Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
50. The Beast Of The City (1932)
A police captain leads the fight against a vicious gangland chief. Starring Walter Huston, Jean Harlow, Wallace Ford, and Jean Hersholt. Story by W.R. Burnett. Dialogue continuity by John L. Mahin. Directed by Charles Brabin. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“When big city policemen are summoned to the site of a multiple murder, they discover the bodies of well-known gangsters. Captain Jim Fitzpatrick, who heads the investigation, suspects mobster Sam Belmonte of the crime and arrests him at his club. Though Belmonte is responsible, his lawyer Michaels gets him and his assistant, Pietro Cholo, released in a few minutes. Jim, who takes risks and is dedicated to his work, is constantly at odds with the chief of police over his inabaility to control organized crime. As a result, Jim is transferred to a quiet precinct out of town. Jim’s brother Ed, who is a vice officer, agrees to help get information about Belmonte and decides to question Daisy Stevens, Belmonte’s stenographer. After following Daisy to her apartment, Ed accepts her story that she has left Belmonte because of the murders and the two begin an affair. Sometime later, as Jim’s friends, Mac and Tom, are visiting him at the new precinct, they drive him to the site of a bank robbery-murder and catch the crooks as they are making their getaway. Because of publicity about the case, the mayor then decides to name him the new chief of police.
“Assuming the office, Jim tells his men that he will be cleaning up the town and expects their complete cooperation. With Sandy and Mac as his aides, Jim starts closing speakeasies immediately. That night, depressed because Jim has turned down his request for promotion to captain, Ed goes drinking with Daisy and takes an offer by Belmonte to find a safer route into the city for his “grapefruit” because he needs money to entertain Daisy. The next day, Jim offers Ed a career-advancing assignment to transport a shipment of money. Mac and Sandy, who are wary of Ed’s relationship with Daisy, then suggest to Jim that they secretly stay in the background to help Ed out if anything goes wrong. When Ed drunkenly tells Daisy about the job, she tells Cholo, who decides to steal the money, and because Daisy pretends that she wants to go away with him, Ed agrees to the plan. Sandy and Mac, who see the robbery but don’t know that Ed is in on it, follow the robbers, the Gorman brothers. During the chase, a child is killed by the thieves and Mac dies of a bullet wound.
“When the Gormans are brought in for questioning, one of the brothers confesses to a shocked Jim that Ed was in on it because he thinks that his brother is being beaten by policemen in another room. All three are then tried for robbery and murder, but Michaels gets them off by frightening witnesses and charging that the Gormans confessed only to stop being beaten. When the men are aquitted, the judge admonishes the obviously intimidated jury for their cowardliness. That night, while Jim despairs, Ed goes to him to beg forgiveness and offers to go to the newspapers with the truth. Jim tells Ed to go to Belmonte’s club and confront him at exactly 3:30 when Jim and his men will be right behind him. At the club, after Ed confronts Belmonte, Cholo shoots Ed, and a gun battle ensues between the police and Belmonte’s men. Many men on both sides are killed, including Ed, Sandy and Belmonte, who accidentally shoots Daisy. As Jim falls to the floor, mortally wounded, he reaches for the hand of his brother.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Intended as a rebuttal to the Gangster craze typified by classics like Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), The Beast Of The City (1932) was M-G-M’s attempt to glorify the coppers who too often were the patsies in these films. It opened with this message from President Herbert Hoover: “Instead of the glorification of cowardly gangsters, we need the glorification of policemen who do their duty and give their lives in public protection. If the police had the vigilant, universal backing of public opinion in their communities, if they had the implacable support of the prosecuting authorities and the courts — I am convinced that our police would stamp out the excessive crime which has disgraced some of our great cities.” However, the general consensus, from both the studio and the public, was that the picture did little to change the course of the genre (which had reached its pinnacle in the year prior — save Scarface, whose wide release was postponed due to state censor concerns) and instead merely reinforced the dramatic, bloody appeal of the gangster on film. In fact, many cite the final shootout sequence — in which every major character is slain (aside from the protagonist’s wife and kids, one of which is played by a young, uncredited Mickey Rooney) — as among the era’s most graphic and violent offerings. (I’m not sure I’d go that far; with all the hype, I think you’ll consider it quite tame visually; dramatically, however, it still packs a figurative punch.)
So, in spite of its decision to track the cop’s quest to obliterate the underworld (as opposed to the gangster’s rise and descent within the underworld — like in the two aforementioned classics), The Beast Of The City is essentially another Gangster picture. Louis B. Mayer reportedly felt the same — opting to reduce the film’s publicity and move it to the bottom half of double bills. But while the movie attempts some moral righteousness (partly because it couldn’t compete in this genre with the grittier Warner Brothers) while unintentionally furthering the Gangster flick’s aesthetic charms, the narrative, by the author of Little Caesar, is unique. The story’s perspective comes not from a crook, but from a tough no-nonsense cop (Huston), whose personal life is squeaky clean. This, needless to say, makes for a more boring anchor than Rico. Yet… since the picture’s drama comes from the protagonist’s relationship with his brother (Ford), who falls for the vampy charms of Harlow — in an important stepping stone to her future stardom — we can appreciate the different structure, which still supplies the anticipated dramatic weight. And ultimately, if there’s any complaint with this plot, it’s not that our hero isn’t as complex or “bad” as others, it’s that we have to leap the logistical hurdle regarding Ford’s motivations. I mean, Harlow is sexy (and claims to like it rough)… but the story point is a stretch.
Nevertheless, the film’s narrative novelty becomes a part of its appeal, especially because it upholds the violence and dramatic tension inherent within the genre. Is that enough to make it an Essential? Yes, I think so. I’d like to be able to laud the performances for being dynamic, but aside from Harlow, whose screen presence was blossoming with each appearance, there’s no player that deserves accolades beyond the basic functionality of servicing the story (like Huston). (Of course, this isn’t to be taken for granted either…) So, indeed, The Beast Of The City is an interesting watch because it’s M-G-M’s best Gangster flick — all the more ironic because it’s supposed to be a “cop flick,” a rebuke to the whole genre. And while its story may lend support to its anti-crime message, the source of its pathos and the thematic associations that stem from contending with this very subject matter only glamorize the things we love about this time in film history: its human roughness. The Gangster film is a staple of the Pre-Code era. And this is an unwitting staple of the Gangster genre — therefore, it’s a Pre-Code Essential.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Wings!