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A unique crime story -- a small-time thief (Bronson) is turned into a legend
by his tough-as-nails moll (Cabot). "Machine Gun" robs a chain of banks and
finally turns his ambitions to kidnapping -- hounded all the way by a
compulsive fear of death. The photography by Crosby is elegant, the acting
of the lead pair and the supporting cast are all pretty much dead-on. A
tight, efficient telling of a memorable tale, peopled with all sorts of
interesting characters (the gas station owner/accomplice who keeps a deadly
menagerie behind the garage, Cabot's mom who keeps telling Kelly what a
disappointment he is because he hasn't broken into the "big time", etc.).
Interestingly, this film takes the gangster genre beyond film noir (finally, after 3 decades) by making his characters not only self-loathing but WORTHY of self-loathing!
One of Corman's very best films as a director.
Let us get one thing straight. If you watch this movie to understand
the story about the kidnapping of Oklahoma oil magnate Charlie Urchell
in 1933 by George "Machine Gun" Kelly and his gang, you are going to be
disappointed. The Urchell case made headlines across the nation that
year because of the size of the ransom demand (over $100,000 - quite a
sum in Depression America), and because in 1933 every kidnapping
resurrected the hurt felt (at that time) that nobody had been arrested
and made to pay for the kidnap murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr. in March
1932. The newly revamped F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover went after the
kidnappers, and actually captured Kelly and his gang (and Urchell was
not hurt). But aside for one moment at the tail end of this movie where
an F.B.I. man summarizes Kelly correctly (he calls him "Pop Gun" for
his lack of real courage) this film is totally wrong about the story -
it basically jettisons it.
That isn't necessarily bad. Hoover and his men had a fairly simple time catching the inept Kelly. Here we are watching the rise and fall of a criminal legend, played well by Charles Bronson, and directed with some restraint by Roger Corman. We see that he is fixated on being a mean, violent man, who is trying to impress his girlfriend Flo (Susan Cabot). In reality Flo was able to manipulate George, and was whatever brains the organization actually had. But the role to watch in this film is that of Morey Amsterdam as Fandango. Amsterdam, a great one liner comic in the Henny Youngman tradition, is best recalled for his regular role as "Buddy Sorrell" in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW in the 1960s, especially when confronting his bete noir Richard Deacon as producer "Mel Cooley". Here he plays a petty criminal who is injured on the way up by Kelly, and helps bring him down. Given acceptance of Corman's production value limits and the script's, Amsterdam's Fandango is a really vicious character, and a welcome surprise to people who just recall the marvelous comic performer. For him and Bronson's performance I'll give this a "7".
Many people have a certain degree of affection for Roger Corman's schlock
classics, "Little Shop of Horrors," and "Bucket of Blood." "Machine Gun
Kelly" was slightly earlier than those two, and it has a more conventional
genre structure. It appears that Corman was attempting to make a more
coherent movie than his usual churn it out in two days pictures. This is
certainly not a very good movie, but a certain amount of care is taken to
make it convincing.
None of us would think of Charles Bronson as a great actor, but he was a
step up from Corman's usual stock company. Supporting roles are well cast,
especially Morey Amsterdam as "Fandango," Connie Gilchrest as Flo's
and Frank DeKova as the tall tale spouting but cowardly gas station owner.
Of course there are Corman regulars in the cast, such as Barboura Morris,
Wally Campo, and one time Universal starlet, Susan Cabot (who overacts as
Despite a weak ending the movie is a generally fun. The silent opening
robbery sequence is well staged. No doubt veteran cameraman Floyd Crosby
("High Noon," "Oklahoma," and uncredited co-DP on "From Here to Eternity")
deserves much of the credit for this and the decent night photography. But
this is not a movie to be taken too seriously. My favorite bit is when Flo
and Kelly go to hide out at Flo's mother's bordello. One of the working
girls asks Flo's mother if Flo is, "The new girl." "Watch you mouth,"
mom replies, "this is my daughter!" Working girl: "Yeah, ain't we all."
