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Ma Barker's Killer Brood

Ma Barker's Killer Brood(1960)

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Home Video Reviews

This "Public Enemy Double Feature" release by Something Weird Video highlights two films by director Bill Karn who has four films to his credit, all of which are crime-related. Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960) takes no prisoners as it sensationalizes Kate Barker as being the ruthless mastermind, and mother, of four real-life criminals who made headlines in the 1930's. Gangbusters (1954) tackles a charismatic criminal with a penchant for breaking out of the prisons, and cribs some stylistic touches from radio broadcast serials that began in the mid-thirties with the likes of G-Men.

Ma Barker's Killer Broodstars Lurene Tuttle, who also played Eliza Chambers in Psycho. Both of these films were released the same year and both are shocking, but Tuttle takes center stage in Ma Barker's Killer Brood, and she plays it to the hilt with the intensity of a drill sergeant gone bad. She's a domineering woman who cows her husband into submission and slaps her children around if they get caught by authorities. She starts off her kids on a life of crime at an early age when she encourages them to steal money from the collection plate at church, and then orchestrates bigger jobs until, cut to several years in the future when she and her four grown kids have long since been run out of town, the stakes include murder and fraternizing with the likes of Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, and "Johnny" Dillinger. The Ma Barker herein doesn't think twice about running people over (repeatedly) with a car or going out in a blaze of gunfire, and the sight of an older woman doing these things veers giddily between exploitation fare and good camp fun. For the record (or Court TV's Crime Library record, at least): "An FBI internal memo summarizing the history of the Barker-Karpis gang up to early 1936, contains the statement, `Kate Barker was killed for resisting arrest." This should be amended to `killed while her son was resisting arrest." Harvey Bailey, a veteran bank robber that sometimes worked with the Barker-Karpis group, said of the issue, `the old woman couldn't even organize breakfast.¿ (Richard Kudis, Alvin Karpis: Pursuit of the Last Public Enemy.)

Gangbusters stars Myron Healey in the lead as John Pinson, a dapper and deadly thug who is as quick on the sweet talk as he is on the trigger. With his strong chin and calm eyes that always seem to glimmer with assurance, Healey is a convincing charmer. With over 300 appearances on tv and film, he's the kind of actor you'll's as a heavy in a western movie or a tv walk-on role from anything between The Lone Ranger to The Incredible Hulk. You can also spot Healey briefly in Ma Barker¿s Killer Brood as an uncredited Sioux Fall bank robber. In Gangbusters Healey plays a bank robber whose crimes, we find out, "would take a half-hour to recite." If this particular 75-minute outing by Karn doesn't feel like a feature film consider its precursors: "Gang Busters became a short-lived television series in 1952 on NBC that alternated with Jack Webb's Dragnet. Episodes from the series dealing with Oregon prison escapee and identified as Public Enemy Number Four John Omar Pinson were strung together to form a theatrical feature" (excerpt from Martin Grams, Jr, from The G-Men Take to the Air Waves).

Both Ma Barker's Killer Brood and Gangbusters are presented in crisp, remastered, b&w with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Also on the disk is a fun "Hideout" collection of "Crime Busting Trailers" for Jacktown, Miami Expose, Slaughter on 10TH Avenue, Portland Expose ("The shame of 'B' girls. The brutal violence of twisted men." "When law and order give way to vice and dice."), and Baby Face Nelson (starring Mickey Rooney). Topping off the whole package is a half-hour 1956 featurette called Gun Girls that is full of bad dubbing, stilted dialogue, clumsy editing, cat fights, and lots of salacious bra shots - but also quick to moralize the whole thing as "a grim reminder to some parents that this girl could be your daughter." Parents beware!

For more information about Ma Barker's Killer Brood/Gangsters, visit Image Entertainment. To order Ma Barker's Killer Brood/Gangsters, go to TCM Shopping.

by Pablo Kjolseth