#27 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is a surprisingly toothless historical drama that carries my interest through the entire film, but leaves me feeling unfulfilled. Reading up on it afterwards, Barbary Coast was adapted from a novel by Herbert Asbury that was far more lurid in its depiction of life in San Francisco in the early 1850s. Softened down to a film that could pass the Hays Code, we end up getting a decent little love triangle with a heavily sanitized look at a really rough town around it. The need to make the characters better than they should makes the bad guy less threatening, the good guy too pure, and the girl in between too ill defined for a real impact. It’s not bad, but it just ends up blunted and unengaging by the end.
Miriam Hopkins plays Mary Rutledge on a ship that has made it around Cape Horn and arrives in San Francisco looking for her fiancé only to discover that he had recently been murdered by the local casino owner, Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson). Mary had no affection for her lost love, having agreed to the marriage in the sole hope of getting rich, so she feels nothing against going straight to Chamalis and presenting herself to him as a conquest, despite his reputation relayed to her by the locals upon her arrival. Already you can see where some of these edges have been softened. Mary is the only attractive white woman most of these men have seen in months, and she presents herself to the head of crime in a lawless city. What does Chamalis do with her? He makes her run his roulette table, and that’s it.
Chamalis and Mary form some kind of relationship, but it’s unclear what it actually is. There’s the professional side where he is her employer, but there’s also some ill-defined personal side where Chamalis demands that Mary love him genuinely. I would guess that there’s supposed to be some kind of sexual arrangement here, but, being produced under the Hays Code, it gets smoothed out to nothing but some thin melodramatic moments. He controls her, demands her love, and then sends her out to man the roulette table which she fixes so that gold miners looking to make it even richer can fill Chamalis’ coffers.
After some time, Mary goes for a ride in the rain one morning and gets trapped at a small one room building removed from San Francisco where she discovers Joel McCrea’s Jim Carmichael. Introduced really late in the film, about halfway through, Carmichael is just the best guy. He refuses to even remotely take advantage of Mary as she takes off her clothes to dry them before his fire. He offers her a ride into town, and they part ways having fallen in love. However, she has to go back to Chamalis and he’s set to go back east with the gold in his saddlebag.
And this is where the movie’s thinness begins to take a toll. Faced with a couple of days waiting for the tides and fog to be right, Carmichael goes to Chamalis’ casino and discovers that Mary works there. This breaks him…for some reason. Yes, she did say that she was only visiting some relatives on a ranch instead of telling him that she worked in the casino, but he is so angry and gets so drunk that he bets everything he has on black and loses. Faced with no money, he sets out to get a job with Chamalis to crawl his way to enough money to pay for his ticket back home. His quiet acquiescence into his sudden poverty and diminished state feels odd, perhaps because Carmichael was introduced too late into the film without given enough time to really flesh out and become a character.
In the background of all of this is life in San Francisco under the thumb of Chamalis. Along with Mary on the boat at the beginning was Colonel Cobb, a newspaper man coming to the West to start a newspaper. After he’s scared into playing Chamalis’ game under the threat of destroying his printing press, he does nothing but print anodyne stories like the weather, ignoring the growing insurrectionary attitude for law and order in the city. When Chamalis’s right hand man, Knuckles, kills Cobb in an altercation about a notice on his wall telling how Knuckles killed a man and got away with it, the town has suddenly had enough and begins forming a vigilante mob with Chamalis as the ultimate target. Chamalis’ grip on the town is probably the best part of the whole movie. His obvious control over the local judge in a trial absolving Knuckles of wrongdoing is subtly delivered by Robinson and threatening at once. The growing antagonism between the power structures and the people is palpably manifested through the character of Sawbuck whose friend Sandy was shot in the back by Knuckles. His manic search for anyone to help him in a city cowed into submission is a sideshow in the film, but it ends up providing a strong impetus for action that defines the film’s latter half.
What the final section of the movie amounts to is Mary seeking absolution from Jim for her part in robbing him blind by robbing Chamalis using the roulette table to do it, Jim getting to a ship to leave the city, Chamalis looking to get both Mary and Jim for crossing him, and the vigilante mobs coming for Chamalis. Even in Hawks’ lesser works, he is able to manage the different pieces coming together in a climax quite well, and this is really no exception.
Ultimately, though, I find the movie a bit unsatisfying. A combination of softening the harder edges too much along with a thin third of a romantic triangle, Barbary Coast doesn’t have the emotional investment necessary to carry through to the end. In terms of production, this reminds me of Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, a much better period piece long forgotten by most audiences because it actually spent the time to really flesh out its characters properly. Barbary Coast isn’t bad, but it’s ultimately a little forgettable.