(director: Lewis Milestone; screenwriters: Eddie Adams/Del Andrews/Harry Behn/from the play by Bartlett Cormack; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Eddie Adams; music: Robert Israel; cast: Thomas Meighan (Captain McQuigg), Marie Prevost (Helen Hayes), Louis Wolheim (Nick Scarsi), George E. Stone (Joe Scarsi), Lucien Prival (Chick), John Darrow (Ames, reporter), Richard Gallagher (Miller, reporter), Lee Moran (Pratt, reporter), Henry Sedley (Spike Corcoran, a bootlegger), Pat Collins (Patrolman Johnson), Sam De Grasse (District Attorney Welch), Dan Wolheim (Sergeant Turck); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Howard Hughes; Paramount; 1928-silent)
“It’s easy to understand how it gripped audiences during the more primitive days of filmmaking.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This lost film was restored recently by Flicker Alley after being held in storage by UNLV as part of the agreement with its billionaire producer Howard Hughes’ trust fund. Hughes was only 23 when he produced the film. It was nominated for Best Picture during the first Academy Awards. Meeting with great success, it started the cycle of gritty gangster pictures that continued in this style right through the thirties. It was remade by Hughes as producer in 1951 with Robert Ryan in the leading gangster role.
The film’s roots are in the theater. It’s based on the hit Broadway play by Chicago Daily News reporter Bartlett Cormack and is a thinly disguised portrait of a corrupt city government and police force firmly in the pocket of a mobster who resembles Al Capone. The chief criminal was named Nick Scarsi, which is close to Capone’s nickname of “Scarface;” while Chicago’s mayor Big Bill Thompson becomes in the film “The Old Man.” Both the play and the film were banned in Chicago.
Lewis Milestone (“The North Star”/”All Quiet on the Western Front”/”Edge of Darkness”) directs it as both a gangster film and a political exposé one, as it’s set in contemporary Chicago. It’s an interesting curio that doesn’t quite hold up artistically to today’s standards but it’s easy to understand how it gripped audiences during the more primitive days of filmmaking.
The tough and honest cop, Captain McQuigg (Thomas Meighan), is stuck in a corrupt police force backed by a corrupt City Hall “Organization” from the mayor on down. Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim) is the flamboyantly dressed immigrant bootlegger kingpin, arch criminal and murderer, who operates openly because he bought off the Organization and delivers them votes in his ward. He’s the captain’s nemesis and he’s willing to do anything to destroy him, even if it means breaking the law. After a bootleg war between the rival crime organizations of Spike Corcoran’s (Henry Sedley) and Scarsi’s gang, Spike is killed at a birthday party for Nick’s baby brother Joe (George E. Stone)–someone kept out of the rackets. But they can’t make the murder charge stick against Nick. The crooked politicians get McQuigg transferred to a precinct in the sticks to get him out of Nick’s way.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
One night the slimy college student, Joe, is taking tough cookie nightclub singer Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost), a gold digger, for a drive in his car though warned by dad to stay away from her because she’s poison (according to dad, all women are cursed). Helen refuses his advances, holding out for marriage. When she gets out of the car, Joe panics at seeing a cop and is involved in a hit-and-run of an innocent pedestrian. He’s brought to McQuigg’s precinct and booked for manslaughter under the phony name he gives, and when a crooked judge has him out on a habeus corpus–the captain rips it up, thumbing his nose at the law just like the gangster’s do. Later in the night, Nick boldly enters the precinct house and kills the officer (Pat Collins) who arrested Joe and won’t take a bribe. But with the election in a few days, the Organization balks at releasing him because there’s a witness willing to testify that Nick killed the cop. Instead they get Nick to escape and a member of the Organization, working for the corrupt DA, plugs him. Since Nick was going to give up names and the foul deeds of the Organization, eliminating him doesn’t stop the wave of corruption in the city.
Because in the end good doesn’t put an end to evil, this film sets a standard for the modern gangster film where the gangster is treated as a hero.
REVIEWED ON 3/27/2007 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/