William Keighley | "G" Men | Bullets or Ballots | The Street With No Name
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Some common subjects in the films of William Keighley:
We also see some high tech approaches used to fight crime. As in The Street With No Name, the emphasis is on fingerprint identification as an FBI specialty. Here two sets of fingerprints are projected on a small screen, the superimposed to show that they are identical. The use of slide projection here by the police recalls Fritz Lang's M (1931), although it is a bit ambiguous in M whether the fingerprints are actually projected as slides, or whether some other cinematic device is being employed. Projection is both a interesting high tech crime fighting tool, and a good cinematic storytelling device.
Both this film and The Street With No Name feature a sequence in which the hero impresses other men by a boxing match. Here it is part of his FBI training. In both films, the boxing leads to bonding with another man. These scenes are quite spectacular.
The way the Cagney character stands halfway between his mob surrounded childhood and the FBI also anticipates the many undercover characters of the Hathaway school, although Cagney does not actually go undercover with the mob here. Keighley's later Bullets or Ballots (1936) will feature cop Edward G. Robinson in an undercover role.
"G" Men is often cited as film histories as a turning point in the history of the gangster film. Up to this point, most gangster films had idolized the gangsters themselves. Here, however, it is the federal agents who track the gangsters down who are the heroes. And the lead is played by one of the screen's top former gangsters, Jimmy Cagney.
Imitation of Life was one of the most prestigious films in the black community in the 1930's. It was considered deeply anti-racist. I'm not sure how well Bullets or Ballots was received. One difference: the honest business manufacturing pancake mix in Imitation of Life is completely admirable - while the crooked numbers racket in Bullets or Ballots is deplorable.
Also startling: the black enforcer working for the women, who successfully intimidates a white crook. I don't recall seeing anyone like him in other 1930's films.
Also noir-like: there are lots of men in uniform in the world of the film. We see a mounted cop guiding traffic. The elevator operator is also in a snazzy uniform. He's played by Jerry Fletcher, a contract actor who endlessly played either bellboys or reporters in films of the era.
There is also dynamic boxing scene, as in some of Keighley's other thrillers.
Another much imitated scene: the shoot out finale at the factory warehouse. There are endless photogenic shots of staircases, girders, industrial equipment and the like, through which the hero eventually chases the bad guy. This sort of setting has been used for the finales of countless TV crime dramas since. I do not know if Street is the first film to use such a setting, but it must be a fairly early example, at least. The oil refinery finale of Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1948) was the same year.
Influence is a paradoxical thing. It is not to be confused with artistic quality. For example, take Max Ophuls' great Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), made the same year as The Street With No Name. I see no sign that it influenced any later American filmmakers, although Ophuls' camera movements in general certainly encouraged such French New Wave directors as Godard and Demy. By contrast, The Street With No Name is a much more ordinary film, yet it seems deeply influential on countless TV crime dramas to come. The Street With No Name is also an utterly obscure work today. It is not mentioned in most film histories. I'd barely heard of it when I happened to encounter a tape of it at a local video store. One tends to think of film history as something created by scholars in Paris, London and New York. That is true, but there is an alternative film history of sorts in Los Angeles: films that influenced later film makers. Such obscure film noirs as The Street With No Name, Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin and Fear in the Night all seem to have produced endless echoes in the works of TV crime drama makers.
Putting on the jacket marks the start of the hero's period as an undercover operative, the assumption of a new identity as a tough guy, hanging out on skid row. Before and after this the hero wears suits. At the FBI headquarters, he wears an elegant suit, indicating that he is a high social status good guy, a lawyer turned FBI agent. Later, after he is inducted into the gang, he wears a flashy gangster suit, an aggressive looking black pinstripe. Even here, however, he changes back into the leather jacket for all the gang's criminal activities. One such change of clothes scene is shown on screen.
One wonders what would happen, if buildings and regions were constructed in this style today, instead of the endless suburban architecture one finds now. Would people find them appealing?
The later film Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984) also takes one to a tough urban world, which is supposed to be sinister on the surface, but which is actually paradisical.
The nightclub at the beginning has Moderne Art Deco features, in the tradition of many Hollywood night clubs. It is the only building in the film to do so. There is glass brick on the outside, and inside, there are lighting fixtures with the horizontal flanges that were so popular in the Moderne school of Art Deco. Unlike the Skid Row of the bulk of the film, most of the patrons here look middle class. They are romantic couples, whereas most of the inhabitants of Skid Row are men.
The film takes place in the fictitious Center City, but it was mainly shot in downtown Los Angeles, which then was quite depressed and Skid Row-like.
