Monday, July 21, 2014

A Good, Not Great, Gangster Movie

"I don't love life much, but I don't hate it enough to stick my head in front of a screw's bullet."

Frank (James Cagney)

Although they did other things in their movie careers — and did them well — James Cagney and George Raft are remembered mostly for their gangster movies.

I'm not talking about film noir movies, those upscale crime movies that were more melodrama than anything else and usually featured a private investigator (but might feature almost any kind of character) as the main figure in the story.

Gangster movies were in a genre of their own — a subgenre, really, of the general crime film genre. Typically, they dealt with organized crime, and they were frequently set in prisons.

And many were like "Each Dawn I Die," which premiered 75 years ago tomorrow. They were about innocent men who had been wrongfully imprisoned. That was a very familiar theme.

Anyway, given the reputations Cagney and Raft enjoyed, it was surprising to me when I discovered that "Each Dawn I Die" was the only movie they made together.

Well, not quite. Seven years earlier, Raft made a brief, uncredited appearance in one of Cagney's movies. Raft was also in another Cagney movie, this one about boxing, around the same time, but his appearance in that one also was very short.

So, in reality, "Each Dawn I Die" was the only movie ever made that featured both Cagney and Raft in what amounted to co–leading roles.

Cagney played a reporter trying to expose a corrupt district attorney who was running for governor. He got framed for vehicular manslaughter and was sent to prison.

In prison, Cagney met Raft, a gangster doing a life sentence. They worked together, and Raft became indebted to Cagney after Cagney saved his life.

At first, Cagney's character tried to keep his distance from the other inmates, but, thanks to the use of nearly every gangster movie cliche imaginable, he got worn down to the point where he was just another sour prisoner.

That was due, in no small part, to the refusal of his plea to the parole board, which was led by the man who was responsible for Cagney's conviction — and he had been appointed by the man Cagney had tried to expose — now the governor of the state.

It seemed all the cards were stacked against Cagney so he enlisted Raft's help in getting his name cleared.

OK, it was a routine gangster story. It certainly wasn't original. But, while we may recognize it today for what it was, at the time it was a big hit — and Warner Bros. offered Raft a long–term contract.

For folks who didn't mind a cliche–ridden, shoot–'em–up gangster movie, especially one with Cagney, it was an entertaining experience.

Director William Keighley deserved a lot of the credit. He was a studio team player, capable of doing good work no matter the topic, and he produced a good, if not great, gangster movie in "Each Dawn I Die."