helmed some of the finest westerns of the 1950’s (7 Men From Now, The Tall T) brings his patented style to the gangster genre with 1960’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.

And what a gangster movie it is!

Inspired by true events, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond opens soon after its title character - a professional thief played by Ray Danton - and his sickly brother / partner-in-crime Eddie (Warren Oates) move to New York City. Their first robbery, a well-executed jewelry heist pulled off with the unwitting help of dance instructor Alice Scott (Karen Steele), lands Legs in prison.

A few years later, when he’s scheduled to appear before the parole board, Legs somehow convinces Alice, still reeling from being duped years earlier, to get him a job as a dancer (being employed will give him a better chance at parole). Legs is released, and for a while he and Alice perform regularly at a New York night club.

One evening, while he and Alice are dancing, Legs recognizes infamous gambler / underworld figure Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery) in the crowd. His mind spinning, Legs leaves Alice and, with Eddie in tow, tries to land a job as Rothstein’s new bodyguard.

Thus begins Legs’ rocky climb to the top of the New York underworld, and he never lets anything, not even being shot, damper his ambitions to be the mob’s Numero Uno.

Ray Danton is ruthless as hell as Jack “Legs” Diamond, a criminal who will do whatever is necessary, and step on anyone, to get what he wants. After breaking poor Alice’s heart (twice), he sets his sights on Arnold Rothstein’s main squeeze, Monica (Elaine Stewart), seducing her, then telling Rothstein all about the affair. The only person Legs truly cares about is Eddie, but even that relationship becomes a burden after a while.

By the end of the film, I was convinced Danton’s Legs Diamond was among the most heartless, vindictive gangsters I had even seen portrayed on film. I put him right up there with Cagney in The Public Enemy, Pacino in Scarface, and Joe Pesci in both Goodfellas and Casino. Also keep an eye out for a young Dyan Cannon, making her big-screen debut as Dixie, yet another moll who falls for Legs.

Along with Danton’s fiery performance, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is expertly directed by Boetticher, who keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace. The film seldom slows down, and for a movie made in 1960, it is surprisingly violent.

For me, Budd Boetticher was always one of the best at directing westerns. He still holds that distinction. But with The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, he proved genre didn’t matter. Budd Boetticher was a great director… period!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, October 14, 2023

#2,931. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) - Double Feature of '60s British War Films


Inspired by the 1854 poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which detailed a battle during the Crimean War in which the British Light Brigade was routed by Russian troops, Tony Richardson’s 1968 film is the third cinematic version of this story (the first, a silent film, was released in 1912. This was followed by Warner Bros. 1936 movie, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn).

With a tale so deeply rooted in the past, there are moments in ‘68s The Charge of the Light Brigade that feel stale. But it’s in the telling that Richardson sets his film apart, even falling back on humor occasionally to recreate what is an otherwise very somber historical event.

The film opens in the days before the outbreak of the Crimean War (when Russia invaded Turkey, threatening to cut off Great Britain from its interests in India). Capt. Louis Nolan (David Hemmings) of the British Cavalry has just returned to England from abroad, and is reunited with his close friend, fellow officer Capt. William Morris (Mark Burns). He even attends Morris’ wedding to the lovely Clarissa (Vanessa Redgrave). Over the coming weeks, the three are inseparable, and as a result of their time together, Clarissa develops a crush on her new husband’s friend, amorous feelings that are returned by Nolan.

But Nolan is having issues of his own with their commanding officer, Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard), the haughty, old-school Cavalry man who distrusts Nolan and does what he can to make the Captain’s life miserable.

Nolan appeals to Lord Raglan (John Gielgud), head of the Army, to intervene on his behalf, but Raglan has his hands full when news breaks that Russia has invaded Turkey. England is at war!

With Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews), Lord Cardigan’s brother-in-law as well as his sworn enemy, appointed General of the Cavalry, and Cardigan himself heading up the Light Brigade, the troops set sail for the Crimea, where they hope to recapture the strategically important city of Sevastopol.

Lord Raglan and his aides put together a plan of action, but it becomes obvious to Nolan, Morris, and many of the younger troops that their battle-hardened superiors are out of touch with modern warfare, and are leading them to disaster.

Much of what transpires in the opening hour or so of The Charge of the Light Brigade is interesting but cliché. The love triangle involving Nolan, Morris, and Clarissa is nothing new, and isn’t given the time to really come alive. It feels crowbarred in, and, ultimately, unnecessary.

Also standard to many movies of this ilk are the showdowns between Nolan and Lord Cardigan (played to perfection by Trevor Howard), clearly designed by Lord Cardigan to knock the smart and experienced Nolan down a peg or two (the “Black Bottle” affair with Lord Cardigan is something that really happened, though Nolan, himself an actual historical figure, was not the solider involved).

That said, the second half of The Charge of the Light Brigade comes alive in a big, big way!

Along with the battle scenes, which are exciting, Richardson inserts a number of animated sequences into the mix. They are in the style of old-time patriotic cartoons, designed to praise the British military and demean its enemies. We get a taste of said animation right off the bat, during the opening credits, and it starts the movie off in entertaining fashion. Yes, these cartoons are jingoistic and over-the-top, but you get the feeling they are there to make us laugh as much as move the story forward (the frequency of these animated sequences increases once the war is in full swing).

Richardson and screenwriters Charles Wood and John Osborne also set their sights on the inept commanders of the British army. Gielgud plays Lord Raglan as a kindly but senile officer whose decisions rarely make sense. The night before the big battle, Raglan ignores information supplied by a Russian defector, who warned of a surprise attack the next day. Raglan's reasons for doing so? Because this “spy” is a traitor with no honor! On top of this, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan allow their family squabble to interfere with their military relationship, bickering even when the enemy is approaching.

