Sunday, September 7, 2014

City Streets (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian                           Writers: Max Marcin & Oliver H.P. Barrett
Music: Karl Hajos                                             Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Starring: Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas and William Boyd

City Streets is adapted from a story that the great crime writer Dashiell Hammett wrote for Paramount Pictures, and the first of his works to be filmed. The story seems a bit pedestrian during the first half, but the ending is terrific if a bit unbelievable. Hammett’s original title was “The Kiss-Off” and was about teenagers who get caught up in the rackets and can’t get out. Screenwriters Max Marcin & Oliver H.P. Barrett changed the teens to young adults, and the studio cast Gary Cooper and Clara Bow in the leads. But after Bow’s breakdown director Rouben Mamoulian suggested Sylvia Sidney as he had seen her work in New York. This was only Rouben Mamoulian’s second film as a director, and he went right from this into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Frederick March in his Oscar winning performance. While the studio, as well as critics, had been impressed with his work on his previous film, Applause, the film was not popular with audiences and so the studio was not eager to give him another assignment and waited a year before offering him Hammett’s story.

The film begins, aptly enough, on the streets, with big trucks rolling through the city at night. What they’re moving is alcohol, during Prohibition. Paul Lukas is a mob boss who has set up a brewery in someone else’s territory. That boss pays Lukas in order to take over the brewery, and then Lukas has him killed and stays put. The button men work for one of Lukas’s lieutenants, Stanley Fields, and after his driver and bodyguard, Guy Kibbee, takes them back to Fields’ headquarters, Kibbee winks at Sylvia Sidney who is waiting in a drug store and she gets into the empty car and drives away. The next scene has Sidney at a carnival shooting gallery. The carney is Gary Cooper. He’s a crack shot and Sidney is dating him. She wants him to go into business with her stepfather, Kibbee, so they can have more money but he prefers an honest life even if it means being poor. It’s the only thing that comes between them. Meanwhile Lukas is having a dalliance with Fields’ girl and when he finds out and confronts his boss, Lukas tells Kibbee to kill him and take over his operations himself. Sidney assists by getting rid of Kibbee’s gun, but a cop follows her and she’s arrested.

Kibbee uses the situation to get Cooper to work for him by lying to him that it’s the only way they can get Sidney out, so he goes to work for Kibbee while Sidney goes to prison. Once inside, she learns that the mob doesn’t really protect its own and has a change of heart, but by then Cooper is in deep and she regrets ever getting him mixed up in the rackets. Sylvia Sidney was a tremendous talent, not only beautiful but a powerful actress. This was only her second film after leaving the stage for Hollywood, her first being the interesting Thru Different Eyes, which now exists only in its silent version. She would go to prison again later that year in Ladies of the Big House, and did some of her best work in the early thirties working for some great directors like Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg. Gary Cooper began his career making dozens of silent films, and just the previous year had starred in von Sternberg’s Morocco. Guy Kibbee lends solid support as the gangster’s new lieutenant, though Hungarian Paul Lukas still sounds way too much like Bela Lugosi. While it’s decent acting for the time, Sidney is the real standout.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how Mamoulian emphasizes images of water or liquid. The city streets in the opening are wet with rain, glasses are filled with alcohol, a vat of beer is being filled in the brewery, a mobster drowned in the river, and Sidney and Cooper talking at the beach with the ocean waves breaking behind them. He was assisted behind the camera by one of the most innovative cinematographers in the business at the time, Lee Garmes, and the photography is excellent, whether it’s his lighting at the beach at night or tracking shots along the street following Sylvia Sidney. Mamoulian also uses some strong symbolism in the film, beginning with a canary in a cage to indicate Sidney being trapped by her stepfather. Cat figurines in Stanley Fields’ apartment indicate the ruthless murder of Fields by Kibbee, and the stuffed eagle in Paul Lukas’s apartment symbolizes his predatory behavior toward women. Though Rouben Mamoulian made relatively few films during his career, most of them are excellent. City Streets is a solid, if not terribly compelling, crime drama that benefits tremendously from confident direction and a terrific leady lady.

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