City Streets (1931) **
City Streets was the second Hollywood project of Rouben Mamoulian, the maverick genius of talking cinema who would go on to direct such innovative masterpieces as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Love Me Tonight (1932) and Becky Sharp (1935).
Like his first film, the musical Applause (1929), City Streets sets its narrative against vibrantly used real locations, making use of unconventional angles and strikingly unusual, at times poetic, imagery, showing again that the supposed technological limitations of early sound cinema needed only imagination and skill to be overcome.
The film is also famous for inventing the cinematic convention of the voice-over, used by Mamoulian against the objections of the studio, who feared audiences would be confused by the sound of disembodied voices.
The only story Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett conceived expressly for the screen, the film stars an excellent Sylvia Sidney (replacing Clara Bow after her much publicised nervous breakdown) and a young Gary Cooper as lovers whose relationship is cut short when she is caught carrying the gun used by her stepfather to kill a rival bootlegger.
In prison she comes to reject the values of the criminal lifestyle she had previously urged Cooper to take up, and on release is horrified to discover that he has become henchman to ‘the big fella’, the lecherous head of the bootlegging organisation.
Though ultimately respectful of conventional morality, the film features a number of instances of crimes going unpunished (impossible after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934) and is among the most cynical of the early gangster films in its total disenchantment with city living, which it portrays as almost inevitably corrupting. None of the gangsters are especially unpleasant as people, and some, such as Guy Kibbee’s jovial Pop, are downright likeable. It is not the basically ordinary individuals drawn to this world but only their trade, presented by Mamoulian as a fact of urban life to be avoided rather than resisted, that is repugnant.
With all of its killings kept off-screen (conveyed through symbolic devices such as a shot of the victim’s hat floating along the river), City Streets is easily the most restrained of the first gangster talkies, but whether because or in spite of this more poetic approach, it was apparently considered the best of them by no less an authority than Al Capone himself.