Saturday, September 3, 2016
MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958)
This eighty minute Roger Corman production masks any low budget thoughts as the money has been spent wisely. It is an entertaining tale of gangsters in the early 1930s. The non-stop opening and period background score gets the viewer anticipating what comes next after a slickly planned getaway with a loot hand-off and the usual car swapping. Charles Bronson, in his first film lead, plays the title character who has a death fear rather than a Death Wish, as if promoting his future movie. Even Bronson tells co-star Susan Cabot, “The fear comes over me...like a Cold Sweat.” His 1970 movie. Though no one in the cast would be considered Oscar worthy, Bronson is competent even at the beginning of his career. Everyone is living up to their salary, including Morey Amsterdam. Who probably was paid the least, however.
Smirking Cabot, perhaps never looking better than in this role, has been the gangster’s “personal agent” from day one and her condescending attitude keeps Bronson under her thumb. All the while smiling as if she is invincible. Her attitude in this movie has become the standard for many criminal or sicko in today’s movies. That evil is a pleasure. In that regard, like it or not, Corman may have broken new ground. On a personal level, I found Cabot’s annoying, bright and pronounced esses irritating. A split second steel-on-steel sound which sometimes arises from acting out a female character you are not supposed to like. Annunciating, rather than slurring the words, will usually help this affliction. Perhaps the best/worst example of this was Sally Kellerman’s delivery. Equally annoying is her mom, played by Connie Gilchrist. Ma is proud of her criminal daughter and thinks she could do a lot better than Bronson. She belittles him with every opportunity, turning him into the Rodney Dangerfield of gangsters. Gilchrist not only runs her mouth but also a house full of “ladies” who bring in money.
Morey Amsterdam, the gang’s light-hearted weasel/stool pigeon, returns with the loot from the film’s opening heist but several thousand are missing. He tries to laugh it off then denies he took any for himself. He lied. Bronson is none too happy. He later plots a meeting with him to talk over another job. Corman throws in an odd premise concerning one of the gang members, Frank DeKova, who was a big game hunter before one arm was mangled by a natural habitat African. He now keeps a mountain lion in a cage. Behind his gas station. It is DeKova’s place they meet. Bronson stalls the conversation before pushing Amsterdam against the cage and, somehow, the weasel loses an arm to the lion. I doubt any moviegoer saw that coming. Nor found it believable. In what seems like a short time, Amsterdam is back in the business. All smiles and a several pounds lighter.
After a botched robbery, thanks to Bronson freezing up when he spots a casket being delivered across his path, he decides to go big. Ma Gilchrist finally will give him some respect. Logically, he takes up kidnapping. He and Cabot abduct a steel executive’s daughter and her nurse, played by Barboura Morris. Richard Devon completes the kidnapping trio as a sleaze ball who cannot help but make a pass at the young nurse. Devon plays “Apple” and he and Bronson are at odds. Devon challenges Bronson at gunpoint during a heated exchange. Bronson, in his trademark, clinched teeth and monotone phrasing, his machine gun pointed at him, explains, “Go ahead Apple. And I will peel and core you.” Hey! That is some tough talk. Being another family outing, Cabot’s mom and dad show up at the hideout with food and encouragement. Suddenly Gilchrist does a complete 180, being so kindhearted and gentle toward the little girl, fawning over her. Perhaps Corman wanted to illustrate that over half the people in this movie have serious personal issues.
In an amusing sequence, the police bring the Amsterdam weasel in for questioning. After he leaves the squad room, two officers lose his trail because “he snuck into the ladies room.” Their diligence cast a cloud over their upcoming promotions. But the weasel, seeking revenge, gives a tip on Bronson’s location via an “anonymous” phone call (they immediately recognized Amsterdam’s’ voice). The gang goes berserk when Amsterdam arrives and I imagine most moviegoers noted that anyone on screen at this point may not make it to the ending. DeKova demonstrates his mental problems which, up until this point, outside of the lion behind his gas station, there were no suggestions of his illness. Giving some final Dangerfield zingers, the police arrive, taunting and belittling Bronson before hauling him off to prison. In the real 1933, the arrest was overshadowed by a famous breakout of John Dillinger and his future gang on the same day.
Typically, Hollywood has never been too concerned about facts. They like to blur them, though. Their business is entertainment at any cost. The truth has been warped here as well. An Internet search might square things. It is understandable they would make Bronson a tough guy, even though Kelly was not as tough as his wife led people to believe. Bronson and Cabot are not married in this film, however. Why they changed the kidnapped person to a little girl of a wealthy businessman and not the businessman himself is anyone’s guess. It would have eliminated the out-of-place scene with Gilchrist and the girl, for one. Put yourself in 1958 and that perspective will allow you to watch this movie for its entertainment value. Of which, there is plenty.