Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tonight's Movie: Barbary Coast (1935)

BARBARY COAST, set in Gold Rush era San Francisco, is an atmospheric production with a literate script and a fine cast.

Mary (Miriam Hopkins) arrives in San Francisco to marry her rich fiance, only to learn that he's dead. Mary is after money and strikes a deal with saloon owner Louis (Edward G. Robinson) to run his (rigged, of course) roulette wheel in exchange for a piece of the profits. Louis, who rules San Francisco with the help of his trigger-happy enforcer, Knuckles (Brian Donlevy), wants Mary to love him, but she is attracted to a poetry-spouting prospector, Jim (Joel McCrea).

Hopkins is excellent as mercenary Mary, who is hiding a tender heart deep inside her brittle, beautiful exterior. Robinson, as always, is interesting, playing a villain who craves love, and McCrea is his usual charming self.

The superb supporting cast has particularly noteworthy performances by Walter Brennan, as a grizzled crook who goes by the moniker Old Atrocity, and Donlevy, who is chilling as Robinson's murderous hit man. Harry Carey Sr., with his wonderful deep voice, plays a townsman who ultimately leads a rebellion against Robinson and Donlevy. Frank Craven, Donald Meek, and J.M. Kerrigan round out the cast.

David Niven is said to have a bit part as a sailor, but I didn't spot him on this viewing. I may try scanning through some scenes tomorrow to see if I can pick him out of the crowd.

The screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is particularly fine for an action film of this type, and the movie gets major style points for its depiction of fog-bound, muddy, brawling San Francisco. The film was directed by the great Howard Hawks, who replaced another fine director, William Wyler. The movie's running time is 90 minutes.

BARBARY COAST is available on DVD in a great print. It can also be seen on VHS.

This film would make part of a fun double bill with SAN FRANCISCO, which was released one year after BARBARY COAST and set roughly half a century later. SAN FRANCISCO stars Clark Gable as a saloon owner, Jeanette MacDonald as the singer he loves, and Spencer Tracy as a priest.


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