#25 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Fritz Lang was brought in late to this project after it had languished for a few years for a few reasons, invited to the project by his female star of his last couple of movies, Sylvia Sidney. I wonder if he had had more time with the material beforehand he could have ironed out some of the disconnect between different sections of the film. Knowing his work, he probably would have pushed it further into a straight drama instead of the combination drama/comedy that is the end result. That’s not supposed to be a big hit against the movie, though. The discordant nature of the storytelling is actually a source of fun with the comedy keeping things light without quite losing the commitment to the actual emotional throughline that runs through the film. It’s just kind of odd when the light comedy/drama film ends with, essentially, a slapstick routine.
Mr. Morris (Harry Carey) runs a department store where he offers job opportunities to ex-convicts to help them get their lives back on track. He tries to keep their employment and past as much a secret as possible, not even revealing their past incarcerations to any of the other employees, and it’s working out for him. There’s been no backsliding so far, and they’re doing good jobs. One such employee is Joe (George Raft), a former member of the mob who has developed a nice little relationship with Helen (Sidney), another employee of the department store. He’s dedicated to moving across the country to California since his parole is over, though, and on his last night in town, the two go dancing. She realizes the depth of her feelings for him and, as the bus is pulling away, she proclaims it and says that she’ll marry him if he wants. He immediately jumps out, and they get married that night.
The problem is that Helen has a secret. She’s also an ex-con (for a crime that never gets explained), and she’s still on parole that includes the rule that she cannot marry. She keeps this a secret from Joe. This seems thin, but there is an established reason for it. Joe talks about wanting his girl pure in the context of having never loved another man. Going to jail is impure, so she hides it from him. He ends up reacting badly to the later reveal, but it still feels thin. I think it would have worked in a more purely comedic context (like in a Leo McCarey movie, for instance), but the dramatic tone of the material isn’t really matched by the actual weight of it.
Still, they have to put up a fiction that they are not married. She gives the excuse that Mr. Morris doesn’t want his employees marrying each other, a lie that Joe eventually uncovers and helps seed his nascent distrust of her. At the same time, the old mob, led by his fellow Morris employee Cuffy (Roscoe Karns), is trying to get Joe to join them on a big job to rip off the Morris Department Store, and after the reveal of Helen’s past, Joe is finally ready to give in.
Now, the introduction of the gang happens at about the halfway point, and it’s something of a showstopper. The introduction is necessary dramatically and structurally to happen at some point (though a more polished script would have had it after about fifteen minutes instead of forty-five), but that’s not the showstopper part of it. The sequence is an outright German Expressionistic and Soviet-style edited marvel as the group of men gather around a table and reminisce about their time in the clink. It becomes rhythmic auditorily and visually as they chant their story back and forth. It’s really something else and doesn’t fit in the movie stylistically at all. I’m glad it’s there, though. It’s good.
The plan goes through but gets stopped in what is the oddest way possible. Helen presents to the gang how little money they’ll make from the robbery, proving with math that crime doesn’t pay. It’s so ridiculous that it has to be intentionally funny (it might not be), but I was giggling through the whole thing nonetheless. And then there’s a slapstick bit where the guys all work together to ensure that Joe and Helen get back together.
Yeah, it’s a hodgepodge of a film, but I actually quite enjoyed it. It feels like Lang taking lighter material and pushing it his own, more serious-minded, direction while the charm of Sidney and Raft create the balance between the lighter and darker parts of the story. It’s funnier more than moving, making me feel like it would have been better as an outright screwball comedy rather than being somewhere in between.