Friday, September 30, 2011
The Roaring Twenties plays by gangster movie rules, complete with stern, almost newsreel-like narration, clipped dialogue and sleazy views of the underworld. Nevertheless, it also works as a people's history of the '20s, digging beneath the glitzy surface of pre-crash society to see how the only people who were having a good time during the period were criminals, and even they soon suffered collapse.
Walsh opens in grand fashion with a recreation of the final days of WWI, American soldiers running for the nearest cover as shells and bullets fly around them. Eddie dives into a trench and lands on a grouchy soldier named George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and soon the two meet Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), the kind angel to George's darker presence. Bogart clearly has a handle on his screen presence by this point, filling George with such acid it's a wonder his own blood doesn't melt through his flesh, but there is also an intense, crippling fear under his menace that will surface late in the film. Walsh's punchy staging and the clever bluntness of the script digs into the absurdity of the war, evident even to the Americans who entered the conflict near the end: George runs afoul of an officious sergeant he recognizes as a thug who used to steal from his father's shop, but the stocky man can now boss George around based on a codified ranking of human worth. When the armistice is signed, George darkly alludes to carrying his machine gun home with him.
Back home, Eddie undergoes a series of experiences that make him a microcosm for the dramatic upheavals of postwar anxiety and Prohibition's disastrous effect in making a separate economy. Instead of being welcomed as a hero, Eddie finds himself unable to land a job, and when he finally gets a gig as a taxi driver, he soon finds himself inadvertently delivering packages of hooch to local speakeasies, and he soon gets busted for his naïveté. But soon he starts working in one of those speakeasies and, when he runs into George during a raid on another bootlegger ship, the two join forces and establish their own empire, fellas who had nothing upon returning now kings because of crime.
The moralism is so thick you could cut it with a knife, to the point that even the lecturing narration seems but the cherry on top for a film that makes inescapably clear the social factors leading to a life of crime. But Walsh handles the material with such gusto that the film is entertaining at all times. He films those newsreel montages with artistry, using Dutch angles and superimposed imagery to demonstrate the blitzkrieg pace of change and the bewilderment it causes. As Eddie, like the rest of the bootleggers, sink further into depravity and crime to protect their ways, the montages become even more daring, showing the shadow of an armed gangster looming over a mock-up of City Hall. Later, when the stock market crashes, Walsh uses almost apocalyptic images, the ticker-tape machine growing until it resembles a giant idol before bursting over a frenzied crowd of brokers being showered by confetti-like slips of paper with clients' "sell" orders on them.
This gritty take on the vast, rapid sweep of history contrasts with the increasingly small focus on Eddie, constantly shrinking the film until we're trapped by the mounting sense of doom that surrounds the man and his unraveling empire. He pines for Jean (Priscilla Lane), a sweet girl who called him her dream soldier when she wrote a letter to him during the war. Grown up and scared of the dark environment into which Eddie takes her, Jean begins to pull away and reciprocate the more gentle affections of Lloyd, who maintains a sense of innocence despite using his lawyer skills to constantly bail out Eddie. Meanwhile, Panama (Gladys George), the owner of Eddie's favorite speakeasy, harbors clear feelings for the man who never drank even after he became a figure of the underworld and who is so torn up over Jean not reciprocating his feelings that he does not notice the woman deeply in love with him before his eyes. Then again, she too loves a specter, as her own cynical way of life helped corrupt the returning soldier she liked for his goodness, a goodness long since eradicated.
The film barrels toward its climax as the wars between bootlegging gangs finally escalates to the point that the cops cannot be pacified anymore, and when the stock market crashes, it takes bootlegging with it. (Or is it the other way around?) Eddie finds himself back where he started, but he's sure he'll climb his way back to the top, linking him with so many poor fools, then and now, who cling to materialistic fantasies of the American Dream long after it has been exposed a lie.
This being a gangster film starring James Cagney, one knows things will not end well, and Cagney's death here may be the finest of his career, or at least on a par with his almost nuclear end in White Heat (incidentally also a Walsh film). Cagney later remarked that he'd watched a documentary where a hunter shot a gorilla, which lumbered around before collapsing; he noted that it died in a "slow, amazed way." Escaping from a small act of vengeance that did nothing but make him feel slightly better, Eddie takes a bullet in the back but keeps stumbling forth, acting as if he got hit with a tranquilizer dart instead of a bullet. Cagney keeps moving, tripping sideways up some stairs and hanging for a brief moment before tumbling back down the steps and collapsing. Cagney's face is barely visible in this shot, yet his entire body registers a mild surprise at and grim acceptance of his own death. Where Cagney's end in White Heat showed a small-time hood's delusions of grandeur, the performance he gives for Walsh here is the inverse: this is a man who had it all, only to realize the worthlessness of it as he sees death before him. Cody Jarrett needed to feel like a big shot in the sobering aftermath of WWII, but Eddie Bartlett actually did make a name for himself, only to see the vapidity of his accomplishments. I cannot think of another film that so brutally captures the real nature of the Roaring Twenties and the Prohibition era.