Tuesday, January 20, 2009
[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]
Barbary Coast is a fine, solid melodrama that is nevertheless an anomaly in the early career of Howard Hawks. The film bears little trace of Hawks' imprint, perhaps because he came to the project relatively late: MGM's Samuel Goldwyn had been developing the idea for a long time, shuffling it through an endless series of directors, screenwriters and stars before finally handing the reins to Hawks. The director does an admirable job of shepherding the film through to completion, but the film, as entertaining as it often is, with plenty of memorable images scattered throughout, seldom actually feels like a true Hawks film. It's a story set in Gold Rush era San Francisco, and the film's primary aim is undoubtedly to capture something of the wild, lawless, sin-and-decadence aura of the city, a tall order in the context of the newly enacted Hays Code.
Even so, the film's best sequences tend to be the one that establish this milieu, that depict the setting in broad strokes. The opening is as atmospheric and foggy as the very similar opening of Hawks' later Only Angels Have Wings, as a ship pulls into the San Francisco harbor, carrying among its passengers Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), who is coming to the city to marry a man she doesn't love, but who she knows will at least give her security and stability. Instead, she finds that the man has been killed after losing all his money at a casino owned by the powerful Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson), who is the de facto ruler of the city on the strength of his crooked gambling palace. The opening is moody and dark, depicting Mary's arrival in the city amidst the all-encompassing fog, as she is instantly surrounded by the local men, excited by the incredibly rare arrival of a fresh-faced, glamorous woman in this muddy, filthy, rough-and-tumble town. She's propelled through the streets, literally carried aloft by the men over mud puddles, and her winding way through San Francisco, towards Chamalis' Bella Donna, provides an excuse for a tour of the city's vices and dark character. Ruffians chase "Chinamen" through the streets, taunting and threatening them, and a montage within the casino itself cuts fluidly among all the fights, drunken carousing, womanizing, and gambling going on in this den of sin. It's a great opening, evocative and beautifully shot as Hawks' conscious tribute to the nighttime cinematography of Josef von Sternberg's films.
Most of the rest of the film takes on a more conventional template, focusing in on the story of Mary and her tormented relationship with the slick, nasty Chamalis. Mary, shedding her scruples, latches onto the casino owner, becoming both his girl and the prize attraction at his crooked roulette wheels, where men are happy to lose all their money just for the privilege of standing next to this beautiful, flirtatious woman. Of course, it's not long before the obligatory second man arrives to complete the triangle, in the form of the New York poet Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea). Carmichael's the usual handsome dud one expects in these kind of romances, but at least there's a great scene where, after discovering that Mary is actually one of the "harpies" of San Francisco who lures men to give up their gold, the two wayward lovers engage in some spiteful, sharp-tongued repartee across a roulette table.
For the most part, though, the romance subplot limps along in the background, with the foreground devoted to actorly grandstanding. Robinson and Hopkins are of course both great, in a certain hammy, over-emoting way. Robinson, with his wide froggy lips, slit-eyed glare and faux-gentlemanly airs, projects a slimy good humor that's perfect for this expansive gambling don. And Hopkins has a fiery intensity that's equally well-suited to her down-and-out lady, willfully shedding the respectability of her past to become a cheating, bad-hearted "harpy." She acts, as so many actresses of the time did, primarily with her eyes, with the glinting steel of her stare that could communicate so much barely restrained hatred and anger. As good as these two leads are, though, Walter Brennan often threatens to take over the film in his bit part as the crafty harbor rat Old Atrocity, a nasty old coot who's cheerfully proud to live up to his name. The gangly, wheezing Brennan is simply hilarious, which is perhaps why Hawks kept bringing his character back in for a surprising number of scenes. It's a bit part that seems to keep expanding, and one suspects that Brennan was Hawks' real interest in the film. Even the inevitable reformation of this jolly old crook is handled with aplomb, with Brennan's bemused line that he "feels like a pure white kitten."
The scenes with Brennan and the atmospheric opening aside, the film's best sequence is one in which the men of the town, organized as vigilantes to finally fight back against Chamalis, lead one of his thugs (Brian Donlevy) on a grim march through the town's back streets, conducting a mock trial along the way. The march ends with a hanging, and Hawks lets the tense mood of the sequence linger over the subsequent scene where Chamalis and his corrupt judge friend (J.M. Kerrigan) discover the hanging corpse, whose shadow is reflected on the wall behind them. The film is at its best in expressionist moments like this, when the town's seemingly constant coating of fog lends it some Gothic atmosphere to elevate its conventional melodrama. The finale, with its tacked-on happy ending and the abrupt, nonsensical reversal of Chamalis from unfeeling baddie to sympathetic good sport, threatens to dissipate some of the good will earned by the film's better moments. Ultimately, though, this is a fine if unexceptional melodrama, buoyed by some vibrant performances. It's a decent film by Hawks, even if it never actually feels like a Hawks film.