This Day and Age (1934) ***

An early DeMille talkie altogether different from the wildly imaginative material that had been preoccupying him hitherto: it sticks to a single course, a single narrative and a single style.
It is deadly serious, playing somewhat in the manner of politically conservative populist melodramas like Gabriel Over the White House, The Beast of the City and the early Capra films, and then some. In it, a group of high-school students kidnap a gangster (Charles Bickford) and force him to confess to the murder of a Jewish tailor after a jury release him for lack of evidence.
There is a mesmerising sequence (usually dubbed morally 'disturbing' or even 'terrifying' by pious critics) in which the villain is suspended by ropes over a pit of rats which is plainly, if not openly, inspired by the kangaroo court scene from Fritz Lang's M, made a couple of years earlier. But Lang's film is made morally ambiguous by the fact that that the vigilante court trying Peter Lorre's child murderer is comprised of professional criminals; Lorre's objection that they are knowingly immoral whereas he is to some extent a victim of impulses he loathes but cannot control carries some weight. Here, the inquisitors are clean-cut heroes and the defendant the equivalent of Lang's jury: DeMille allows for no ambiguity of interpretation. We are expected to approve of this act of vigilante justice, and of course we do.
The scene, and the whole film, is utterly thrilling: thrilling dramatically, cinematically, emotionally, and in the sheer unusualness of its stance. Of course, modern critics affect to be shocked by the film’s political message: it is, they say, fascist. As Michael Winner remarked when the same tag was applied to Death Wish: "People bandy this word around as if they knew what it meant."