George Kelly is a small-time crook looking to make some big newspaper
headlines to impress his imposing moll Flo. After one successful bank
robbery after another, one turns into a botch job with Kelly's phobia
of death leaving on his men dead and the other wanting his blood. After
ridding that problem, due to Flo's pressure to do something. She
influences him into kidnapping a wealthy businessman's daughter, but
this would lead onto their downfall with Kelly's lurking weakness
Roger Corman does it again. "Machine-Gun Kelly" is another fine example of perfect film-making on a minimal budget and time restraint, where he's still able to deliver a sturdy, brisk and fleshed-out b-gangster film with a professional touch. The picture looked good, and photographer Floyd Crosby's sharp and shadowy handling brought out the film's brooding ambiance. While Gerald Fried's jazzy music score keeps it all in an exciting and saucy mood. Corman's style isn't overly jumpy, but more so tight, tough and namely suggestive in its actions and basic story telling. Actually there's plenty of time and focus on the material, and that of the complex character of Kelly. One of the major curiosities however, would be that of Charles Bronson's sterling performance as George "Machine-Gun" Kelly. For his first lead role he plays it accordingly, with an on edge and moody shade of an infant bully. Equally as impressive was his icy co-star Susan Cabot. Her vividly titular performance as the cheeky, sly broad of Kelly's is dominantly manipulative. The support cast (Morey, Frank De Kova, Jack Lambert, Richard Devon, Connie Gilchrist) added much-welcomed colour and personality. Corman's straight-laced direction is efficiently organised and he brews up a smoky atmosphere with its authentically wishy-washy 1930's settings. R. Wright Campbell's pulp material is loaded with a snappy, economical and highly engaging script and is loosely based on a 1930s gangster. It's actually an innovative little set-up with some effective psychology brushes and a downbeat ending that fits right at home with the central character's ineptness of his reputation. Kelly's character really sticks out a like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the hardened criminal figures. It's all about the power and name one achieves from these acts is what they're after, not just the doe. This what makes Kelly look uncomfortable.
Even with its limitations, it turns out to be a highly entertaining and satisfying low-scale crime caper by Roger Corman.
Machine Gun Kelly (1958)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Low budget gangster film has Charles Bronson playing the title character, a harden criminal who always has his Thompson machine gun in hand but he also has a fear of being killed. This Roger Corman quickie is pretty good throughout, although the film really doesn't offer anything new the to the genre. The movie moves at a pretty fast pace and contains plenty of action to keep fans entertained. The most interesting thing about watching this movie today is seeing the young Bronson give a performance, which he certainly wouldn't give after becoming a star. If you've only seen Bronson's later day stuff then you're in for a treat as we see a different type of Bronson here. A fast talker, one that smiles and even one who flirts with the ladies. This adds a little more charm to the film that I'm sure it didn't have back when it was originally released. Susan Cabot is very good as Bronson's girlfriend, a dirty little girl who doesn't mind looking at other men. The action is very good throughout and the film has a great music score but I wish it had tried something a little different every once in a while. The best moments in the film are the ones with Bronson messing with a caged lion.
Another drive-in special from the guy who really knew how to make them,
the ever resourceful Roger Corman. No 1958 teen-ager in the back row,
front, or in-between really cared about subtleties of plot,
characterization, or other adult stuff like historical accuracy. Just
make the big screen go fast, tough, and sexy, especially for the
hot-and-heavy back row who probably didn't care if it was Doris Day as
long as they had a place to park in the dark. Seeing the movie 50 years
later, I now know that Bronson can smile and squint at the same time.
Actually, he's more animated here than the Mt. Rushmore super-star he
later turned into. I doubt younger viewers can appreciate just how
different he was from the pretty-boy 1950's dominated by the likes of
Tab, Troy, and Rock. Once you saw that Bronson mug, you didn't forget.
Other reviewers are right. It's colorful characters here that count and there's a good bunch of them, especially the tough-as-nails old bordello madam. You know it's a drive-in special when the producers don't even try to disguise the cat-house with a dance hall cosmetic. And where did they get that really exotic idea of the mountain lion. My guess is that Corman stopped somewhere in the desert where gas stations of old used roadside zoos as a hyped- up come-on. I thought they would use the critter to kill off one of the characters, especially the oily Amsterdam. My favorite scene is where tough guys Jack Lambert and Bronson square off in a hard-eye squinting contest. I doubt that you could pass a laser beam between them. Anyway, the movie was not exactly Oscar bait in 1958, but even now it's still a lot more tacky fun than a lot of the prestige productions of that year.
