An early police drama made to contrast with the popular gangster pictures of the time, The Beast of the City finds Walter Huston in good guy mode and Jean Harlow happy to play the bad girl.
The Beast of the City plays out as an above-average crime picture made for MGM where the good guys and the heroes are, finally, one and the same. It’s also Pre-Code, allowing for just a touch of insinuation into illegal urges among the protagonist law enforcers. Released in 1932 (and carrying an opening decree by Depression-era President Herbert Hoover), the film came at a time when gangsters were being heavily lionized at the movies, with James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Muni all ascending with their famous portrayals of villains imbued with charisma and defiance. The Beast of the City, directed by Charles Brabin, tolerates none of that and instead lets the cops be in the right. Walter Huston, no stranger to playing likable rogues, stars as Jim Fitzpatrick, a man in blue effectively demoted to a desk job before getting shot and subsequently boosted to police captain. His brother Ed (Wallace Ford) is a fellow officer, but he takes an interest in Daisy (Jean Harlow) who’s firmly entrenched in the shady side of the city.
It’s established in the film that Huston is a family man – wife, twin daughters with blonde hair who are almost attached at the hip and a bratty son (played by, who else, Mickey Rooney). This is an early sound picture but those touches nonetheless feel like an attempt to give Huston’s character some level of humanity beyond his job. Otherwise, he’s defined entirely as a man concerned with law enforcement. We see no excursions beyond home and work. There aren’t any unrelated social activities for this character. He’s that bland cop sometimes weakly given the counterpoint role in a gangster picture, except here he’s our guy to celebrate. Rally behind the public servant. From a few things I’d read beforehand, I was expecting Huston to be a more emboldened figure and someone less concerned with regulations than justice. The film doesn’t really play out that way, though, and despite one or two instances of Huston’s character questioning certain procedural essentials there’s nothing too radical in him at all.
Slightly more interesting, though still without much in the way of strong character development, is Ford’s Ed Fitzpatrick. He’s also a badge-wearing believer, but sort of impish in comparison. The conflict arises when he makes eyes at Jean Harlow. She was just 20 years old at the time, hips in bloom, but still difficult to resist. Clearly, Harlow was a movie star at the first hint of celluloid. Any picture she made remains interesting simply because she was there. Here she’s a borderline moll, beholden to Jean Hersholt’s cackling gangster Belmonte. Combined with J. Carrol Naish’s Cholo, Hersholt represents that familiar ethnic quota required for a figure of the criminal underworld. Hersholt of course was a deeply generous man in real life whose name adorns the humanitarian Oscar while Naish bounced around as one stereotype after another in a productive Hollywood career. Both men serve the film well as typical, though slimy, brutes of power.
Meanwhile, Ford’s Fitzpatrick brother gets a memorable scene with Harlow where she breathily asks: “Are ya going to try and reform me?” He responds “What for?” Great stuff. There’s little doubt as to Harlow’s place in film history when these sorts of exchanges can be seen. She’s sufficiently electric. The viewer should, ideally, be drawn with equal conviction to Ford here. He has a pivotal role in terms of the narrative. Belmonte is the thug to watch so if Ed’s aiding this clear criminal then the viewer immediately understands it’s in the name of love and, essentially, in passive defiance of his own brother who’s denied him a promotion. This is the central conflict, I suppose, wherein one brother is lured into opposing his duties to the law just as the other remains steadfast in upholding it. The film as a whole struggles somewhat with presenting these fraternal catastrophes, as it seems to limit the impact of the betrayal instead of placing the necessary emphasis on just how affecting it could be. Things could descend into Biblical terms but there are no guts to be placed on the line in The Beast of the City. Nothing here forcefully requires our attention.
To be fair, only pictures like Scarface and The Public Enemy can lay claim to being definitive, even transcendent depictions of this early ’30s era in studio crime dramas and those films had the key ingredients, respectively, of Howard Hawks and James Cagney. As fine as Huston is and as commanding as Harlow flickers on screen, neither are quite dynamic enough to elevate things into the range of being a classic. What probably comes closest to building the film up in terms of importance is the final sequence. Here we have Huston and his crew enter Naish’s night club where bad man Hersholt is celebrating. Ford is basically stuck in the middle. The scene unfolds theatrically, reminiscent of the staging you might see in a western. Events emerge in what feels like slow motion with each side moving deliberately forward. No recognition of the flurry of gunfire can be seen aside from the stray acknowledgement of a man going down. It is a beautiful, balletic sequence which plays absent any sense of realism. We’ve rarely seen anything so stylistically choreographed among the obvious peers. The ending then washes over the viewer, who must have in mind Huston’s sort of heartbreaking pre-raid act of laying out his insurance papers at home for his wife. It is, despite some primitive aspects overall, a quite affecting conclusion to a strong, mostly unheralded depiction of the battle against the more glamorous gangsters of the day.
This is a Warner Archive title, meaning it’s burned-on-demand using a DVD-R with a purple backside. It will have a nice label on the front and decent artwork but just wait for the unappealing smell. Most Warner Archive titles can be purchased from Amazon.com and TCM/Movies Unlimited in addition to the WB Shop (which currently doesn’t accommodate customers outside the U.S.).
The old Turner television logo even plays prior to the film starting, giving you an idea of how unpolished this transfer looks. The image, slightly pillar-boxed from 1.33:1, definitely has a softness about it. Dirt and the like are also visible. A reasonably faint green line runs vertically on the left side of the frame for a few minutes in the second half of the film. Warner Bros. also hasn’t done viewers any favors by presenting the film with an interlaced transfer, responsible for slight combing on some displays, and encoding the single-layer disc with a low bitrate. All things considered, this print could hardly look worse. If you were able to see the film on television fifteen or twenty years ago, it would’ve been about the same as this other than obvious differences in the technology of a DVD versus an inferior television signal. Compared to the typical WB release of early crime pictures in the Gangsters box sets, this is obviously of worse quailty, with no digital clean-up to the existing materials. It’s still easy enough to watch, and superior to public domain-type releases, but the high price tag makes the shortcomings sting a bit more for these effectively antiquated transfers.
The audio is an English mono track. It features a prominent crackle and hiss throughout the film. Even so, dialogue can be made out with little difficulty. The volume can be inconsistent, but as long as you keep the remote control within reach there shouldn’t be too much of a struggle to understand what’s going on. Subtitles might’ve helped, but none are provided. Closed captioning hasn’t been included either.
There aren’t any extra features.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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