Monday January 31, 2022
Movie Review: The Beast of the City (1932)
The first half is ur-“Dirty Harry.” Walter Huston plays Jim “Fightin’” Fitzpatrick, a tough-as-nails cop who will do anything to clean up this dirty city, damnit, and who is thus forever in trouble with the higher-ups and the press. Some of his lines are straight out of the Clint Eastwood playbook. “What do you expect me to do with gunmen, dope peddlers, and sneak thieves—kiss ’em on the forehead or slap ’em on the wrist?” Fitz says. Eventually he’s shunted off to a dull, nothing post, where they figure he can’t do any harm.
The second half is “Blue Angel”-lite. Fitz’s younger brother, Ed (Wallace Ford), falls for the sexiest moll in town, Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow), and keeps falling and falling. She gets him involved in drink and crime. She corrupts and ruins him. And when big brother comes back as police captain to clean up this dirty city, damnit, and is too honest to give his brother a sinecure, the kid, pushed by Daisy, works with the big gangster in town, Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt, of the humanitarian award), to rob a bank-delivery truck. It leaves three dead: a robber, a cop, a little girl.
“Beast of the City” is not a good movie but it’s got moments. It opens well with a tracking shot of calls coming in and being dispatched to cops around the city. Most of the calls are inconsequential and/or humorous until we get to a murder: four men hung in a basement warehouse. The dead are gangsters, Fitz suspects Belmonte and drags him in without evidence. And we’re off and running.
The movie is most intriguing today for its by-the-way racism. From the hero. When two good cops, Mac and Tom (Sandy Roth and Warner Richmond), volunteer to follow Ed on his ill-fated assignment, Fitz smiles and tells them: “That’s mighty white of you guys.” It’s not a one-off, either. Near the end, Fitz is interrogating one of the men behind the heist, Abe (Nat Pendleton), and goes off on him. “You forgot to tell me about shooting a little girl down in the gutter! You forgot to tell me about killing one of the finest white men that ever lived!”
A cop obsessed about race. Glad we got over that.
Hoover Mayer ’32
The movie opens with a quote from Pres. Herbert Hoover:
Instead of the glorification of cowardly gangsters, we need the glorification of policemen who do their duty and give their lives in public protection. If the police had the vigilant, universal backing of public opinion in their communities, if they had the implacable support of the prosecuting authorities and the courts, I am convinced that our police would stamp out the excessive crime which has disgraced some of our great cities.
It’s taken from a speech Hoover gave in October 1931 before the International Association of Police Chiefs, so initially one assumes MGM and Cosmopolitan Productions (William Randolph Hearst’s outift) simply tacked on the quote to give their film gravitas—a presidential seal of approval, as it were. But there was more at work here. Louis B. Mayer was friends with, and an active supporter of, Hoover, and several sources (here and here) say that Hoover and Mayer talked about “the need to educate the public to have a greater respect for law enforcement officers.” So were they working in lockstep? I’ll give the quote, you make the movie? It certainly benefitted both men. The president of the United States got to attack lawlessness and Mayer got the president of the United States to attack Warner Bros.
Huston played a lot of stern authority figures in the early 1930s, didn’t he? Missionary, judge, warden. He played one of the first screen Wyatt Earps, dubbed “Saint” Johnson, in “Law and Order,” as well as two presidents of the United States: one fictional (“Gabriel Over the White House”), one historical (“Abraham Lincoln”). Some of his sterner roles, as this one, veered toward the fascistic. It’s an interesting heyday for an actor whose best-known scene today is laughing and dancing a jig in the dusty Mexican mountains.
He’s a family man here, too, with two comic-relief daughters (they try to make him pancakes), a younger son in on the joke (Mickey Rooney, quite good), and a dull, supportive wife, (Dorothy Peterson of “Mothers Cry”). Unlike city homes in Warner Bros. movies, their home already seems suburban. You feel like it could’ve been the set of a 1950s TV sitcom.
The big question for most of the movie is how far Ed falls. The answer turns out to be “all the way,” and when Fitz finds out Ed was part of the gang behind the heist, he has him arrested, too. Belmonte figures the best way to get back at Fitz is to get his men off, so we get courtroom scenes in which the truth is garbled and witnesses and jurors have obviously been threatened and/or bought off. MGM was big on these. It’s basically the same as in “The Secret 6,” MGM’s gangster flick from the year before, right down to the judge (Murray Kinnell) chastising everyone involved. “I see your hearts are made of water,” he says.
Afterwards, we get an odd scene of Fitz siting alone in a dark room, sweating and in obvious emotional pain, when someone enters. “Is that you, Tom?” Fitz asks, referring to one of his good cops (Warner Richmond), but he almost sounds panicky. Then it cuts to a different take, where Fitz is less sweaty and more in control of himself. “Who’s there?” he asks sternly. Turns out it’s his brother, contrite, but Fitz is unforgiving. “You sold the whole town into his greasy hands,” he says.
This is when he comes up with the worst plan in the world. He tells Ed to go to Belmonte, who’s partying with his pals, and say he’s going to confess, which will force Belmonte’s hand. Fitz and his men will then show up. And it works. Belmonte’s hand is so forced, in fact, it leads to a shoot-out, almost Old West style, in which the lawmen walk slowly forward with guns blazing. What happens? Everyone dies: good cops with bad gangsters, Ed and Harlow (balcony, stray shot), Belmonte and Fitz, who, as the movie fades, reaches and touches his brother’s dead hand before expiring himself.
It’s supposed to be a great self-sacrifice. But it’s so unnecessary, such a lousy plan, that one wonders if our hero should’ve been the hero in the first place.
For some reason, they all wind up dead.
The movie’s screenwriter was the legendary W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novels on which “Little Caesar,” “High Sierra” and “The Asphalt Jungle” are based, and whose screenplays included the original “Scarface” with Paul Muni and “The Great Escape” with Steven McQueen. Helluva career. Basically the man helped create the gangster film, and then helped recreate it as film noir. In “Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” by Patrick McGilligan, he’s amusing on this film:
Who directed that?
Charles Brabin, an Englishman. Everything about it was wrong. Making an American hoodlum picture, giving it to an Englishman. We’d have a story conference and he’s go to sleep right in your face.
But Brabin did a good job directing?
Strangely enough, he did.
He also thought that while there were no good Al Capone-type pictures, this one was pretty good, and that “Hersholt was a greasy, offensive Capone.” Respectfully, no. Hersholt makes a ridiculous gang leader—Italian with a Scandinavian accent. His right-hand man, Pietro Cholo (J. Carrol Naish, who would play every ethnicity over the years), seems way more dangerous. As does Harlow. Belmonte just seems comic, not much of a threat at all, but in the logic of the film he runs the city.
The movie’s working title was “City Sentinels” but MGM went with something more sensationalistic. Some irony: Its earlier film, “The Secret 6,” focuses on the Al Capone-like gangster (Wallace Beery) even though the title highlighted the movie’s little-seen sentinels, while this one focuses on the city sentinel but its title highlights the little-seen Al Capone-like gangster. Further irony: the movie that was all about glorifying cops gave title credit to the bad guys. Maybe MGM decided that's where the money was.
“Good ol' days.”