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City Streets Reviews

This early-day gangster film is wonderfully stylistic, but far removed from reality. Gary Cooper is a westerner newly arrived in the big city, where he becomes a carnival sharpshooter and impresses Sylvia Sidney, step-daughter of a mobster, Guy Kibbee. She encourages him to join a gang of bootleggers headed by Paul Lukas, but he refuses, saying he will make his money for their planned wedding by legitimate means. Lukas, meanwhile, eyes Kibbee's gun moll, Wynne Gibson, then has Kibbee killed to get the girl, involving Sidney in the murder. When Sidney refuses to tell police what she knows, she is sent to prison. Now Cooper decides to join the mob to make enough money for Sidney's expensive legal aid. His noble purpose crumbles, however, as he learns to enjoy the high life and quick bucks. When Sidney is finally released from prison she begs Cooper to quit the rackets, but he refuses. Just when his corruption is almost complete, Lukas inadvertently sets his salvation in motion by dumping Gibson for Sidney. Sidney knows this means Lukas intends to murder Cooper, so she goes to Lukas' mansion and begs for Cooper's life. The discarded Gibson enters and shoots Lukas to death in a jealous rage, then locks Sidney in the room with the body. Cooper arrives to save Sidney, but Lukas' vicious bootlegging gang takes them both for a ride, intending to kill them. Forced to take the wheel of the car, Cooper jams down the accelerator until the auto reaches terrific speeds, careening around curves, narrowly missing trees, nearly being struck by a speeding train, and almost shooting off a mountain road into fatal space. He tells Lukas' henchmen that he will kill everyone unless they give up their guns, which they do. Dumping the killers, Cooper and Sidney drive off as a flock of birds soars upward into the sky, symbolizing the couple's escape to freedom. CITY STREETS is an offbeat gangster film, nothing like the blood-and-thunder productions made famous by Warner Bros. Oddly, it lacks violence and not a killing is shown on camera, a fact director Rouben Mamoulian often pointed out with pride. The sophisticated director produced an expressionistic view of the gangster world, using a staggering array of innovative camera shots and story techniques for this film. He had to fight for every creative move. In one scene, where Sidney's thoughts in prison are spoken aloud, Paramount executives believed this would confuse audiences. They tried to cut the scene but Mamoulian fought them tooth and nail and the scene stayed in. Cooper's role was out of character for him but he performs with great skill. Sidney, however, steals the film in her first starring role, dominating every scene with her doelike eyes and pouting lips, a face strongly identified today with the 1930s (she was later aptly dubbed "Depression's Child"). Her career up to CITY STREETS had been spotty; she had small parts in BROADWAY NIGHTS, a 1927 silent, and THRU DIFFERENT EYES in 1929. Dashiell Hammett's fresh and inventive story introduced the clever clues (such as the length of ash on Kibbee's cigar, which proves to be an alibi against a murder charge) that would be a hallmark of his future detective tales. The entire film is brush-stroked by master cinematographer Lee Garmes with lengthy shadows, and light (symbolizing hope) is confined to the principal players. Dialog is ancillary to the powerful visual techniques Mamoulian brought from the silent era into the talkie world of CITY STREETS.