Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1933. Paramount Pictures. Story and Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack. Cinematography by J. Peverell Marley. Produced by Cecil B. DeMille. Production Design by Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier. Costume Design by Milo Anderson. Film Editing by Anne Bauchens.
Students at a prestigious high school have been assigned co-ops that point to bright futures, one of them to the district attorney’s office, another to the police department and so on. Their idealism about service to the community is put to direct use when the Jewish tailor across the street from their school is murdered in cold blood by a notorious club owner and racketeer (Charles Bickford) after refusing to pay him protection money. The courts let the bad guy off because of his fancy lawyer carefully maneuvering his way around the facts, so the students decide to take matters into their hands and do their own investigating.
When their first effort to prove the gangster’s guilt gets one of them killed, the kids get much smarter about setting an effective trap for him, a complicated scheme that involves getting lovely Judith Allen to seduce Bickford’s second-in-command while the boys lure Bickford into a makeshift people’s court that will be much harder for him to get out of than a court of law (particularly as it involves a pit filled with rats).
The action is thrilling in this high-powered drama and the finger it points at the corruption of American justice is not softened by any of the reassuring patriotism that would be required in films made during the war years. Vigilante justice gets director Cecil B. De Mille’s full support here, there’s none of the ironic sympathy of Fritz Lang’s M for the bad guy in the kangaroo court climax, nor does the script avoid the suggestion that America is failing its own people (usually, in the name of making sure a film won’t be called anti-American, the blame is put on bad apples, not on the system itself).
What also makes an impression is the cyclical nature of cultural revolution, every generation there are young people who decide to do away with the structures of their forefathers and believe themselves the first of their kind, when in actuality these bright young things are just putting themselves on the path to becoming the next generation of banality once they too become parents and grandparents. For all the deeper themes it inspires you to think about, this film, a rare modern piece by the usually period-oriented Cecil B. DeMille, is an exciting drama with a host of fascinating characters and a pace that never quits.