City Streets (1931)

“You’re lucky your boyfriend ain’t mixed up in no racket.”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Sylvia Sidney) of a racketeer (Guy Kibbee) goes to prison after he shoots his boss and hands her the gun. When Sidney’s sharpshooter boyfriend (Gary Cooper) gives up his dreams of a circus career to earn money working for her new boss (Paul Lukas), Sidney worries about their future — especially when Lukas expresses more interest in her than in his jealous moll (Wynne Gibson).

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Review:
Rouben Mamoulian’s follow-up to his visually innovative talkie Applause (1929)
was this early gangster film, based on a short story by Dashiell Hammett. Sidney is luminous in her breakthrough role, nicely inhabiting a complex female character far removed from her portrayal the following year as a doomed factory worker in An American Tragedy (1932). Her character here is first introduced through a complicit wink she exchanges with her father (Kibbee, solid in his part) before insistently nagging Cooper to join her in a life of crime. She remains solid as steel while taking the rap for her ‘Pop’, only gradually revealing her softer side. Mamoulian (assisted by DP Lee Garmes) once again displays highly evocative visuals, as well as a unique voiceover while Sidney is in prison; this one is worth a look despite the disappointingly far-fetched ending.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Nan
  • Lee Garmes’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for Mamoulian’s innovative direction and Sidney’s performance.

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One Response to “City Streets (1931)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for Mamoulian’s direction, Sidney’s performance and Hammett’s story. As per my post in ‘Film Junkie’ (fb):

    “Kid, there’s gonna be trouble, I know it. Let’s be sensible!”

    ‘City Streets’ (1931) [complete in one clip] Most modern audiences are likely to remember Sylvia Sidney for her hilarious turn as Juno, the cynical social worker in the afterlife, in Tim Burton’s ‘Beetlejuice’. But a lot of her equally memorable work was brought to us in the ’30s. Though she was often cast (for example, in Hitchcock’s ‘Sabotage’) as more of an innocent (perhaps because of her angelic features), she could easily be tough – as witness her performance as Nan in this zippy, 80-minute Prohibition tale, with a story by Dashiell Hammett (that clearly has his snazzy mark all over it). ’30s movies can now sometimes be a particular chore to sit through but this one’s directed by Rouben Mamoulian – who had a wonderful visual flair and knew how to make a story like this crackle. (Here he also shows he’s a natural with subtext.) The last 5 minutes are a pip (as Hammett seemed to have a thing for very… fast… cars).

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