The Roaring Twenties

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Synopsis

Ripped from the headlines of the turbulent era between the Great War and the Great Depression, this dynamic, nostalgia-tinged crime drama balances tommy-gun action with epic historical sweep. Legends James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart star as army buddies whose fortunes rise and fall as their fates intersect, first in a foxhole on the front lines of World War I, then in Manhattan’s Prohibition-era underworld. Directed by Hollywood master Raoul Walsh, and based on a story by prolific journalist turned screenwriter and producer Mark Hellinger, The Roaring Twenties brought to a close the celebrated Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s, and it remains one of the greatest and most influential crime films of all time.

Picture 9/10

Criterion dips its toe into Warner's classic gangster catalog with a 4K UHD edition of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties. Presented in Dolby Vision on a triple-layer disc in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the film's 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation stems from a brand new 4K restoration that has been predominantly sourced from the 35mm original camera negative and supplemented by a safety fine-grain where needed. A standard Blu-ray also houses a 1080p presentation of the film alongside all of the release’s video supplements.

Having viewed this 4K presentation, I now hope that Criterion may be bringing some of the studio’s other gangster films to 4K. The enhancements and improvements over previous presentations (most notably Warner’s DVD) are drastic and significant, the restoration work having removed just about all damage outside of a few minor blemishes that still surface here and there. Despite inherent limitations in the film elements, the overall sharpness and clarity remain impressive. The scan skillfully captures all finer details, including the subtle grain structure, with everything output beautifully through the encoding. The widened dynamic range, heightened by HDR and Dolby Vision, is admirable, enriching the darker scenes and their shadows, such as the depot robbery sequence, and helping with fog and smoke. Highlights are also improved, with the light bouncing of sequined dresses looking particularly striking.

The most surprising improvement, though, may be how the wider range also enhances the opening title sequence, where sequins form the titles and credits and bounce the light about as they shake. It's a little detail, ultimately, but it's one that just lifts the presentation a notch further, projecting that silver screen aesthetic I am very fond of in these black-and-white 4K presentations. On the other hand, all of these improvements do make the jump from the negative film elements to the fine-grain ones a bit more perceptible due to a pronounced drop in quality, with the range in contrast becoming more constrained and the image appearing softer. However, this is ultimately not an actual concern and is something that is to be expected.

Ultimately, I feel Criterion has done a fine job with this, really exceeding my expectations.

Audio 7/10

The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented in lossless single-channel PCM. It shows its age in a few respects, but the audio is otherwise clean and free of distortion and damage. Dialogue sounds sharp and clear with solid fidelity and depth, while music shows a modest amount of range without coming off screechy in the higher ranges.

Extras 7/10

Criterion includes a few supplements, starting with an audio commentary by film historian Lincoln Hurst, recorded originally for Warner’s 2005 edition. Though he admits early on that the material can be a little hammy, he feels the film has been overlooked compared to Warner’s other gangster films of the period, like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and so on. On top of discussing it in the context of that period in the studio's history and as a gangster film, he approaches it as a period piece as well, commenting on how the film, released in 1939, captures the twenties with a sense of nostalgia and how it portrays the effects of prohibition. He even brings up the numerous films influenced by it, including the gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously (“My father hung me on a hook once. Once!”). This also segues into discussions about the cast (like the then up-and-coming Humphrey Bogart) and the improvisations that came into play for some of the film’s more memorable moments. Hurst also talks a little about the film’s impressive effects shots done by future director Byron Haskin, including a relatively cool one where it appears Wall Street melts during a montage about Black Tuesday. It’s a comprehensive track covering the film’s background, stars, director, and legacy. It’s worth listening to if one hasn’t done so yet.

The commentary is found on both the UHD disc and the Blu-ray. The remaining material is found exclusively on the Blu-ray disc.

Disappointingly, none of the shorts or cartoons get ported over from the DVD (not surprising), though the film’s original trailer does show up. Criterion at least includes a 4-minute excerpt from a 1973 episode of The Men Who Made the Movies, featuring director Raoul Walsh talking about the film and its two stars. There’s also a new 22-minute interview with critic Gary Giddins, who also pushes the need for a reexamination. Ultimately, Giddins expands on Hurst’s track, talking more about the film’s ad-libbing, suggesting the improvisations were far more extensive than what Hurst suggested before getting a bit more into the film’s editing, pacing, and other technical attributes.

It's an excellent academic addition, though I’m disappointed that this is the only new feature to be added. I would have expected more around Warner’s gangster films of the period or maybe even something that got a bit more into the film’s editing and effects work (something from Craig Barron would have been great). An essay by Mark Asch, found in the included insert, at least looks at the film in the context of closing out that period in Warner’s history on top of how Walsh captures the period depicted in the movie.

In the end, the material is all well and good; I’m just a bit surprised the opportunity wasn’t taken to explore Warner’s wave of gangster films during the period.

Closing

It's not the special edition I would have expected for Criterion's first dive into Warner's classic gangster library, but the sharp new 4K presentation comes close to making up for it.

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Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Year: 1939
Time: 106 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1208
Licensor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 27 2024
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-66
1.37:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: HDR10Dolby Vision
 
 Audio commentary with film historian Lincoln Hurst   New interview with critic Gary Giddins   Excerpt from a 1973 interview with director Raoul Walsh   Trailer   An essay by film critic Mark Asch