Saturday, July 02, 2016

Afraid to Talk

Merry-Go-Round. US 1932. D: Edward L. Cahn. Based on: dalla pièce Merry-Go-Round di Albert Maltz e George Sklar. SC: Tom Reed. Cinematography: Karl Freund. ED: Maurice Pivar. AD: Charles D. Hall. C: Eric Linden (Ed Martin), Sidney Fox (Peggy Martin), Tully Marshall (Anderson), Louis Calhern (Wade), Edward Arnold (Jig Zelli), George Meeker (Lennie). P: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. [The film was not released in Finland]. 35 mm. 69′. B&w
    US © 1932 Universal Pictures
    C also: Gustaf von Seyffertitz (attorney Harry Berger, Ed's defense lawyer)
    Print from Universal Pictures
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna
    Universal Pictures: The Laemmle Junior Years
    E-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra
    Cinema Jolly, 2 July 2016

Dave Kehr (Bologna catalog): "Where, as the critic Robert Warshow famously noted, the Warner Bros. gangster films presented their protagonists as tragic heroes, their generic equivalents at Universal present no trace of the romantic individualism of a Cagney or Robinson; instead, they are cogs in a cold machine of corruption, functioning without conscience, remorse or even much sense of personal volition. Based on Merry-Go-Round, a controversial, widely censored play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar, Edward L. Cahn’s film remains faithful to the structuring principle implied by the title, portraying a closed circle of venality that seems to include every major institution in the nameless city in which it is set. When a bellboy (Eric Linden) witnesses a gang chief (Edward Arnold) rubbing out a rival, he dutifully reports to the District Attorney (Tully Marshall) – who promptly frames the boy for the killing."

"As an editor at Universal, Cahn made his reputation for his rapid re-editing of All Quiet on the Western Front, working in an editing suite set up on the train that was carrying the preview print from Los Angeles to New York. His assignment: to remove all traces of ZaSu Pitts, who had originally been cast as the hero’s mother but had to be replaced by Beryl Mercer when test audiences, accustomed to Pitts as a comedian, laughed when she appeared. Promoted to director, Cahn was soon working with Universal’s top stars (including Walter Huston in another portrait of civic corruption, the western Law and Order). Cahn’s mastery of tempo and counterpoint is quite evident here thought not unexpected; more surprising is his visual flair, which finds him revisiting some of the more abstract moments of German Expressionism with the cameraman Karl Freund."
– Dave Kehr

AA: The first established cycle of the gangster film as a genre started with Josef von Sternberg's Underworld. The Racket, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface all belonged to that stylized line of the gangster film. As did City Streets, which, however, was different in portraying gangsters as businessmen, launching a trend that culminated in the Godfather trilogy.

Startlingly different were the films by Rowland Brown: Quick Millions, Hell's Highway and the extraordinary Blood Money. These sinister films were not based on other fiction but apparently on the writer-director's first-hand knowledge. Brown's brief career as director ended with Blood Money.

Edward L. Cahn's Afraid to Talk belongs to the same rare class of the gangster film as the movies of Rowland Brown. It is a genre movie, but there is never a feeling of safety within genre convention. Instead, there is a pervasive sense of corruption and danger. Afraid to Talk contains the first screen credit of Albert Maltz who rose to the top of Hollywood's screenwriting profession, becoming a victim of the blacklist but finishing his career with work for Clint Eastwood.

The hotel bellboy Ed Martin is an eye-witness to the gangland murder of Mr. Slansky who is in the possession of incriminating records of corruption. Ed Martin identifies Jig Zelli (Edward Arnold) as the killer. But soon tables turn. Ed is fired, and he is himself framed and accused of the murder. The police, the justice system, and the city administration have been corrupted by the gangsters who use the documents to blackmail their victims. When Ed does not confess he is put through a third degree interrogation. He almost dies of the brutality and is taken to a hospital bed at the prison. But then Ed gets a top lawyer, Harry Berger, feared by the gangsters.

The most shocking sequence is the murder attempt of Ed while he lies on the hospital bed. Might this be the first appearance of the motif that reappears memorably in Criss Cross and The Godfather? The plot is to have Ed "found hung", but uncorrupted policemen rescue Ed from the noose in the nick of time and the corruption ring is exposed.

Interesting faces include Louis Calhern and Tully Marshall as corrupt lawyers. The opening credit music (not credited) is impressive, there is a torch singer and a chain gang dancing girl number. The story is contemporary with news flashes on breadlines and unemployment.

The good print does justice to the work of the master cinematographer Karl Freund.

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