by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Our first feature of the night was Corruption, a 1933 film that was the sort of frustrating bad movie because one senses a good movie in it struggling to get out — and because its themes, involving politics, graft and sex, seem all too timely today even though the film’s style and technique are both horrendously dated. Produced by William Berke Productions for a distributing company called Imperial — Berke had a fascinating career path, from independent filmmaker in the 1930’s to RKO house director in the 1940’s (as which he did a lot of the later films in the Falcon series) and then back to the indies in the 1950’s (where he did the first two films based on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels before he died in 1958) — Corruption was a wild story about political graft and, well, corruption, written and directed by C. Edward Roberts. Gorman (Tully Marshall), boss of an unnamed city’s Tammany Hall-like political machine, looked for a new mayoral candidate to defeat a genuine reformer and found him in Tim Butler (Preston Foster), an attorney who got a lot of good press for defending a personal-injury victim against a major corporation.
Like the political boss played by Edward Arnold in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — a film whose central plot device Corruption anticipates by six years — Gorman thinks he’ll be able to control Butler’s idealistic tendencies by exploiting his naïveté and keeping good, corrupt party hacks around him — particularly Regan (Warner Richmond), Gorman’s principal lieutenant in running the machine — but Butler turns the tables on him and within a year he’s cleaned up much of the graft that is making Gorman’s machine its money and has his sights set on nailing Regan. Then the Gorman machine strikes back and sets up Butler in a phony sex scandal — he’s caught by two reporters he’s befriended, Charlie Jasper (Charles Delaney) and his photographer, who supply the film’s supposedly “necessary” comic relief (this seems to have been a bizarre delusion that gripped most of Hollywood in the 1930’s and well into the 1940’s: the idea that serious, intense dramas and horror films needed so-called “comic relief” characters who usually weren’t even genuinely funny and just reduced the tension level of otherwise good films), who feel guilty about having been led to expose him but do so just the same — and Butler is removed from office and is forced to re-establish his law practice.
He’s also jilted by Gorman’s daughter Sylvia (Natalie Moorhead) — much to the undisguised joy of his secretary, Ellen Manning (Evalyn Knapp, top-billed), who’s in unrequited love with him and who has followed him down and is still working for him even though he can’t afford to pay her. (She donates $250 she’s saved up herself to keep his office going, falsely telling him it’s a contribution from his friend Dr. Robbins — played by Sidney Bracey in a refreshing change from his usual typecasting as butlers and valets.) Butler’s friends in law enforcement manage to extract a confession from the woman he was supposedly having the affair with and her confederate, and he’s about to be exonerated and appointed state’s attorney by the governor (a long-time political enemy of Gorman’s who’s anxious to shut down his machine) when he’s set up in another scandal; Regan and a henchman confront Butler in the lobby of his office building, Regan pulls a gun on Butler, who grabs for it and wrests it away, but just then somebody else — armed with a pistol which has a long barrel extension that appears to be a silencer — shoots Regan and Butler is arrested for the murder.
The case gets mysterious when Dr. Robbins, acting as medical examiner for the coroner, announces that even though there was no exit wound he was unable to find a bullet inside Regan’s body. Butler is convicted of the murder — the trial is blatantly rigged against him by a judge who’s obviously in the pay of the machine — and is sentenced to life imprisonment, but other members of Gorman’s gang are killed the same way even while Butler is serving his sentence, and eventually the killer turns out to be Voikov (Mischa Auer), a friend and former associate of Butler’s who during Butler’s term as mayor had frequently told him that it wasn’t enough to arrest the members of Gorman’s machine: the only way to get rid of them was to kill them permanently. To do this, Voikov, a research scientist, invented a bullet made of a liquid that turned super-hard when frozen and could be shot out of a gun and remain solid long enough to kill the person it was shot at, then melt inside their body and leave no trace. (Charles pointed out that the only way to fire such a bullet would be with a gun that worked by compressed air, since a normal gunpowder explosion would create such intense heat it would instantly melt the bullet — but given that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written a compressed-air gun into “The Adventure of the Empty House” over three decades earlier, it’s not impossible that C. Edward Roberts borrowed the idea from him — or from Chester Gould, who had used the ice-bullet gimmick in an early Dick Tracy series in 1931, the year the comic debuted and two years before this film was made.)
Corruption is a frustrating film because its story premise is inherently exciting, but the film itself is surprisingly dull; probably because he was hamstrung by the substandard budgets and equipment independent producers had to work with, Roberts’ direction is dull, static, with almost no camera moves and absolutely no music except for an inappropriately bouncy main theme over both opening and closing credits. In other words, Corruption looks much more like a film from 1929 than one from 1933, and while Roberts turns out to be a talented director in at least one respect — he gets far more animated and intense performances from both Knapp and Foster than they usually gave in their major-studio films at the time — he’s also slow and has virtually no sense of pace. In a story that cries out for the rich, chiaroscuro atmospherics of film noir, the only sequences that aren’t plainly lit are the courtroom scenes — which are filmed with the faces of the characters spotlit against a black backdrop. Obviously this was due to budgetary limitations — William Berke Productions clearly had neither access to a stock set of a courtroom nor the money to build one — but it gives those scenes an odd visual distinction lacking in the rest of the movie,
As with so many dull so-called “thrillers” from the 1930’s, one can’t help but wish Corruption had been made at Warner Bros., with one of their speedfreak directors and James Cagney as Butler (generally Cagney did quite well in stories that had him framed by political bosses, like Each Dawn I Die and The Strawberry Blonde); no matter how much Roberts was able to goose up Preston Foster from his usual on-screen torpor, he still wasn’t Cagney and he didn’t have the depth and power as an actor to play the role for maximum effect.