Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gary Cooper, gangster?!

Yes, actually. It happens in the interesting pre-Code City Streets, which is aiirng at 1:15 AM ET tonight. (Note: Daylight Savings Time begins tonight, and the movie straddles the "skipped hour" in the Eastern time zone, but not in other time zones, where the skipped hour comes later.)

Cooper plays "Kid", who starts off the movie working the shooting gallery at Coney Island. He's got his eye on Nan (Sylvia Sidney), who loves him too and has a good source of money. Unfortunately, it's not a clean source: she's the daughter of a mob hitman (Guy Kibbee) who's working for the beer racket (this being Prohibition and all), and often assists her father in disposing of the weapon he uses to commit his murders. This is a source of tension between our two lovers, but with it being Prohibition and the Depression, people have to make a living somehow. One such hit goes wrong, and Nan winds up getting caught with a weapon on her person, which means big trouble for either her or Dad. The only way Cooper can help his girl is to get involved in the racket himself, so he goes in with Kibbee as one of the underlings of boss Paul Lukas.

Cooper shows himself to be an adept gangster, risking fairly quickly up the hierarchy, although this creates tension among the other racketeers, as well as even more with Nan, who decides that she really liked him better when he was just a poor carny at Coney Island. That, and the molls. Wynne Gibson plays a woman kept by Lukas, and when she gets fed up with it all, she comes up with a scheme that will get both Lukas and Cooper out of the way. Cooper is no dummy, however, and comes up with a plan of his own....

City Streets is a really interesting movie that unfortunately has a few plot holes. Cooper hadn't really hit his type yet, with the movie having been made in 1931. Today we know him for westerns and being the sturdy good guy, but he's really not bad here as the good-guy gangster. I don't know that he would have done so well as an anti-hero like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney, though. Sidney is good, and gets some interesting scenes in prison when her thoughts are revealed in voiceover, a technique which apparently hadn't been used before. Today it's a cliché, but then it was new. You'll probably remember Guy Kibbee for the roles he played in movies like 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933 where he was the dirty old man, but a likeable one. Here, he's quite good playing a character with few or no redeeming qualities. As good as the performances are, however, they come up a bit short in the end, as screenwriter Dashiell Hammett seems not to have had any idea how to resolve the plot conflicts. Still, City Streets is worth recording.

You're going to have to record it, since it doesn't seem to be avaiable on DVD.

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