Maybe this movie shouldn't be rated this high, but why carp? This is
about as good as Roger Corman can get, and uncomplicated too. The
script isn't the smartest bank-robber thriller ever, but it's got some
good twists and snappy dialog to go along with the package. And unlike
many of Corman's early pictures, this one isn't hampered in the least
by its low budget. On the contrary, the level of violence is enough
that he doesn't have to spend very much on a lot of stunts or blood. If
anything, it's a worthy homage to the tommy-gun inspired gangster
flicks of the 1930s, done without pretension and with a gutsy leading
Charles Bronson stars in the title role, and it's by some of Bronson's own ingenuity with a part like this, and on the part of the script to try and add a little dimension to what could've been a one-dimensional crook into a somewhat sympathetic criminal. The moral of the story for young George Kelly might be that behind a bad-ass man there's a far meaner bad-ass of a woman pulling the strings, bringing out the worst in her man. This isn't so much about full-on reality in so much as Corman tries to get the pulpiest material he can without any filler. While this leaves a little character development up for grabs, and some of the usual lot of not too great acting, there's some real fire going on in the conventional storytelling.
All around, a terrific little B-movie, probably one of Corman's best (in short, not at all a disappointment, especially for those looking for a great early Bronson in tip top shape, and with some range of emotions to boot).
Most Bronson fans will fudge their way through his mid to late 80's
flicks in search of more classic badaxx Bronson before finding this
lost classic. Save your time and bucks by going straight to this
excellent crime thriller.
See Bronson create the screen persona that would stay with him the rest of his long career. Bronson shines as the notorious and tough as nails Machine Gun Kelly. He plays a ruthless and mean spirited criminal with no love for anyone and a great fear of death. Great direction and pacing, great action and stylistic photography make for an enjoyable 80 minute diversion into the world of crime in early America. I'm not sure how accurate this was to the real life of Machine Gun, but Bronson brings to life his character in a way that grabbed the attention of a young Hollywood.
If you love the tough guy Bronson and are trying to add to your collection, skip most of his later films (Assasination, 10 to Midnight, Kinjite, Messenger...)and go straight for Machine Gun Kelly. I promise you'll get the mean mutha' Bronson that you're looking for!! Time to put this one on DVD....The Stone Killer and Telefon too for that matter
Machine Gun Kelly is directed by Roger Corman and written by Robert
Wright Campbell. It stars Charles Bronson, Susan Cabot, Morey
Amsterdam, Jack Lambert, Frank DeKova and Connie Gilchrist. Music is by
Gerald Fried and cinematography by Floyd Crosby.
George Francis Barnes Junior, AKA: Machine Gun Kelly, was a prohibition era American hoodlum, this movie is an interpretation of his time in the public enemy limelight.
Never climbing up to high energy rat-a-tat-tat action levels, Corman's "mini" biopic none the less breezes along and remains fascinating throughout. The makers paint Kelly as something of a weak willed type of guy who is impotent without his Thompson Submachine Gun. This is a man firmly dangling on the end of the puppet strings being twirled and pulled by his Moll, Flo Becker. Oh he's not beyond slapping his woman around, or bullying one of his weaker willed accomplices, but Corman and Campbell assure us that Kelly is not to be gloried, even giving him a pathological fear of dying that shows him in this movie form as something of a coward.
Of course this is just a movie, and for historical facts and figures et al, folks are warned this is not a biography to use as a starting point to explore Kelly's reputation
Bronson as Kelly is wonderfully broody and he handles the fluctuations in Kelly's psyche with convincing skill. Cabot as Flo is a sex-bomb, and deviously appealing with it she is as well, while Amsterdam gets to play a character so colourful and kinked, it wouldn't be out of place in classic era film noir. Crosby was an ace cinematographer, capable of making the cheapest crime movie production looking a whole lot more expensive, such is the case here. While Fried provides a progressive jazz musical score that ranges from Ant Hill Mob like breeziness to funky piano based frenzies.
All in all, a good gangster movie that benefits from some well written and performed characterisations. 7/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a pretty dull excuse for a gangster movie, but it is a
curiosity worth checking out, due to its cast. Bronson is effective as
Kelly, though the script is uninspired. Susan Cabot turns in another of
her strangely charismatic performances as Kelly's moll.Veteran bad guy
Jack Lambert is well cast as a surly gangster, with Morey Amsterdam a
bit incongruous as one of the mob. The most memorable character might
well be Connie Gilchrist as the bordello madam ,who is the mother of
Kelly's girlfriend. She has to be one of the most obnoxious characters
in movie history
The Depression background is reasonably authentic, and a few action sequences are okay, but it generally is lacking in real excitement. This movie is mainly of interest to Roger Corman cultists and Charles Bronson fans. Gangster movie buffs and true crime enthusiasts might find it of minor interest.
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