Thursday, February 2, 2023

CITY STREETS (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

It’s the intoxicating story of a crooked gal gone straight, and a straight guy gone crooked. Fine direction by Robert Mamoulian is upstaged by the wonderfully creative cinematography by the legendary DP Lee Garmes! The film must have been well planned as the use of match-cuts are utilized throughout the film. The first few scenes depict two interesting edits: leaking brew from a bootlegger's truck becomes a glass of guzzling beer and a vat of stewing hops and barley is superimposed over a turbulent river revealing the hat of the mob's latest inquisition. Very cool. The story may be mundane, but the enjoyment is in how it’s visually narrated! 

Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sydney) gets jacked-up on an accomplice charge and feels abandoned by her stepfather and his mob while serving hard time in the cooler. Her beau, Kid (a mawkish Gary Cooper) works a popgun stand at the local fair (using real .22 ammo!) but can barely make ends meet and earn enough cash to marry Nan. She encourages him to join her stepdad Pop (a sociopathic Guy Kibbee) in the bootlegging business, but he knows it’s a mug’s game. However, when Nan is nabbed Pop convinces Kid to join the racket. In a nice twist, Nan decides to go straight while doing time and Kid joins the dark side! Though Cooper plays his rather dimwitted nice-guy role competently it's Sylvia Sydney who projects pathos and psychological conflict making her the emotional center of the story: her performance is both adorable and sympathetic. Throw in Aggie the Boss’ Femme Fatale and you have a recipe for disaster and death! But whose? 

Director Rouben Mamoulian eschews a score and utilizes incidental music (wow, the drummer in the Jazz Club is outta’ this world!) and allows the drama to unfold without slathering the film with intrusive counterpoints. One scene in particular benefits which is mostly filmed on location: as Nan and Kid lounge on the beach we hear nothing but the crashing surf as they simply enjoy each other’s company. DP Lee Garmes’ photography is exceptional in composition and editing as the story is visually interesting and creative. Not only the aforementioned match-cuts but his low-angle shots of looming dread and the large stalking shadows create the template for what would come to be the Film Noir genre. Nan’s incarceration is influenced by German Expressionism with tilted windows and monolithic walls, roaring machinery and high-angle perspectives straight out of Caligari or Metropolis. Here, the women’s prison is no Reformatory or Dormitory, it is hard time which is rarely shown in these early films! 

Though the story veers into melodrama in the final act it is still suspenseful as it races towards the climax. It’s not as brutal or surprising as many Pre-Code stories and feels a bit of a let-down as it fades to black. 

Final Grade: (B+)