' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Beast of the City (1932)

Friday, March 08, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Beast of the City (1932)

“The Beast of the City” is a pre-code precursor to 1987’s “The Untouchables” in so much as it chronicles a passionate cop’s attempts to stamp out rampant corruption in the Prohibition era. The latter muddied the moral waters by having mentor-ish beat cop Malone (Sean Connery) repeatedly demand of the virtuous Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) what he was prepared to do to bring down Al Capone. “Beast of the City” seeks to muddy the moral waters too yet gives the game away from the outset with a title scroll bearing words penned by President Herbert Hoover expressing undying devotion to the police and telling the viewer in no uncertain terms to do the same. It is not that President Hoover is wrong, per se, but that the conceit of the ensuing film as a vehicle for thought is almost immediately negated; before the movie even starts you are being told what to think about it. Still, if “The Beast of the City” is propaganda, it advocates with great flourish, an early crowd scene that truly feels in the street and not on the lot of cop cars zooming through on the way to a murder scene contrasting nicely with a later crowd scene from above of chattering prisoners in a holding cell. The former demonstrates who is being protected; the latter demonstrates who they are being protected from.

The protector is Captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) – Fightin’ Fitz. If the character is tasked with confronting hard-bitten criminals to clean up the mean streets, his family life is idyllic, a counterpoint that director Charles Brabin draws with too much broadly comic clarity, like an entirely forgettable scene of Fitz’s twin daughters hapless attempt to make him pancakes for breakfast. This scene, however, also carves out space for Fitz’s brother, Ed (Wallace Ford), a detective on the force. Though he cheerily pretends to eat the inedible pancakes, Ed is also unmarried, a moral strike against him, free of Fightin’ Fitz’s grounding by way of a rock-solid marriage. That leaves Ed susceptible to the untoward advances of Mildred Belmonte (Jean Harlow), the gal of notorious gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt), the super bad dude Fightin’ Fitz is trying to bring down.

As Turner Classic Movies recalls, this was Harlow’s first movie under contract for MGM and her yearning for better roles after being merely propped up as so much side-of-the-arm eye candy did not initially appear different to her eyes. Brabin, however, worked with Harlow to try and sculpt a legitimate performance as opposed to simply relying on her Blonde Bombshell aura. That might be true, though it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two, such as when she poses as another women to seduce Ed, prompting him to abet the very people his brother is trying to bring down. Then again, the scene works like gangbusters, demonstrating how in the age of Movie Stars aura and acting could go hand-in-hand. There are other moments, however, when Harlow gets at something more natural, like her introductory scene where her character disinterestedly lazes on the side, barely paying attention as her bemused crook of a husband is confronted by Fightin’ Fitz and his flatfoots, as if she’s been through all this before. It’s a nasty world, “The Beast of the City” says, and in these moments Harlow evinces impressive indifference to such nastiness. It works, in fact, to shade her aforementioned wicked role play as a chance to have fun.

That indifference is what Fightin Fitz' is up against, bringing Belmonte to justice only to see him get off the hook anyway, the sort of corruption that causes him to employ more brutish methods, damn the cost. True, an intrepid newspaperman is there to occasionally question the value of such vigilante tactics, but in the cinematic language of the “Beast of the City” he comes across less like a crusader than a nuisance, and his points are completely done away with by the film’s terrifying if admittedly effective conclusion. Realizing the rule of law is no match for Belmonte, Fightin’ Fitz goes after him like it’s the old west, which is evoked in a gunfight that works because of its simplicity, both sides walking right at each other with guns blazing, bodies falling left and right. I’ll give you one guess who is left standing. It’s as if the reality-bending scene in “The Untouchables” where Ness throws Nitti off the roof has become the chief of police’s new strategy. President Hoover said it’s ok, after all.

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