Sunday, February 26, 2012

Night Beat (Action Pictures, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Night Beat, a 1931 ultra-cheapie from Ralph M. Like’s Action Pictures studio (a fly-by-night Depression-era indie that folded not long after this film was made; their catalog was absorbed by Mayfair, another fly-by-night Depression indie that folded in a year or two) and a gangster movie pretty obviously inspired by the success of Little Caesar, released four months before Night Beat came out December 27, 1931. We watched it in an download that omitted the opening credits (I did a quick search on just to find out who directed — George B. Seitz — wrote — W. Scott Darling — and starred in it) and ran only 55 minutes, but Darling and Seitz (whose background stretched back to silent serials and who would later sign with MGM and direct low-budget actioners for them) manage to crowd a lot of plot into it.

The movie actually opens during World War I, where Martin (Walter McGrail) and Johnny Malinas (Jack Mulhall, top-billed) are serving together, Martin saves Johnny’s life and Johnny swears that when it’s Martin’s turn to need a favor for him, Johnny will do anything he wants. Then the film flashes forward to today, with Italian “French cleaner” (1930’s speak for dry cleaner) Enricco Pommetti is celebrating the painting of a new sign on his front window. We just know what’s going to happen: some slimeball from the “protection” racket that has the unnamed (but quite obviously Los Angeles from the use of real locations, including the hall of justice used 30 years later in Get Outta Town) city in its grip is going to approach Pommetti for a payoff, and Pommetti — who gets a fascinating speech lamenting that he left Italy in the first place to get away from “the Mafia — the Black Hand” (Charles was startled to hear a specific reference to the Mafia in a 1931 film, though it was specifically a reference to the Mafia in Italy and didn’t attribute it to organized crime in the U.S.) only to find the same rackets going on in his new country. (He also is an ardent supporter of Benito Mussolini, whom he admires as “the greatest Italian ever” because, among other things, he got rid of the Mafia in its country of origin — which is basically accurate; unfortunately, during World War II the Allies brought it back, letting Lucky Luciano out of prison and allowing him to return to his native Sicily to organize a resistance, which ironically took the Mafia back to its original purpose: the name is an Italian abbreviation for “Anti-French Society” and the Mafia was originally a resistance movement against Napoleon’s occupation of Italy, and turned to crime after the Napoleonic wars ended and they had to figure out some way to make a living.)

He’s delivering this speech to Martin, who’s now the district attorney, and later on Martin gets the word that out-of-town gangster Johnny Malinas is arriving in town with his gang — and, of course, the fearsome gangster who’s there to take over the L.A. rackets and put their current owner, Chill Scarpetti (Harry Cording), out of business is also Martin’s old trench buddy from the Great War (which is what they called World War I before there was a World War II). Martin enlists Jack to become a police captain and run his force to take down Scarpetti’s rackets, and Johnny agrees while telling his gang members that he’s only using Martin to get rid of Scarpetti, after which he intends to double-cross Martin and take total control of the rackets. Coupled with this plot line is the inevitable romantic triangle in which Martin, who’s been dating his secretary Eleanor (Patsy Ruth Miller) when he isn’t being called away on D.A. business, which seems to be most of the time they plan to go out, asks Johnny to take her on one of the dates he’s had to break ­— and, needless to say, Johnny and Eleanor start falling in love. Though hamstrung by a strangulation-cheap budget — Charles noted the “rustic” look of both the exterior and interior sets and figured Action Pictures simply reused their standard Western sets — albeit disguised with some artful use of stock footage (the opening World War I scene almost certainly came from some bigger-budgeted major-studio film about the war), Night Beat is actually an oddly compelling film, raising issues of loyalty and friendship that got developed further in later movies like Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. 

The ending even anticipates Douglas Sirk’s marvelous A Scandal in Paris by about 14 years; after keeping Martin, his gang members and the audience in suspense as to exactly where his loyalties are going to end up, in the final scene Johnny announces that he’s been on the level the whole time and he’s wiping out the rackets rather than seeking to take them over. There’s a final shootout in a warehouse, somewhat reminiscent of the nihilistic ending of The Beast of the City — released two months later (which seems to have inspired the one-sentence synopsis on — “A young couple finds themselves mixed up with mobsters planning to rob a warehouse” — which otherwise barely relates at all to this movie) — in which Scarpetti gets killed but Johnny is fatally wounded, and there’s a tag scene in the hospital in which Johnny tells Martin and Eleanor to get married and name their first-born son after him. Well directed (especially given the budget, or lack of same) and competently if not brilliantly acted, Night Beat is a surprisingly good movie for a 1931 indie, especially one made by the same people who did the lame Gorilla Ship one year later. Incidentally, there’s some confusion as to who was the cinematographer: lists Edward Cronjager but the American Film Institute Catalog lists his less well known uncle, Jules Cronjager — and since both sources agree that Jules shot Gorilla Ship I’m inclined to give him, not his more famous nephew, the credit here as well.