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The censor backlash against 1931's hit gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy led directly to this right-wing view of crime from the police side of the equation. As a moral antidote to the much-deplored (but popular) gangster heroes, the reactionary Beast of the City takes as its main character a stalwart police chief played by the intimidating Walter Huston. Source story writer W.R. Burnett was the man behind Little Caesar and Howard Hughes' Scarface, which gives Beast of the City a feel of authenticity in addition to its expected pre-Code thrills: booze, babes and racy, unrestrained dialogue.
Burnett's story doesn't simply take the policeman's point of view. The hard-boiled tale presents a major metropolitan city under the control of mob influences that prevent an honest cop from doing his job. The solution to the problem is vigilantism, in this case by a secret group of "dedicated" policemen. America is so corrupted by crime, the film seems to say, that its only salvation is for men of strong morals to seize control by force. In the dark days of The Great Depression, it was common to see such radical -- even Fascist -- solutions endorsed in print.
After an underworld slaughter, honest Captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston of The Furies) arrests slimy gang leader Sam Belmonte (jean Hersholt) but is forced to release him immediately by a crooked judge. Fitz is banished to a quiet suburb to be kept out of the way, but his detective pals keep him informed of what's going on back in the city.
Fitz captures two important armed robbers, and after a citizen's group initiates a shakeup in the police force, he finds himself the new Police Chief, finally able to do advance his reform agenda. Frustrated at not being given an immediate promotion, Fitz's detective brother Ed (Wallace Ford of Freaks) is seduced by gang moll Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow). To get the money needed to keep Daisy, Ed is soon showing Belmonte safe routes to truck illegal liquor into the city. Worse, when Fitz does give his brother a big job, Ed tells the mobsters and a policeman is killed. With both Fitzpatricks in disgrace and the reform campaign stopped cold, Belmonte celebrates with a big party. But Fitz has other plans.
Beast of the City's idea of political correctness is to give the "good cop" an idyllic home life, complete with loving mother, foolish daughters and a spunky son (a young Mickey Rooney, a seasoned pro at age 11). But out on the streets, anything goes. Cops and crooks are free and loose with dialogue full of ethnic slurs and sexual innuendo; references are made to "hopped up mugs" doing crazy crimes, while the mob rubout looks like something from a Nazi torture dungeon. Bad crime lord Belmonte may be Italian or of ethnic Jewish origin, it's difficult to tell sometimes. The basic idea advanced is that the decent Americans are established Anglos and the criminal vermin are all uncouth, foreign immigrants. The nasty Boogeyman face seen behind the main credits isn't all that much different than a Nazi caricature of an Evil Jew stereotype. J. Carroll Naish's subhuman thug is given the name "Pietro Cholo" -- the writers apparently can't decide whether they want to demean Italians or Mexicans.
The direction of Charles Brabin (The Mask of Fu Manchu) is merely serviceable, but MGM's stunt directors stage some good chases on the streets of Culver City, and Norbert Brodine's lighting finds more than a few expressive nighttime compositions. One good angle through an apartment window shows Daisy staging a shimmy dance (she just throws her arms up and starts shakin') for the poor deluded Ed; it's clear that the prospect of sleeping with Daisy cancels out considerations of the law, honor and family ties. Daisy likes Ed but she likes Belmonte's money more. She forces Ed to cooperate by threatening to leave him.
Beast of the City eventually works its way to a moral position not that much different from Dirty Harry, made forty years later: nobody appreciates the police, so the only answer is for good cops to take the law into their own hands. The crusading citizens' committees can't clean up the town when goons like Belmonte and their tricky lawyers can buy off the civil government and weaklings like Ed. In a conclusion very similar to that of The Wild Bunch, Fitzpatrick, his loyal detectives and a repentant Ed storm Belmonte's victory party and force the gangsters into a violent, apocalyptic showdown, a suicide gesture for the good of society. Beast of the City was supposedly made to counter the negative effects of those "violent, immoral gangster films", yet shows just as much sin and a lot more bloodshed.
Walter Huston plays Fitzpatrick as a rigid disciplinarian, eager to whip his troops into shape -- the scene where his precinct captains smile in anticipation of his harsh reforms is a big boost for the honor of the police force ... just don't compare it to the L.A.P.D. of 1932, whatever you do. Jean Harlow has a bigger role than in Public Enemy and in a typically revealing wardrobe, comes off as a major attraction. She's given her share of slick dialogue too, and handles it quite well.
Warners' Archive Collection presentation of Beast of the City is a good but not exceptional transfer of this wonderful "law 'n' order" gem. The older Turner logo up front indicates that the transfer is at least as old as the 1990s. The un-restored image may not be able to compete with newer digital jobs but the film still looks attractive, and only a line or two of poorly recorded dialogue gets lost in the un-optimized sound track. The Archives philosophy is to make as many vault titles as possible accessible to collectors, and this is a more than satisfactory copy until something better comes along.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beast of the City rates:
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