The ferry's real life location, however, was a good deal to the South of downtown, in San Pedro, near the ocean. At the time, a ferry ran back and forth between San Pedro on the mainland, and Terminal Island, the large harbor island where ships docked. Two identical ferry buildings stood there, one on each end. In the 1960's a bridge was built from the mainland to Terminal Island, the ferry service was shut down, the ferry building on Terminal Island was torn down, and the ferry building in San Pedro was converted to the LA Maritime Museum, a tourist attraction. Pictures on the Internet of this building show an exact match of the ferry building in the film. The building is also Art Deco, but with less of the Moderne styling one finds in the night club. In the film, the ferry crosses a river; in real life, the ferry crossed a small ocean channel. The vivid filming at the ferry building, one of the highlights of the movie, preserves this institution for all time on film. The ramps inside the ferry building echo the staircases found in the rest of the film.
Another typical Lang and film noir device is the frame within the frame. We see the street through the window of the bail bondsman's office, for example. The greatest shots like this show the departing ferry through a window at the ferry terminal building.
The police are heavily present in this area of the city. There are also quite a few minor uniformed officer characters who make brief appearances in various vignettes. Such common use of uniforms is typical of both Lang and noir. They are in the uniforms of the imaginary city in which the film is set, "Central City". This uniform does not look like that of any known city, to me; it seems to be a made up uniform for the film. The film shows a high degree of consistency. There are standard conventions for the police wearing harnesses, or not; and special styles for the display of Sergeant's stripes, with large curved chevrons on the lower sleeves. Such completely imaginary clothes recall science fiction films more than other genres. The use of a white shirt and tie in the uniforms makes them consistent with the wearing of suits and ties by most of the civilian characters in the movie. The police seem like an integral part of the Skid Row world. They are one more part of its urban mix.
The buildings on Skid Row have elaborate signs, that are often worked into geometric patterns. The word "Rooms" is all over the three sides of an awning of one hotel, while the signs on the hero's hotel are curved. One can see similar uses of words integrated with architecture on other film noir buildings. One thinks of Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel (1945), and the "Burlesque" sign in Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955). Words on these buildings run in every geometric direction, up, down, sideways, curved. They often are used to highlight the geometry of the architecture. This use of words tends to look "cheap": it is always on lower class buildings in tough urban neighborhoods, and is part of the urban atmosphere in these films. This combination of words with architecture runs parallel to a different, avant-garde use of words and signs in the films of Dziga Vertov, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard.
There are conspicuous, elaborate clocks both on the ferry building, and a clock-on-a-pole standing in the street in front of it. This use of unusual clocks is also a Lang-noir tradition.
The hero's room has a old mirror that is already cracked into a complex geometric design. However, there are fewer mirror shots in this film than in many noir movies.
The FBI uses punched cards and Hollerith machines to identify a suspect by his fingerprints here. In Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night (1948) of the same year, the LAPD use similar machines to identify criminals by their modus operandi. In both films, these ancestors of today's computerized data bases are used to track and monitor civilian populations. No one seems to suggest that this might have a sinister side. It is simply presented as part of these institutions' admirable use of modern technology.
Keighley often shoots from a slightly elevated angle, just above the characters' heads. This allows two things:
The buildings in The Street With No Name tend to be rectilinear. The spaces in which the characters tend to find themselves tend to be rectangular, with sharply defined walls at 90 degree angles. Also, there tend to be clear rectangular corridors and paths down which the heroes can walk. For example, in the night club at the opening, there is a straight rectangular path from the door to the stage, a path cleared between the tables. There are similar open rectangular pathways in the gym, between the boxing ring and the walls. Keighley shoots these scenes typically at an off angle. He can range from anywhere between a full 45 degrees, or just a slight angle, for example down the long diner counter.
In summation, Keighley's most typical angle shows a large rectangular space from a slightly elevated angle just above the characters' heads, and with the camera turned to the room's side to show a 5 degree to 45 degree shot of the rectangular coordinates. This angle is superb for creating compositions: nearly always it allows both the people and the architecture to be part of some visually interesting pattern.
Characters are often standing straight up. Together with the corners between the walls, this tends to produce a lot of strong vertical lines in Keighley's compositions. These are mixed in with the receding Renaissance perspective tilted horizontal lines of the floors, diner counters, boxing rings and so on. There are very few circular elements in Keighley's compositions. He seems disinterested in curving lines.
