City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)

The first third of City Streets is this awesome bit of experimenting from director Mamoulian as he tries to figure out how to make a sound picture. Lots of great shots and camera setups, usually with too dawdling cuts. William Shea holds everything just a few seconds too long. But the montage imagery itself is fantastic. And Mamoulian carries it over into the narrative a bit too, though he eventually stops with it after sort of peaking.

But even for all Mamoulian’s experimenting, Streets is never experimental. There’s always the script to drag it back to reality. Oliver H.P. Garrett (adapting a Dashiell Hammett original story, with help form Max Marcin) writes some great scenes and some excellent characters… he just doesn’t write the right ones excellent. Or, if he does, at the wrong times. There’s no reason Wynne Gibson, as a jilted mobster’s dame, ought to end up giving the most dynamic female performance in Streets. It’s literally Sylvia Sidney’s movie and she loses it to Gibson for the finale. Gibson’s great, but great because the movie doesn’t give Sidney a presence much less a chance. Possibly because no one realized Gary Cooper doesn’t work without Sidney around. His performance is better, but he doesn’t function right in the plot without her.

Streets is a crime melodrama. Sidney works for her step-father, a truly singular Guy Kibbee as an abject sociopath, who in turn works for crime boss Paul Lukas. Lukas is a classy European guy who seduces the women of his gang and then kills off his romantic rivals and promotes some duplicitous underling. He’s a psychopath, but one in the guise of a sociopath. Lukas is pretty awesome. He’s not as good as Kibbee because no one’s as good as Kibbee, but Lukas is frightening. Of course, Lukas doesn’t meet Sidney through Kibbee, rather through Gary Cooper. Cooper starts the movie a dope of a cowboy who’s found his way to the big city, just waiting until the circus shows up and he can join up. He’s Sidney’s fella. And he wants nothing to do with the bootlegging gangsters.

At least until Sidney’s in a jam and, being a complete moron, Kibbee’s able to talk Cooper into it to help her. Shame the only thing Sidney’s able to hold onto is the knowledge her fella would never get involved with the bootlegging gangsters.

There’s some great romantic scenes between Cooper and Sidney, which occasionally get messed up by the edits, occasionally amplified. The first one is on the beach and is exemplar good sexy until they cut to a two-shot in the studio instead of the location. Then one where the lovers are separated by a screen. Sidney’s amazing in that one. She also gets a few great thinking scenes, one accompanied by a sound flashback (the first in film, according to the IMDb), and then one where she’s got to figure out how to save Cooper.

Because once Lukas gets a look at her, he’s not going to stop at anything to get her.

And Kibbee’s more than happy to go along. And Cooper’s a dope who thinks Lukas is his pal.

There’s a better movie in the story, but maybe not much better. Cooper’s okay. He’s actually better as the plotting gangster than the dopey cowboy stud. Sidney’s excellent, but the material’s not always with her. Kibbee, Gibson, Lukas. William Boyd’s kind of blah as Lukas’s number two. Not bad just blander than he ought to be. Some of it’s the script.

There’s a great montage sequence of Cooper and all the mob guys looking at each other. I wonder how it’d sound with Ennio Morricone.

The film’s most impressive for Mamoulian’s direction. Unfortunately, you could cut together a ten minute reel of all the best directed stuff and be fine. For whatever reason, Mamoulian drops the experimenting in the second half and the melodrama stalls. It even drags, not good for an eighty minute picture. Maybe it needs to be longer….

The film just can’t figure out how to make all its pieces work; Mamoulian tries a lot of successful things, they just don’t add up. And he seems to get tired of trying, which hurts it.

But City Streets is still an amazing piece of motion picture making.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on an adaptation by Max Marcin and a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Lee Garmes; edited by William Shea; produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Gary Cooper (The Kid), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Wynne Gibson (Agnes), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (McCoy), and Paul Lukas (Big Fellow Maskal).


One Comment

  1. amycondit

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on City Streets. I feel like I saw this film many years ago in Washington, D.C., and am overdue for re-watching it. I really enjoy Sylvia Sidney, and am intrigued by your description of Guy Kibbee carrying the picture. I like him a lot! I see that you can watch this on YouTube, so I think I’ll give it a try later!

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