Machine-Gun Kelly (Corman, 1958)

On the surface, Machine-Gun Kelly (Charles Bronson) exudes a daring confidence, brutally wielding his Tommy Gun without hesitation. But the cracks are beginning to show, and Roger Corman’s hard-as-nails biopic reveals the psychological fragility slowly hollowing Kelly’s gangster persona.

The opening heist is so expertly handled it’s almost shocking when Kelly begins to disintegrate later in the film. Any image of death freezes his cunning reactions and strengths, producing crippling hesitation and doubt. The glaring dichotomy between overarching genre conventions (bank robberies, FEDS) and these personal character flaws makes Machine-Gun Kelly a fascinating beast. Corman’s vision is a bare-bones throwback to Wellman or Leroy, where the antihero’s criminal prowess becomes suspect when challenged by outside forces and interior conflicts.

Even early in his career, Corman understands how the power of particular moments can transcend budget limitations and rough craftsmanship. When an enraged Kelly shoves his machine gun into the belly of an associate and pulls the trigger, the violence is so sudden and jarring the whole scene turns into a slow motion frenzy of panic, for both character and audience. Earlier, Kelly punishes a disloyal partner by shoving his beaten body up against a cage harboring a mountain lion! Talk about making an impression.

But these decisive and exaggerated actions mask the growing insecurity at Kelly’s core, showcasing a diabolical creature on the brink of historical infamy and personal destruction. Corman beautifully complicates the simplistic romanticism behind Gangster iconography by challenging every familiar archetype with seeds of uncertainty and mortality. Kelly’s desperate need to survive eclipses his role as a tough guy, shattering our pre-conceived notions about what it means to be a gangster.

Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)

Kind of bat-shit crazy unlike anything I’ve seen recently. Vincent Price’s facial contortions, the pitch of his screams, and anguish of his tormented  eyes, all create a form of shredded mania, a personal goblin of guilt walled in by Roger Corman’s exaggerated period-piece decor.

The motif of entrapment plays out in gloriously grotesque flashbacks, splintered by dripping hallucinating color, coming to a head in a diabolical torturous finale. The key to Pit and the Pendulum resides in the shifty eyes of the characters, as their sanity jumps off the ledge into a collective place of lucid horror, each responding to one howl then the next, searching for a phantasm that only exists on the inside.

Yet Corman’s adaptation of Poe feels almost lackadaisical structurally, a fleeting acid trip ahead of its time but too stoned to know it. Aside from Price, the wooden cast sheds bark all over, looking on in horror as their various evils manifest themselves in this morphing vision of anguish and revenge. When the hatchet drops, the pit delivers a seething dose of sin, but it’s too bad Price’s mad dog of a character must be put down to restore order. His improvisational torture chamber seems ripe with possibility, narratively of course.