In medium shots of the hero, the director sometimes shoots at a slightly lowered angle, roughly around the hero's stomach. This is a standard photographic trick to make the hero look more macho. It emphasizes the hero's chest, making him look taller and more muscular. Keighley does this especially during the hero's boxing scenes, not when he is actually boxing, but in between rounds, and after the fight. This is a very standard angle in Hollywood. Many TV crime shows never show their leading men from any other angle, for example, in an attempt to make them more heroic. Keighley actually uses this angle far more sparingly than many modern directors do. He also takes it much less of an extreme than it is often carried. Keighley rarely shoots so low that the audience feels it is seeing a "low" camera angle, a kind of Expressionist distortion that is popular in film noir. Instead, the hero and the other people in the shot give the illusion of being seen face on.
There are few of the "distorted" two-shots we often see in film noir, suggesting emotional and psychological trauma in the relations between people. Instead, shots containing more than one person tend to be happy, suggesting bonding going on between the characters. The heroes are often surrounded by crowds, as well. These crowds are noisy and friendly. Unlike many film noirs, which describe the city as a place of loneliness and alienation, Keighley's film suggests that in the city can make one huge numbers of friends. The hero is often surrounded by crowds of men paying attention to him, whether in bars or in the boxing ring.
Keighley includes some dramatic pans in the film. These especially show the spectacular architecture of the cheap hotel. I keep calling this a "cheap hotel". It is certainly dark, dingy, and full of ghastly cheap furnishings. But it is also extraordinarily beautiful, in its dramatic architecture. It is clearly not such a bad place to live. It has very high ceilings, and one has a sense of spaciousness and freedom there.
Pans often follow a character walking. This is true of scenes at the hotel. The camera also follows FBI Agent Cy Gordon as he enters the phone both at the arcade: one of the most complex and beautiful camera movements in the film.
The two styles are directly linked to the emotions of the scene. During its early part stressing cooperation and bonhomie, we have single take staging. When the scene shifts to confrontation, the back and forth cutting begins. Keighley briefly reverts to group shots later on, after the main confrontation is over, then resumes the back and forth cutting when new "shocking" information is obtained from questioning a police sergeant. Here the back and forth cutting is not some much designed to reveal confrontation, as it is to underline and stress the drama of the scene. It still suggests that the police sergeant and his FBI questioners are not on a common wavelength, which is true in the plot of the film.
During the scene in which the gang is rehearsing its robbery, the men tend to be shown in group shots, emphasizing their common purpose. Exception: the undercover agent hero is often shown in a one-shot, stressing his isolation and separation from the rest of the group. Here the editing is structural, underlining the social relationships between the characters. In the midst of all this, a confrontation briefly develops between the gang leader and one of the gang. Keighley immediately switches to back and forth cutting for this sequence, as he has done throughout the film during confrontations.
During the finale of the film, Keighley's chief editing technique is cross cutting. This is an ancient technique I associate with D. W. Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance (1916), but here it is again. For example, Keighley will alternate between scenes of the villain running away, with scenes of the hero chasing him. Or he will show the crooks planning a robbery, cross cut with scenes of an FBI agent sneaking up on the factory. Typically, the two cross cut scenes are in different rooms of the factory warehouse. It is not editing within a location, it is cutting between scenes in two different locations. This frequent cross cutting allows Keighley to develop what is almost a montage sequence, showing shots of many different characters and locations all mixed together in the sequence. While Keighley's montage never achieves the heights of say, Orson Welles or Sergei Eisenstein, it is not chicken feed either. It is a nicely done montage sequence full of elaborate compositions, much movement of the characters, and a fast pace both of editing and storytelling. Only twice in this sequence does Keighley introduce back and forth cutting between characters, and once again these are in the confrontation scenes between the hero and the villain.
By contrast, the dialogue scene between an FBI agent and a friendly cab driver, which could easily have been shot with alternating cutting, is instead filmed in a single-take two-shot. This approach underlines the cab driver's full cooperation with the FBI agent, something key to the plot. Several emotions are invoked by this scene: male bonding between the two men; the cab driver as a role model, showing how patriotic citizens work with the FBI; a fantasy showing how an "ordinary person", the cab driver, gets to play a role in a big FBI bust.
One gets the impression that some film historians think that the "invisible editing" of back and forth cutting was applied by Hollywood directors to all scenes automatically, as part of their standard way of viewing the world. That is certainly not the case here. Keighley views it as mainly a way of staging confrontations. He only applies it to select scenes, those mainly involving direct personal antagonism between two men. Otherwise, he stages scenes in longer takes with all the characters in a single shot. He gets plenty of editing in his scenes through cross cutting, so there are few really sustained long takes in the film, however.