CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
I had wanted to see Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 gangster film “City Streets” for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed Mamoulian’s stylishly-directed films–“Applause,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Mark of Zorro”–and this one was based on an original treatment by Dashiell Hammett and was photographed by Lee Garmes. What could go wrong? Well, you could cast Gary Cooper in the lead as The Kid, a stranded rodeo cowboy turned carny trick-shot artist. I like Cooper as an actor, but his acting style is antithetical to that needed to convincingly play a hood. I never bought his rise from new recruit, sucked into the beer racket to get funds to defend his girl–a girl whom he believes was wrongly accused of aiding in an underworld killing, while we know that she is in fact guilty–to a guy riding shotgun on a load of bootleg booze, to a derby-hatted, fur-collared coat wearing, limousine-owning top gunman for Big Fella Maskal’s mob. I thought that Sylvia Sidney was fine as the girl who learns too late that crime is a sucker’s game, and Paul Lukas, early in his career before he assumed a more dignified mien did some good work as the treacherous Big Fella whose hearty smile, extended hand and cheery “No hard feelings” is usually the prelude to a hit. But here’s where the film falters. We assume that it’s The Kid who is carrying out those hits, but we never see him in action. Yes, when Maskal tries having him put out of the way so that he can move in on Sidney, we see The Kid cleverly turn the tables on a pair of out-of-town assassins and send them packing. But this sort of forbearance isn’t what one expects from a gangster film.
The problem with “City Streets” is that it isn’t your typical rise-and-fall-of-a -badman saga–not only is Cooper seen to be not all that bad but, in those halcyon pre-Code days, he even rides off into the sunset with Sidney, unpunished for his foray into A Life of Crime–it isn’t a beer-and-blood saga–we never really get to see how Big Fella’s operation actually works–and it segues into a locked-room murder mystery after Big Fella Maskal is shot and killed. In fact, two odd things happen here. First, The Kid announces that HE is now the new boss, and gets no blow-back from Maskal’s other faithful followers, and then he proceeds to shield Sidney from the vengeance of the mob. She was alone with Big Fella when he was shot, she must have done it. Right? Wrong–it was Maskal’s cast-off former mistress who pulled the trigger and did it in such a way as to frame Sidney–for the second time in one film–for the deed. Although The Kid’s hunch proves correct and everything works out for the star-crossed lovers, this viewer felt that the film’s many “streets” never quite merged into one satisfying highway.