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CITY STREETS (director: Rouben Mamoulian; screenwriters: Oliver H.P. Garrett/Max Marcin/based on a story by Dashiell Hammett; cinematographer: Lee Garmes; editor: William Shea; music: Sidney B. Cutner; cast: Gary Cooper (The Kid), Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Paul Lukas (Big Fella Maskal), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Stanley Fields (Blackie), Betty Sinclair (Pansy), Bert Hanlon (Baldy), William Boyd (McCoy), Wynne Gibson (Agnes); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: E. Lloyd Sheldon; Paramount; 1931)
“A romance story cloaked in the garb of an outdated crime drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A romance story cloaked in the garb of an outdated crime drama about bootleggers during Prohibition. Al Capone liked the film, identifying with the mobsters who acted like businessmen with clean hands. Rouben Mamoulian (“Applause”-1929), in his second film, directs in an arty style that creates an unreal world of gangsters and swells. It’s a film that flourishes in its cinematic touches–all the many killings take place off-camera, a long cigar ash is used to establish an alibi based on time and the hit contracts are handled with subtle offhand comments rather than brazen Cagney-like gangster bluster. It’s adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s screenplay.

Gary Cooper plays a rube, known only as the Kid, who works as a sharpshooter in an amusement park shooting gallery–pleased to show off his great skills as a marksman. His girlfriend is Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney) the daughter of Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee), a mobster in the beer rackets. The clean-cut nice guy refuses to join the rackets and the easy money, despite Nan’s bubbly urgings about how wonderful it is to work for the mob.

Nan is caught trying to throw away the murder weapon her dad used to bump off Blackie (Stanley Fields), a gangster running things for the Big Fella (Paul Lukas), who got into disfavor because he objected to the boss’s advances on his girlfriend Agnes (Wynne Gibson). When Nan is not sprung by the mob as promised by Pop, she goes to the stir for not squealing and becomes embittered with the beer racketeers for not fulfilling their promise. She is only glad her boyfriend is not a gangster. But to her surprise, the Kid is sweet talked into joining the gang by Pop for the noble reason of raising money for her expensive lawyers and quickly rises to a top position.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

Upon Nan’s release, the womanizing Big Fella makes a play for her over the Kid’s objections. The upset Big Fella gets his henchmen to hit the Kid but fails. Nan decides to pretend to the Big Fella she wants to be with him, but goes over to his house with the intention of bumping him off. The Big Fella discovers the gun in her purse and throws it on a chair. Agnes, who was just giving the boot as the Big Fella’s moll, lingers in the house packing and when she gets the chance picks up the gun and plugs the Big Fella in an act of revenge. The Kid returns and saves Nan from a one-way buggy ride with the mobsters, who think she killed their boss as Agnes claims. The Kid also rescues Nan from this corrupt way of city life and drives off with her after quitting the beer racket.

The pleasures in Mamoulian’s gangster film are derived from the striking visual style, which is done in the same manner as Sternberg’s Underworld (1927).

REVIEWED ON 10/26/2004 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”