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John Howard Reid

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3 Crime Classics from Warner Brothers' B Division
by John Howard Reid   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, June 03, 2009

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For the crime buff, Warner Brothers is undoubtedly the most interesting of the major Hollywood studios. Right from the very start, the Brothers established a tradition of hard-hitting realism that left other studios for dead. Of course, it’s problematic if the film-makers would have continued in this vein if their socially-conscious product hadn’t also been extremely popular with audiences. No doubt titivating titles like Why Girls Leave Home helped. This 1921 account of the big city's corrupting influence was not only the studio’s first feature film, but its first big success. The Warners followed with Parted Curtains, the first in a long succession of hard, grittily realistic movies about crime and criminals. Even their third offering, School Days, had nothing to do with the type of school the title brings to mind. The following article is an edited extract from my book, "B Movies, Bad Movies, Good Movies".

It’s no accident therefore that down the track Warner Brothers became home to the screen’s three greatest gangster icons: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. All three made interesting "B" movies before their stars became firmly established. Robinson joined the super-star ranks with his Little Caesar (1930), Cagney leapt into fame in the title role of The Public Enemy (1931), whilst Bogart refined his definitive gangster in The Petrified Forest (1936).

Made immediately before Little Caesar, The Widow from Chicago already finds Robinson on familiar ground. Third billed, he plays a ruthless liquor lord, determined to kill off his rivals for control of the city. One of his victims is an undercover police detective. The cop’s sister decides to avenge her brother by getting the goods on Robinson herself. She takes a job in his speakeasy. The plot then develops along familiar lines, although a few unexpectedly suspenseful (if unlikely) twists keep interest high right through to a thrillingly-staged action climax.

In the acting department, Robinson easily walks away with the movie. His characterization of the gangster is already fully developed, all his familiar mannerisms of speech and gesture firmly in place.

Unfortunately, the other principals, particularly pouting, mousey-voiced Alice White as the widow and relentlessly wooden Neil Hamilton as the good/bad hero, are a sorry lot. I picked comic Frank McHugh as the best of a poor bunch. His interpretation of this standard dumb stooge becomes not only disturbing but oddly sympathetic. At the climax when he neatly corners himself in a patrol wagon, you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. Hes just a friendly, loyal but not overbright guy who’s grown up and lived with the mob all his life. Society has never given him a chance.

Although obviously struggling with the demands of sound in many of the dialogue encounters, director Edward Cline really comes to life once the camera moves into the action spots. The climax rates as an absolute stunner, yet it’s not way over the top as the similar finish to M-G-M's The Beast of the City where guns popped and cops dropped all over the place. Just one killer in the spotlight here, but what a spotlight! The equally convincing street scenes were doubtless all filmed on the studio’s back lot, but they retain the gritty, mean feel of real streets filled with real slum-dwelling, Depression-era people.

We move from a screen original to The White Cockatoo. Made by Warner Brothers some five years later, The White Cockatoo (who actually has very little to do with the story) was adapted from a then-current novel of the same title by Mignon G. Eberhart. An extremely popular writer in her day, Mrs Eberhart published over fifty mystery novels. Many critics regard White Cockatoo as her best effort, so we’re indeed fortunate that it’s one of the few preserved in a movie version. More importantly, the movie not only retains Eberhart’s clever plot, but most of her skilfully induced atmosphere and suspense.

Certainly the film starts most promisingly. The fascinating setting is a lonely French hotel in a small tourist resort in the off-season. A wonderfully creepy place with few guests but a brusquely mysterious "doctor" (Gordon Westcott), an eccentric matron (Ruth Donnelly), and an American heiress (Jean Muir) who is waiting for news of her inheritance from suave John Eldredge. The shrewish innkeeper (Minna Gombell) and her husband (Walter Kingsford) keep a tight rein on both guests and staff. Into this charged atmosphere enters a dashing Ricardo Cortez, ready to lend a helping hand to the suspicious but vulnerable heroine, played by that lovely blonde charmer, Miss Muir.

Most of the action takes place at night, enabling the director and photographer many dramatically tingling and moody effects. In all, despite the miscasting of volubly British Walter Kingsford as a French inn-keeper, The White Cockatoo emerges as an ingeniously complicated but easy-to-follow mystery, superbly enacted by an otherwise finely-chosen group of players.

While all critics agree that the screen version of The White Cockatoo serves the novel well, I discovered a general thumbs-down regarding the 1935 Warner treatment of Ben Hecht's highly praised 1923 novel, The Florentine Dagger.

It must be said at once that the Hecht novel was once hailed as something of a classic. I think today’s readers would dismiss it as an unsuccessful experiment down a blind alley. Be this as it may, it’s a daring film-maker that will undertake to transfer a classic faithfully to the screen. He’s asking for trouble. Away from the heated critical debate of 1935, in the cooler light of 2004, we can appreciate the film version for the enthralling movie it is.

Briefly, Hecht’s novel is a murder mystery in which each of the three prime suspects has a dual personality. Naturally, each of the schizophrenics is unaware of his/her affliction, so we actually end up with six suspects. So it’s a question not only as to who benefits by the slaying of impresario Victor Ballau, but as to which of the six persons-in-three actually did the deed.

In the film version, the number of suspects is cleverly augmented to ten. Four possible schizos, plus two outsiders. That really adds up to suspense plus. We are never really quite sure of the genuineness or sanity of any of the principal characters.

So who murdered Victor Ballau (Henry O'Neill)? His daughter (the lovely Margaret Lindsay), currently playing Lucrezia Borgia in a play written by Cesare (Donald Woods)? This Cesare, a direct descendant of the notorious Cesare Borgia, is under treatment for possible schizophrenia by the oddly gruff Doctor Lytton (Sir C. Aubrey Smith), a psychiatrist who is subject to sudden, unexplained mood changes. Or is the killer actually the cat-and-mouse police captain (Robert Barrat), who seems both too knowing and too off-hand? Or is it the crazy-looking old woman who successfully bids for the murder weapon at an auction of the victim's effects? Or is it the grim, beaten servant, mousily unobtrusive, who admits she was alone in the house with the victim when the murder was committed?

In the best performance of his career, Donald Woods, normally a rather wooden, indeed stodgy actor, not only provides an able and ingratiating "hero", but lends his portrait a neurotic intensity that makes it doubly fascinating. Margaret Lindsay also infuses her characterization with an unusual depth and edge. For a while there it seems as if the script is about to anticipate A Double Life (1948), that famous film in which Ronald Colman won an Academy Award for his portrait of a shizoid actor playing Othello both on stage and off. Is Miss Lindsay’s Lucrezia similarly endowed?

As for C. Aubrey Smith, how wonderful it is to see this fine old actor filling a role worthy and large enough for his brilliant talents!

Here’s Robert Barrat too, this time in a remarkably way-out role which he plays with an entertaining balance of humor and drama, expertly doling out his sarcastic, dallying dialogue in such as a way as to intrigue and mystify us as well as simply attract attention.

Director Robert Florey has infused this rivetting film with a beguilingly brooding atmosphere, assisted by the fine Gothic trappings conjured up by the set designer, Anton Grot. Rather than a critical drubbing, this Florentine Dagger deserves the highest praise.   

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