#72 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is the dangerous part of not worrying too much about the pieces that feed into your ending. Yes, everything in the ending was set up, but the first bulk of the film is so overstuffed, unfocused, and downright dull that the fact that the ending is a fulfillment of the rest of the story ends up not meaning all that much. The story was simply not that interesting to begin with. This is an increasingly rare misstep in Ford’s burgeoning career.
Born Reckless tells the story of Louis Beretti (Edmund Lowe), a low-level hood in his little corner of New York City. He and his friends run a small time racket, mostly trying to rob jewelry stores. I will say one thing about this film: it’s opening shot is great, just absolutely great. It’s a tracking shot that follows a truck full of soldiers heading off to join in the fight in Europe singing “Over There”, the perennial soldierly anthem of World War I, continuing forward after the truck turns to the right, and we see the lookout man in front of the jewelry store. This is strong, economical, and visual filmmaking and storytelling that’s creating a stark impression of the contrast between the young men going off to war and the young men staying behind to commit crimes.
The heist gets aborted when their wheelman attracts too much attention, and they get away safe. Louis heads home where his immigrant mother and father, speaking in broken English with Italian accents, welcome him home with open arms while his kid sister, Rosa (Marguerite Churchill) is hosting a young man in the other room. The young man is hoping to marry Rosa, and Louis needs to take him to his friends to size him up, much to the dismay of one of his gang who had had sights on Rosa. The police pick Louis and some of his gang up, though, and in a move that seems like only could happen in a movie, the judge sends Louis to fight on the front lines of the war, keeping any charges in limbo until he returns.
The movie then becomes a World War I soldiering movie, complete with an introduction to the loosest and most information start to basic training I’ve ever seen, baseball in France, and a hurried battle scene that’s more a collection of moments than anything. And before you know it, we’re back to New York.
This movie really does take on way too much. I thought the film was going to stay in France for the bulk of the film when it came up. It made sense. It would be the personal journey of a young, listless, and criminal man learning duty and honor in the service of his country, but it’s over before we get a sense of much of anything.
Louis comes back, falls for the sister of a friend he made back in France but she’s due to marry someone else. He ends up running a huge nightclub somehow while his old gang kind of just remain in the old neighborhood. There’s a kidnapping plot introduced with about twenty minutes left, an assassination, and the ending really does use all the elements that came before. However, none of that matters because by the halfway point I was just bored by what I was watching.
Nothing was connecting. We just kept jumping from one storyline to another. It never felt like we were following one man on a journey with an emotional core. It was just a series of scene strung together and cut down to the bone. So, the mechanics of the story are there, but the emotional hook is missing.
Born Reckless is more of what I expected from this era of Ford when I started. There’s a technical polish obviously present in terms of the production, but ultimately it’s a poorly written and rushed affair that doesn’t really highlight Ford’s strengths all that well. This is a disappointment considering the strength of the films that have come before it, warts and all. This is mostly just warts.