It all comes to a head in the film's final scene, after the battle is already lost, as the elderly Commanders sit on their horses, passing the blame for this disaster to each other. The images Richardson intersperses as the Generals argue and point fingers might make you laugh, but they more than likely will bring a tear to your eye.

An historic battle told in a very ‘60s style, The Charge of the Light Brigade, especially in the last hour, kind of blew me away.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, October 7, 2023

#2,930. How I Won the War (1967) - Double Feature of '60s British War Films


John Lennon gets second billing in the 1967 WWII comedy How I Won the War, which is a notable appearance for the late musician because it features him in what is his only non-musical role. Name recognition, especially in the late ‘60s, was reason enough for director Richard Lester and his team to put Lennon so high up the cast list, and almost every poster for the film (including the cover of a recent Blu-Ray release) has Lennon front and center.

But Lennon’s role was not big enough to warrant his being so high up in the credits. Only the film’s star, Michael Crawford, is listed higher. Crawford plays the overly-enthusiastic, unbelievably naïve Lt. Goodbody, commanding officer of a ragtag troop sent on suicide missions first to the deserts of North Africa, then the heart of Germany.

Lennon, as a soldier named Gripweed, has his moments, but personally I would have put him at maybe 5th or 6th on the cast list, certainly behind Roy Kinnear, whose Clapper is perpetually worried that his wife back home is being romanced by butchers and insurance salesmen. Lee Montague as Sgt. Transom, the unit's lone skilled soldier, also has a bigger role than Lennon. He is forever trying to clean up Goodbody’s mistakes, and seriously considers, on several occasions, shooting his commanding officer himself.

As far as the comedy goes, Jack MacGowran’s insane Juniper, who first acts like a vaudeville entertainer (even attempting ventriloquism just before a key battle), then transforms into a gung-ho, war-loving General, gets the most laughs. 

The story is simple enough: Goodbody, fresh out of officer’s training, where he failed to impress his mentor, General Grapple (Michael Hordern), is assigned to command what might be the most inept platoon of the Second World War. Try as he might to gain their respect with pep talks and promises of glory, Goodbody only manages to alienate his men.

Things go from bad to worse when they find themselves wandering the deserts of North Africa, searching for a battle they cannot find. Even the discovery of a Nazi oasis, with all the water they can drink, ends badly (after capturing the oasis via one of the film’s funniest scenes, Goodbody orders his men to build a Cricket field, then forces them to play for hours under the burning sun).

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, because most of what transpires in How I Won the War is told in flashback. As the movie opens, Goodbody is separated from his men and captured by the Germans. He is interrogated by Nazi officer Oldebog (Karl Michael Volger), who has orders from High Command to destroy what is the last bridge over the Rhine, thus cutting Berlin off from the invading Allied forces.

Goodbody develops a friendship with Oldebog, finding in him a fellow soldier with whom he can finally communicate. So, Goodbody gives his name, rank, and serial number, then proceeds to regale Oldebog with his platoon’s exploits since they entered the war!

Like he did three years earlier with A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester brings style to spare to How I Won the War. Characters break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience; and stock footage of actual battle scenes are incorporated into the film’s staged skirmishes, often jarringly so (the battles themselves seldom match the selected stock footage, though I believe that was a deliberate choice made by Lester). There are times when the characters even let it slip that they know it’s all just a movie!

Billed as a war / comedy, How I Won the War is also an effective fantasy, with settings that seldom make sense for a WWII movie (the oasis is especially strange), and characters who talk openly of their disdain for their commanding officer, and flee from battle the moment shots rings out. This was all designed, of course, by Lester and company, a grand statement of sorts on war and the effect (or lack of effect) it has on the common soldier.

But scenes are strung together in a confusing manner. With so many jumps back and forth in the timeline, we often ask ourselves “Where are we now?”. Even more jarring is that, whenever one character is shot dead, they are replaced by a “Toy Soldier”, decked out entirely in green or red and with a stocking over their face. There were times when How I Won the War frustrated me, and my attention waned as a result.

Yet there are also very effective scenes throughout, especially in the final act. Lester incorporates more intense, more realistic battle sequences into the film’s goofier skirmishes. One character, killed by a stray bullet from a dropped rifle, is also shown as dying with honor during the battle of Alamein, a correlation, no doubt, between the absurdity and the heroics of warfare. The man is just as dead in both scenarios. In one, he is a brave soldier, shot in the head, his body lying against the treads of a German tank. In the other, he is a victim of hilariously bad luck. Which is reality, and which is fantasy? We don’t know, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to know.

In the last half hour of How I Won the War, Lester finally hits his stride, blending the surreal with the all-too-real while driving home his points about war, commanding officers, and enemy combatants. The confusion I felt early on gave way to a genuine admiration for the film, and I laughed a little when, during the grand finale, the title How I Won the War proved more than one soldier’s boastful bravado.

With nods to movies such as Lawrence of Arabia (the theme from which plays as the troops stumble around the North African desert) and Bridge on the River Kwai (a key moment from that movie is parodied to perfection during the oasis raid), How I Won the War both reaches for and lovingly mocks grand, sprawling war epics, all the while keeping its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

As for Lennon, he does, as I said, have his moments in the movie, and proved himself an able actor even when not strumming a guitar.

But don’t let the ads fool you; there’s a lot more to How I Won the War than John Lennon!
Rating: 6.5 out of 10