Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 1937. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley. Cinematography by Gregg Toland. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Music by Alfred Newman. Production Design by Richard Day. Costume Design by Omar Kiam. Film Editing by Daniel Mandell. Academy Awards 1937.
Compelling adaptation of the play by Sidney Kingsley, with most of the action confined to a small area but directed so dynamically by William Wyler that it never feels stagebound. The limited setting actually contributes to the sense of frustration of the poor residents of a Manhattan neighbourhood, forced to exist below the balconies of wealthier New Yorkers who are slowly gentrifying the neighbourhood in order to enjoy the view of the East River. Struggling in the lower depths are a beautiful textile worker (Sylvia Sidney) who is on strike, her little brother who is getting involved in gangs, a notorious criminal (Humphrey Bogart) who is visiting his old neighbourhood for the first time in years and an architect (Joel McCrea) who comes from these streets but is aspiring to higher things. McCrea’s conflict between where he belongs and where he wants to go is represented by his simultaneous attraction to Sidney while romancing a girl from the building above, his own personality torn up by the fact that he has worked hard for a higher education and it has gotten him nowhere. Meanwhile, the boys of the neighbourhood cause no end of trouble with a rich boy who lives above them, their violence and idea of street pride getting them into serious trouble with the law. The magnificent set by Richard Day looks more like something out of Things To Come or Metropolis, but even this contributes to heightening the stakes of the drama instead of taking away from the gritty sense of realism that comes from the outstanding performances. In smaller roles, there is an unforgettable cameo by Marjorie Main as Bogart’s miserable mother and Claire Trevor (earning an Oscar nomination for one scene) as his former girlfriend now living in heavily reduced circumstances. Her moments are few, even her lines aren’t that plentiful, but it’s amazing how deep an impression she makes all the same.