Blood Money (1933) is a racy and lively pre-Code with many eye opening and jaw dropping elements that, along with the love quadrangle and the mob plot, are sure to keep you glued.
George Bancroft plays a notorious bail bondsman, with a reputation built up in the opening minutes, from the point of view of a captured gangster who needs his help, a judge who begrudgingly admires his influence, and local merchants who gossip about him. He’s big and bold, jovial, threatening, and sentimental enough to stop and shed a tear when he hears “Melancholy Baby.” He’s a master at self-promotion, sponsoring the fights, and handing out personalized cigars even to the police following him. He’s big and rich, and not just because he’s good, but because he accepts as collateral the deeds to people’s homes and jewelry from starving women. He has the phones in his office bugged to gather scandalous and valuable information. He has it all, and adds another feather to his cap when rich society girl Frances Dee comes into his office looking to get out of a shoplifting charge. He makes that happen and falls hard for her, and it will be an involvement that turns his life and enterprise upside down.
Bancroft owes much of his success to a woman, a good friend who loves him deeply, the nightclub impresario played by Judith Anderson. Back when Bancroft was a corrupt cop, she helped him make the connections he needed to start his business. Things gets complicated as Dee turns Bancroft’s head, as Anderson’s brother (Chick Chandler) pulls off a daring bank robbery, and becomes a rival for Dee’s affections. Instead of pulling his usual tricks to keep Chandler out of jail, jealousy leads Bancroft to turn him in, leaving Anderson betrayed and understandably furious and unforgiving. She condemns the way Bancroft makes his money, telling him he’s no better than a vampire: “every dollar you ever made was wrung from someone’s heart.” Anderson summons the crime community to wreck Bancroft, first by ordering everyone currently out on his bail to jump it, then by framing Bancroft for the bank robbery. In retaliation, Bancroft takes his knowledge of the underworld to one of the candidates running for mayor, at which point the mafia orders a hit on Bancroft. Things have gone way beyond Anderson’s intention, and her attempt to stop the murder leads to some grade A suspense, thanks to explosives, good editing and footage of a taxi racing through the streets.
This movie has a lot to shock and awe, but the biggest surprise is Frances Dee, whose lust for excitement, crime and violence, and whose openly stated craving for, and addiction to punishment will make your jaw drop. She’s a provocative girl with “a little too much imagination,” who is bored with living vicariously through pulp fiction and minor kleptomania, and yearns to get deeper into the underworld. She’s attracted to the potential brutish badness that Bancroft’s flirting, stature and profession suggest, but he’s too much of a gent for her, and dooms himself by buying her a dog that comes dead last in the races. She soon transfers her affections to the active crime-breaker and like-minded Chandler. Dee has an astonishing scene in which she stops a traumatized girl to ask about her troubles, then positively lights up when the woman says she just ran out of a job interview with an abusive man–Dee makes a beeline for him. Between this from Dee and the opportunity to see Anderson as a powerful but lovelorn lady gangster, you have a couple fascinating female performances to draw you in.
So much in Blood Money is about showing you risque and soon-to-be restricted glimpses of club or criminal life. There’s a woman in tux and monocle (Kathlyn Williams), to whom Bancroft offers a cigar. She calls him a “sissy,” which leads him to guffaw his way up the stairs and into the next scene. You’re shown how a message from solitary gets to a kitchen connection on the bottom of a burned plate, or the clever phone mouthpiece silencer used by the mob to prevent any eavesdropping. The billiard ball filled with explosives was already done in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., but here it still provides thrills, especially when it’s tested (twice!) by tossing it out the window in the middle of the city.
Director Rowland Brown only directed four films and had writing credit on many more, including Kansas City Confidential, Johnny Apollo and Angels with Dirty Faces. Owing to his prohibition experiences he brought some extra realism to depictions of the criminal element. Here he has you look thru a speakeasy grill and then get a bird’s-eye view as Bancroft enters the club. Brown loves the cutaway set, using it to follow Bancroft and Chandler as they talk while ascending several staircases, to show Bancroft entering a pool hall, or to compare Bancroft and Chandler in their respective phone booths calling Dee at the same time. It’s pleasantly flashy technique that fits this wild and sensational story, which in turn is brought to life by enjoyably showy acting. Besides the engaging leads, you see Vaudeville star Blossom Seeley for a couple tunes, and Theresa Harris as Anderson’s maid; she can steal a scene with just a knowing smile. Lucille Ball and Dennis O’Keefe were easy to spot in their uncredited roles at the racetrack, and many familiar faces populate the opening scenes, the Hawaiian themed dinner party, the law offices and mob meetings. Fascinating pre-Code and early 20th Century films find. (Thanks to John for helping me check this one out!)