Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beast of the City (1932)

Director: Charles Brabin                                   Writers: W.R. Burnett & Ben Hecht
Sound: Douglas Shearer                                  Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Walter Huston, Jean Harlow, Wallace Ford and Jean Hersholt

This is another crime story from the popular writer W.R. Burnett, the author of Little Caesar and Public Enemy. MGM wanted to show that a film about police, rather than the criminals, could be just as exciting and just as violent and just as big at the box office. But rather than showing the success of the police, the film deals more with their frustrations and inability to put known criminals, especially those in organized crime, behind bars. Beast of the City is also something of a curiosity when considering its place amid the other pre-code films of the era. Though it has very little violence throughout most of the film, it saves it all for the end where the final bloodbath packs in as much as most gangster pictures. And yet because the shootings are precipitated by the police and the criminals all get what was coming to them, the Legion of Decency actually endorsed the picture.

The film begins by showing the inner workings of the police radio center in New York City, with a dispatcher sending radio signals out to all of the cars. When a call comes in that four men have been found murdered the homicide squad, led by Walter Huston, takes a look and determines that Jean Hersholt and his henchman J. Carrol Naish are responsible and take them in for questioning. But without hard evidence they’re turned loose, infuriating Huston so much that he tells the police chief he may have to resort to “hot lead” to stop them. Prophetic words. Huston’s brother, Wallace Ford, is also a cop on the vice squad. He takes a more practical approach to the murders, and if Hersholt is killing other criminals he’s not going to get too upset about it. He agrees to help Huston by questioning Hersholt’s girlfriend, Jean Harlow, but winds up falling for her instead. Meanwhile Huston gets promoted to chief of police but won’t give his brother a promotion. So when Ford gets an offer from Hersholt that he can’t refuse . . . he doesn’t.

As a story it has some interest, but pales in comparison to Warner Brother’s gangster films of the same period. While all the elements pitting the police against the mob are there it lacks anything close to suspense. But that seems to be the whole point. The most infamous scene in the picture is the finale where the Huston and his intimates on the force, though dubious in its legality, make martyrs of themselves. But where the story is weak the production itself is very good, with director Charles Brabin doing a tremendous job. Like so many films from this period, the camera work is excellent, with long tracking shots of the police chasing down criminals though an alley and gliding along the jury stand in the courtroom, or crane shots moving up the stairs with Huston and his wife at home. By the same token, however, the early sound systems left much to be desired and it’s difficult to make out the dialogue at times.

Huston does a solid job with his usual sober characterization, and fortunately Ford hadn’t yet reached the stage in his career where he was doing a faux Lou Costello. Jean Harlow has a couple of interesting scenes, the most compelling of which his her dance for Ford, but nothing else really to speak of. J. Carrol Naish’s small role also gives him very little room to demonstrate his talents, but he is memorable in the finale. And though he had done dozens of shorts under the name Mickey McGuire going back to the silent era, this was actually Mickey Rooney’s first feature film playing Huston’s young son. Beast of the City is certainly an interesting film, but it lacks a lot of the personality that made Warner Brother’s gangster pictures so popular. It does have its bright spots, however, and is worth checking out for the ending alone.

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