Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
American crime movies were crippled by the 1934 enforcement of the Production Code, which almost completely insured that no film could be made describing the way crime really functioned in America. Anything glorifying a gangster was off limits, as was any reference to actual crimes. Because of the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping case, stories detailing abductions were taboo. No kidnappings could even be shown on screen. In short, movies were not granted the right to free speech. The Code that supposedly made screens more decent was also used to suppress anything that a small group of conservative church people -- actually a group of ambitious 'reformers' using religion as a shield - wanted to suppress.
What this mean is that movies suddenly began extolling the virtues of crime enforcement and the F.B.I. Warners' "G-Men" made federal agent James Cagney behave more or less like his cocky killer in The Public Enemy, only with a badge. Vigilantism in movies took a big upswing, but movies that might criticize the status quo or truthfully state the nature of crime in society -- poverty, governmental indifference, civic corruption -- were out. Edgar J. Hoover took advantage of the situation to use movies to publicize his pursuit of headlines about catching flashy bank robbers, despite the fact that the F.B.I. did relatively little to halt the progress of organized crime, which by 1935 had found its way into every moderate-sized city in the country.
But Fritz Lang's MGM movie about lynching (Fury) had to ignore the subject of race. When Warners' socially-conscious anti-Lynching They Won't Forget dared to look at a real case of Southerners lynching a Northerner, the victim's Jewish identity was dropped.
In the spring of 1935 the real-life Weyerhaeuser kidnapping case inspired Darryl F. Zanuck to take on a kidnapping story. He hired Kubec Glasmon, the writer of The Public Enemy, to get around the Code rules, which he did. Was the public angry about kidnappings? You bet, thanks to the newspapers' use of kidnapping cases to build circulation. Zanuck tailor-fit Show Them No Mercy! to play to the public fear, and to give them the vicarious thrill of fighting back, to unleash the vigilante inside.
Show Them No Mercy! appropriately begins with the main titles written as sensational scare newspaper headlines. 1 A prologue shows a wealthy family, the Hansens, scraping up a $200,000 ransom to retrieve their kidnapped son. We then move on to a young couple who have taken a wrong turn in their old car. Joe Martin (Edward Norris of They Won't Forget and Decoy) and his wife Loretta (Rochelle Hudson), with their baby and their dog, are lost in a storm and take shelter at an abandoned house, which they discover has new locks, a fire ready to start in the fireplace, and canned food in the kitchen. Not long have they settled down, than the four desperate Hansen kidnappers arrive, the suave leader Tobey (Cesar Romero), the sadistic Pitch (Bruce Cabot), the crippled, soft-hearted Gimp (Warren Hymer) and the clumsy, thick-headed Buzz (Edward Brophy). They have their ransom money already. Pitch wants to kill the Martins but satisfies himself with idle tortures to poor Buzz. In the morning Tobey takes Joe to town to pass some of the bills, to see if they've been marked. They get back just in time to prevent a drunken Pitch from killing Loretta. Pitch is maddened into shooting the Martin's dog, after it runs out into the road with some of the loot in his mouth. The group panics when the radio tells them that the money is marked. A rift develops, and the gang breaks up. But what will happen to the Martins. Even Tobey agrees that they have to be killed.
Glasmon's script dodges the Code right from the start, by not showing the kidnapping. The story proper begins when the crooks already have the money. After that it's about the nice young (and ridiculously naïve) couple being terrorized, and looking for an opportunity to strike back. Rochelle Hudson is good in sort of a Sylvia Sidney- type
part. The script doesn't take into account much beyond emotions -- when the gang might still be convinced to let them go, she blurts out that she'll remember all of their faces and see that they are turned in if it's the last thing she does. The bad guys threaten her -- at one point it even looks as if Pitch is considering rape over shooting her -- but nobody directly threatens the baby. Edward Brophy's uneasy comic relief is excellent -- he goes chasing after an annoying woodpecker with a machine gun, and falls through a rotten part of the porch. City slicker Cesar Romero dolls himself up and sings "Oh, You Nasty Man" while cooking eggs. Warren Hymer is supposed to be stupid, but figures out an excellent trick to swap some of his marked money for clean, so he can buy a train ticket.
