Let ’em Have It (1935) is great G-man story like the one I reviewed the other day, Show Them No Mercy! (1935), and both feature Bruce Cabot chewing the scenery as a nasty thug who gets dramatic comeuppance.
Mal Stevens (Richard Arlen) is an ace Justice Department agent. In his first big case he foils a kidnapping plot against the very wealthy Spencer family. Heiress Eleanor (Virginia Bruce) is thankful the Feds prevented the taking of her brother Buddy (Eric Linden), but she won’t believe her chauffeur Joe Keefer (Bruce Cabot) was involved, no matter how obvious it seems. Despite Mal’s objections, Eleanor foolishly helps Joe get parole and guarantees him a job. Soon Joe is back to his criminal ways, this time with a gang he’s broken out of prison. After Joe pulls off a string of bank robberies, Mal is back on his case with a new rookie agent by side, none other than Buddy Spencer.
Director Sam Wood includes many inside looks at the G-Man’s rigorous training, special investigative skills and tools, plus the legwork and danger involved in hunting and catching ruthless criminals. The introductory sequences at the academy are great and show the prospective agents learning how to shoot, study rifling from gun barrels and pick up maximum detail from a crime scene. It’s a pre-CSI/Criminal Minds era but no less impressive when it comes to building a composite and profile of an unsub from footprints, stride lengths, skin cells and clothing stains, wear marks and residue on leather gloves. Their expertise in reconstruction is such that they create the the very picture of Bruce Cabot, in a slightly incredible but very dramatic moment.
A lot of juicy drama is exactly what Cabot brings to the movie. His Joe is a sneering, cold-hearted, “mean looking critter,” fueled by resentment, who mocks his parents’ work ethic, refuses to be a second-generation servant, bristles at mockery about his lack of education. In Show Them No Mercy! he was gunned down too quickly to truly savour his just desserts, but in this movie he gets gruesome punishment and plenty of time to take it all in. When the dragnet tightens, Joe goes to a plastic surgeon to get a new face, and the doctor makes it so Joe wears his ugly personality on the outside. You won’t soon forget the scene of the bandages coming off, much to the horror of Joe’s girl and gang.
Cabot’s menace contrasts with Arlen’s Mal, a lawman of soft-spoken determination, strength and patience. He loves Eleanor but is so chivalrous, he lets her nurse her baseless grudges and conclusions, and is even willing to step aside and let his pal and fellow agent Tex (Gordon Jones) court her. First Eleanor resents Mal because he’s too much of a hero and role model for Buddy. Then she makes Mal promise to keep Buddy safe, which any good movie buff knows is foreshadowing a tragedy, and sure enough, Buddy makes a dumb rookie mistake that costs him his life. Virginia Bruce is always interesting in her arc from carefree rich girl to oblivious bleeding heart, to realizing her word at parole time has caused all the disasters that follow. Supporting actors include Joyce Compton as Joe’s first moll, a spurned woman who’s fooled into squealing by a doctored photograph. Joe replaces her with a newer model played by Barbara Pepper (in Jean Harlow look-alike mode) and Alice Brady plays the Spencers’ Aunt Ethel.