Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Beast of the City (1932)

Another attempt to go head to head with Warner Bros. with a hard-hitting crime tale, The Beast of the City succeeds where MGM’s The Secret Six had mostly failed. Though not as radical as the competition (both Scarface, United Artists, 1932, and Little Caesar, Warner Bros., 1931 featured the criminals as protagonists), The Beast of the City has an ending every bit as violent and depressing, and a plotline just as involving. (A connection between the three films is noteworthy: Beast was co-written by pulp writer W.R. Burnett, who co-wrote Scarface and wrote the novel Little Caesar was based on).

Following a plea for cooperation with the police by President Herbert Hoover (!), The Beast of the City plunges the viewer into the world of the policemen: the crowded halls, the squad cars, the mundane assignments, the investigation of deaths, the annoying reporters… These scenes strive for, and mostly attain, a chaotic “realism” which not only draws the viewer into the world of policing, but also displays a new mastery of sound and editing techniques which movies only one year earlier could not display.

Eventually the film zeroes in on family man Walter Huston attempting, but continually failing to convict the Capote-esque top criminal Belmonte, played by Jean Hersholt. The more Huston fails, the more determined he is to accomplish this. He has an Achilles Heel, though: his co-worker brother, played by Wallace Ford, whose weakness for Jean Harlow, Belmonte’s sometime moll, jeopardizes the mission. The higher Huston climbs in his quest to carry out justice, the more deeply entrenched his brother becomes in Harlow’s world.

This is a timeless plot (one can imagine Scorsese or Sam Mendes filming it today with Leonardo DiCaprio and Shia LaBeouf as the brothers and Javier Bardem as the heavy). For a dated, 1932 film, it’s quite good, and perhaps one of the most unjustly forgotten crime films. The acting is mostly just adequate; Mickey Rooney, in an unbilled role, shows more life and spontaneity than most of his adult co-stars, and Jean Harlow also stands out; she has a raw and vibrant sensuality which makes the stuffiness around her seem even stuffier - it's as if she walked in from a different movie. In the end, though, it’s the plot and attention to detail that propels the movie and makes for above-average entertainment.

The Beast of the City has been relased on Warner Archives DVD-R.

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