Police Chief Walter Huston will clean up the city even if it means ripping it up.
For the MGM blogathon, many writers will, for many good reasons, focus on the things that made that studio what it was: star power, glamour galore, epic spectacle, music and fashion. I wanted to use the opportunity to talk about one of MGM’s really fine movies in a genre they weren’t really known for and didn’t spend much time trying to perfect or build up–the gritty gangster picture. But with 1932’s The Beast of the City, the studio proved they could make one to stand up against their rival studios and even influence future classics of the genre.
Beast is a sweeping crime drama, about as epic as you can get for this type and this era, and though some might find it creaks with some of the stiffness of an early talkie, I find in many ways it’s shockingly modern. It stars Walter Huston as a detective trying hard to clean up The City (hey there’s the Brooklyn Bridge) which is at this point fully in the clutches of the mob. Jean Hersholt stars as big crime boss Belmonte, who has managed to make The City as “corrupt as an open grave” but remains virtually untouchable. Huston, known for having a hot head, just gets hotter when he’s unable to get any traction in his position, stuck in a neverending and futile fight against legal technicalities and the mob’s grip of fear. For his efforts he’s bumped down to a uniform job. One day he takes a bullet and stops an armed robbery, and for that heroism is made Police Chief. Finally the time has come when, along with his loyal group of fellow officers, he can set out to clean up the city once and for all. But there’s a black sheep in his family, Huston’s brother, played by Wallace Ford, a cop on the vice squad, with shall we say more flexible morals and vices of his own. He gets mixed up with the mob, which puts the brothers and the crime lord all on a collision course on the streets, in court and far beyond.
When I rewatched The Beast of the City for this review I was struck by how much more artistic, brutal and graphic it was than I remembered. It’s strikingly, unusually photographed, but it also feels different because it shows you the real effects of crime from and on the side of the law. It’s important to point that out since this was the distinctly different approach MGM was taking with this movie, in contrast to the glamorizing (intentional or not) of the gangster that was going on over at Warners for example. Here, sure the bad guys look good in their tuxes and their lawyers make them out to be defenders of women’s honour (excuse me while I laugh), but they are also shown with few redeeming qualities, and almost no opportunities to get viewer sympathy. They murder children at a crosswalk and gun down police you have grown to like and admire. Though the nightclub crowds boo the stuffy lawmen, the movie viewer sees their home lives, their loving wives, their kids who make inedible pancakes, their struggles and the life insurance policy that’s always handy and laid by the coat-rack when leaving the house on a dangerous call. The criminals make Huston cry, for Pete’s sake, heroic tears of desperation shed because he failed to protect his city.
Many will discover or seek out this movie because of Jean Harlow, and that’s deserved attention. If you liked her in The Public Enemy, I think this role and her performance are better. She’s pure sass as the gangster’s moll, firing off zingers like bullets and using her looks for everything they’re worth, convincingly luring and sweet but ice cold in her regard for the law and the man she claims to love, all mockery and venom when she’s free to say what she really thinks. She entices Huston’s brother Ford with some cold beer, some hot suggestion and then a slinky little dance that gets him wrapped around her little finger and increasingly entangled with the mob. Despite living rent free at Huston’s home, Ford is a good time guy and always flat broke so the prospect of more cash, even through illegal means, is easy bait. It doesn’t help that Ford grows ever more resentful when Huston won’t automatically use his new position as Chief to get Ford an unmerited promotion. When the moment comes that he’s tested, entrusted by his brother with guarding a major money shipment, he blabs about it to Harlow, who plays him like a wioleen, getting him all the way involved in selling out the force and ending his career. That inside job has deadly results and kicks off the final stage of the showdown between law and crime.
I normally hate to spoil any movie, but in this case the ending is so much a part of this film’s mystique and reputation, and so unique for the time, that it has to be discussed. When a trial backfires, and the combination of outrageously showy defense lawyer and cowardly jury acquit the mob, Huston resolves with a now ruined and repentant Ford to bring them all down the only way left that will stick– “ripping them up.” They set up a conflict at the nightclub which results in a suicide mission, an unbelievable shootout the likes of which is more suited to a Peckinpah, Tarantino or HK action movie, hardly what you’d expect to find in a 1932 picture. I can only imagine the gasps of the audiences back then, witnessing this mutual massacre which is so skilfully set up and so amazingly choreographed.
Both sides slowly approach each other, i.e. the camera and speak into it, with Ford sandwiched between them, and then with a shot they launch into a battle which is both thrilling and painful to watch, photographed in high style with many modern touches, like bullets finding their target through a swinging kitchen door and dolly shots moving toward overturned tables falling to reveal key figures dead and bleeding. Even Harlow gets hers in most dramatic fashion when she’s foolish enough to peer over the balcony to check the body count. The shootout artistry is just one of many creative and powerful visuals seen throughout the film, courtesy of director Charles Brabin who developed his style through 120+ directing credits stretching back into the silent era, in making films like The Mask of Fu Manchu, and the Irene Dunne tearjerker The Secret of Madame Blanche (he was married to movie star Theda Bara.)
It hardly needs to be said that Walter Huston is compelling and does the most with his role (one IMDB commenter describes him here as the Dirty Harry of his day). He’s tightly coiled, intense, human, emotional, direct and when he promises to take down the mob you believe him. Beast is a treat for movie buffs who love to spot familiar faces, like the great J. Carrol Naish as Hersholt’s right hand man and Harlow’s co-conspirator, or little Mickey Rooney, Dorothy Peterson and Nat Pendleton. Warner Richmond is excellent as Huston’s loyal officer who loses a beloved partner and sticks by his boss to the very end. There’s even a huge MGM star making an appearance– watch closely at Harlow’s apartment for a certain framed photo. Leave it to MGM to make such an epic little crime movie, a must for any connoisseurs of the genre, for fans of Harlow or Huston and anyone who wants a look at one of the glittery studio’s grittier products.
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