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View from the Couch

Gangsters Collection Vol. 3, more

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GANGSTERS COLLECTION VOL. 3 (1931-1940). Warner Bros. Entertainment's third grouping of their classic gangster flicks – Vol. 2 was originally called Tough Guys Collection but was recently renamed and repackaged for the sake of continuity – includes the usual suspects, fellows by the names of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. All 12 films in the previous two sets starred at least one of the aforementioned actors, and this gathering is no different: Cagney stars in four of the six featured films, while Bogie and Robinson appear in two apiece.

Smart Money (1931), premiering a few months after Little Caesar and The Public Enemy made superstars out of Robinson and Cagney respectively, marked the only time these formidable actors would share the screen. Robinson clearly has the leading role, playing a small-town barber who becomes a big-city gambling lord. Cagney lends sporadic support in this Oscar nominee for Best Original Story.

Picture Snatcher (1933), on the other hand, is all Cagney all the time. He plays an ex-con who lands a job as a photographer for a sleazy tabloid; he considers it an honest living, but his sneaky snapping of a woman being executed on the electric chair sends the town into an uproar.

The Mayor of Hell (1933) moves like lightning and plays like thunder, focusing on a group of teens whose lives are made unbearable by the head (Dudley Digges) of their reform school. Cagney doesn't even appear until nearly the half-hour mark, playing a mobster whose political ties allow him to get a soft job as the suit sent to check on the school; once he witnesses the awful conditions firsthand, he vows to clean up the joint. The climax has more in common with the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein (made two years earlier) than anything else.

Lady Killer (1933) is the weakest film in the set, though it still holds plenty of entertainment value. Cagney is cast as a movie theater usher(!) who becomes a burglar before finally finding his true calling as a matinee star. The story's thin, though the picture offers a rare chance to see Cagney sporting a mustache – and an even rarer opportunity to see him decked out as a Native American chief (speaking one line in Yiddish, no less!).

Black Legion (1937), an Oscar nominee for Best Original Story, is perhaps the best picture in the set (though The Mayor of Hell gives it a run). After gaining notice with the previous year's The Petrified Forest, Bogart landed a plum role as Frank Taylor, a loving family man who's certain that he's in line for a promotion as factory foreman. But when the job goes to an industrious Polish immigrant, Frank allows his innate prejudices to surface, to the extent that he joins a Klan-like outfit known as The Black Legion. Frank's wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore) and his best friend (Dick Foran) wonder where he goes every night, only slowly realizing that he's part of the hooded organization that's been terrorizing the town's "undesirables."

Brother Orchid (1940) finds Bogart back in the type of supporting role he often played before coming into his own in 1941: the sneering antagonist who gets his comeuppance from either of the studio's more established stars, Cagney or Robinson. In this engaging comedy, it's Robinson who puts him in his place; he plays a gangster who, after finding his operation taken over by his second-in-command (Bogie), is forced to recuperate at a monastery, where he learns the true meaning of life.

DVD extras include audio commentaries by film historians on all titles, as well as the patented Warner Night at the Movies package: vintage newsreels, cartoons and shorts.

Smart Money: ***

Picture Snatcher: ***

The Mayor of Hell: ***1/2

Lady Killer: **1/2

Black Legion: ***1/2

Brother Orchid: ***

Extras: ***1/2

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007). The original poster for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story stated that it's "From The Guy Who Brought You Knocked Up And Superbad," but really, it feels more like it's "From The Guy Who Brought You Anchorman And Talladega Nights." Yes, Judd Apatow is one of the co-writers (sharing scripting duties with director Jake Kasdan), but that savory mix of satire and sentiment that worked well in his two 2007 summer hits is largely missing here; instead, we get the broad laughs and easy targets more at home in films headlining Will Ferrell. That's not a bad thing in itself – Talladega Nights was pretty funny – but the problem with Walk Hard is that genuine laughs are few and far between. A send-up of music biopics like Walk the Line and Ray, it spends so much time dutifully tracking the clichés inherent in these types of films – and then offering mostly predictable comic riffs on these clichés – that a certain by-the-numbers stagnation begins to settle in. Still, that's not to say that some moments don't connect: A sequence involving The Beatles demands to be seen if only for the opportunity to catch Jack Black cast as Paul McCartney(!), and I love the string of scenes in which Dewey (John C. Reilly) gets introduced to increasingly harsher drugs. And for a soundtrack that's meant to send up actual country, rock and R&B hits, the songs are a surprisingly durable bunch that will doubtless play just fine away from the movie theater while blaring from an iPod or car CD player. For a novelty birthday gift, it's not a bad way to go.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Reilly, Apatow, Kasdan and executive producer Lew Morton, five deleted and extended scenes, a short mock-doc called The Real Dewey Cox (including interviews with Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow and other rockers), and eight song performances.

Movie: **

Extras: ***

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