Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Crime Without Passion (1934)

One of the great unheralded organizations of Chicago is the Northwest Chicago Film Society which works in conjunction with the Patio Theater to program a series of rare and interesting films. Tonight they showed the rarely seen 1934 proto-noir CRIME WITHOUT PASSION.

This is one hell of a movie. It's famous in film geek circles as the first film that was co-directed by the famed screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the cinematographer Lee Garmes, but I have to admit that I wasn't prepared for how good it would be.

It tells the story of an attorney named Lee Gentry (Claude Raines) the self-style "Champion of the Damned" who is infamous for getting his clearly-guilty clients off the hook for all manner of awful crimes. But Gentry has one weakness: women. He's caught between two women as the story begins--an earthy dancer named Carmen Brown (Margo) and a society blonde named Katy Costello (Whitney Bourne). He tortures Brown, unsure if he wants to string her along or crush her for loving him too much. The opposite power balance seems to be in place with Costello--he loves her precisely because she seems unsure if she loves him.

Without giving too much away, I'll say that after an argument with one of these women, Gentry finds himself in trouble. His analytic lawyer side takes over, quite literally, in a special effect in which Gentry's ghostly image is superimposed onto scenes to give him advice.

The film is fantastically entertaining. There's a freaky opening sequence by the brilliant montage expert Slavko Vorkapic in which we see the birth of the Three Furies that will bedevil mankind. It's a surreal sequence, all the more effective for being inserted without any overt connection to the plot. The rest of the film is gorgeous--a testament to the enormous talent of cinematographer/co-director Lee Garmes (probably best known to noir fans for his work on NIGHTMARE ALLEY). It's full of askew angles and moody effects. In the broadest outlines of its plot it's just another story of a cocky bastard who gets his ironic comeuppance, but visually it's noir with a surreal bent.

The cast is a mixed bag. Claude Raines was as good an actor who ever worked in movies. Here we find him in only his second starring role, and he's already got the charisma that would make him famous in pictures like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and CASABLANCA. Smart and self-satisfied, he makes a perfect foil for the Furies. As the objects of his affection, however, neither Margo nor Whitney Bourne manage to burn up the screen. Making matters worse, neither have particularly rich roles. Hecht and MacArthur fail to inject as much personality or consistency into either of these parts as they do into the lead role.

Still, CRIME WITHOUT PASSION is a real achievement, an odd and ambitious film that was a harbinger of the dark noir tide that would overtake crime films in the forties.

For more on the making of the film, check out this excellent piece by Kyle Westphal, a film historian who works with the NCFS.

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