City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian / U.S., 1931):

From beer to ocean, from metropolis to nature on a speeding buggy, that’s the surrealism at play here, Dashiell Hammett’s. Trucks as they roar over the camera and the tinkling of bottles at the distillery figure in the opening city symphony, promptly added is the pugnacious refrain ("No hard feelings?") which, followed by a handshake, becomes the kiss of death. Gangland baby (Sylvia Sidney) and naïve cowpoke (Gary Cooper) at the fairgrounds, sharpshooters in love navigating through symbols (crashing waves, caged and stuffed birds, porcelain cats). Taught to keep mum, she’s caught getting rid of the gun after dad (Guy Kibbee) bumps off a fellow hoodlum (the police station reappears in Le Doulos) and ends up behind bars; inside, Sidney vows to leave the racket while outside Cooper embraces bootlegging for The Big Fellow (Paul Lukas). "The Law don’t look so good when it works both ways, uh?" Rouben Mamoulian’s take on American crime is a European one akin to Sternberg’s, tough and dreamlike: An underworld party is literally punctured with some nasty business involving a fork (a band playing "Happy Days Are Here Again" swiftly covers it up), yet the idea of an unfolding murder measured in the ash of a cigar might be out of Cocteau's Le Sang d’un Poète. The high-angled view of the checkered-floor mansion gives it a de Hooch perspective, the low-angled view of prison walls and windows slants them toward Brutalist architecture. The heroine’s inner monologue in the cell is an elaboration of Hitchcock (Murder!), who in turn elaborated Mamoulian’s overlapping close-ups of Cooper and Sidney (dolly-in, dissolve, dolly-out) for The Wrong Man’s crucial revelation. Quite the wry gangster sonata, with a vengeful moll (Wynne Gibson) and a car chase on the edge of the abyss setting the stage for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Cinematography by Lee Garmes. With William Boyd, Stanley Fields, Betty Sinclair, and Robert Homans. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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