Romero is terrific, and Bruce Cabot (King Kong) atypically effective as an out-of-control goon. Both Edward Brophy and Warren Hymer are likeable, putting our focus on the bad guys at all times, as opposed to the rather unrealistic 'good family', who seem too calm about their ordeal. The loutish Brophy is a favorite in dozens of films; his most memorable bit is in the horror picture Mad Love, when he walks to the guillotine. Warren Hymer is just a poor sap. Usually he hasn't this much screen time, and only know did I notice that he looks like he could be the bad brother of Dick York from the TV show Bewitched.
The attitude toward the Feds is jaw-dropping. They would like to give the kidnappers marked money, but the choice is up to the Hansens, who decline. Why take chances. Then it turns out that the FBI has ignored the Hansens and used marked money anyway. The lead G-Man speaks to Edgar J. Hoover on the phone. The rest of the movie works things out so that doing things the FBI way is the best. Every clerk and gas station attendant is on the lookout for the marked money, and public cooperation (and a pack of crazy coincidences) wrap up the case in less than a day.
But the movie takes the side of the family. Foolhardy Joe provokes the kidnappers, that threaten to kill them but never do. The crooks split up just as the cops close in, machine guns blazing. The remaining bad guys betray each other. The movie chooses this point to have Joe and Loretta behave like characters from an action serial. Loretta goes all 'Ma Barker' on us, picking up a machine gun and mowing down the last criminal point blank. Animated machine gun hits are shown on the victim's bare chest, a flagrant violation of the Production Code. The rules don't apply, if a film's politics are 'correct.'
The unusually violent Show Them No Mercy! didn't start a fad. Along with horror film, hard-bitten crime movies dried up in the second half of the thirties, with a handful of Warners films making a splash. Show Them No Mercy! now impresses with its brash nature, even though it is carefully confected to skirt the rules. Interestingly, the story was recycled for Zanuck's1951 western Rawhide. The original writers aren't given credit, only Dudley Nichols. Yet characters align quite clearly, as do incidents. Substituting for the dog when the bad guy takes target practice, is a baby. And the prisoners try to dig their way to freedom, just like in the original.
I've read about Show Them No Mercy! a number of times in books; it's a clear example of a movie that panders to the audience's sense of outrage. Viewers in 1935 surely cheered Rochelle Hudson's shooting, just the way English audiences surely cheered when an old post office worker takes an axe to a German soldier in the morale-building 'fight the Nazis on our home turf' wartime thriller Went the Day Well? I think it's dangerous when films manipulate audiences into unleashing their fear and hatred as a communal experience. Audiences were also vocal in their approval of the similar revenge-vigilante pictures of the '70s -- Michael Winner's Death Wish just being the prime example. 2
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of Show Them No Mercy! is a reasonble=to-good transfer of this vintage title, not a new restoration but not an old file tape either. The B&W image is rich and the audio good. The show is intact. It's a 20th Century picture but carries a full 20th Century Fox logo from the 1940s; we're told it was reissued in 1948, which accounts for that.
The film comes in a three-movie pack, with Coney Island and Deep Waters. Each is a separate disc. It has been available as a separate item from the Fox Cinema Archives since 2012.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Show Them No Mercy! rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 31, 2015
1. The socially critical, incredibly depressing noir film Try and Get Me! would make the newspaper-lynching connection even more explicit.
2. Cannon's execrable Chuck Norris movies were bad enough, but the trailers for their Death Wish sequels practically cheered on vigilante murder. Playing up to modern frustrations, the snarling narration checked off a litany of outrages: They stole his money! They killed his best friend! They raped his wife! They killed his dog! They returned his videotapes without rewinding!
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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