Released in November 1933, Blood Money was directed by Rowland Brown and featured George Bancroft in the leading role. As one of Hollywood’s final Pre-Code films, Blood Money was poorly received by censors who objected to its quaint depiction of organized crime and extra-marital sex.
Distributed by United Artists and backed by 20th Century Fox, Blood Money also featured the film debut of Dame Judith Anderson, who went on to have a fifty year career in both theater and film.
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‘Blood Money’ (1933): Spoiler-Free Synopsis
Bill Bailey (George Bancroft) is a flashy bail bondsman who plays the game on both sides of the law.
Although he runs fully a legal business, much of Bailey’s clientele does not, especially Ruby Darling (Judith Anderson), a shady night club proprietor and Bailey’s sometimes girlfriend.
Bailey’s not above bending the rules to make a buck. So when Ruby’s brother Drury (Chick Chandler) robs a bank, he’s more than happy to issue the bond. But things get complicated when both men fall for the same woman.
The object their mutual affection is not just any girl, she’s Elaine Talbart (Francis Dee), the free-spirited, mischievous daughter of a millionaire industrialist, chasing thrills and chaos, protected by her wealth and privilege.
Bill Bailey hasn’t got to where he is by accident.
But he’s about to make a big one.
‘Blood Money’ (1933): Full Plot Summary
The film opens with an expository montage designed to show the audience the success and influence possessed by its charismatic protagonist, Bill Bailey.
As the city’s top bail-bondsman, Bailey’s network reaches into many domains, on both sides of the law.
We also learn that Bailey is excellent at shooting pool. His office is even situated beside a pub with a dedicated billiards room. This scene functions as a “Chekhov’s pool hall,” a place we will obviously return to later in the film.
When at last we see Bailey in action, we realize that like many of his clients, Bailey is willing to break the rules if the right opportunity presents itself.
In an establishing shot, a street sign tells us we’ve traveled to a different part of town: 63rd Street, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Bill Bailey knocks on a heavily protected door. The guard knows him by name and invites him inside. Bailey’s there to visit Ruby Darling, a female gangster who operates the speakeasy with her brother, Drury, who’s recently been released from prison. The film implies that Bailey and Ruby carry on a casual sexual relationship, but nothing romantic or monogamous.
The next day, an attractive young lady attends Bailey’s office in need of a bail bond. She’s been charged with shoplifting and needs a fifteen-hundred dollar bond. As collateral, she offers up a diamond ring worth at least four times that much.
The woman calls herself Jane Smith. When Bailey eavesdrops on her phone call, it turns out that she’s actually Elaine Talbart—the daughter of a famous millionaire.
Playing along with her ruse, Bailey takes on Elaine as his client. He even offers to drive her home. As she stands up to leave, she steals his cigarette lighter, implying that she is some sort of kleptomaniac. Bailey finds her mischievousness amusing, and by the end of the ride, it’s clear that he’s become quite smitten with young Miss Talbart.
After engineering her acquittal, Bailey accompanies Elaine to a party at her father’s estate. This scene serves a few different purposes. Their awkward small-talk reveals they are poorly matched, while also indicating that when it comes to men, Elaine has a penchant for criminals.
We also meet Mr. Talbart, a staunch a conservative. Here, we glean that Elaine’s wild behavior is probably related to a strict upbringing.
And when Elaine exits the conversation in favor of a hula dancing session alongside the performance troupe, we realize that she’s a sexually promiscuous young lady unencumbered by etiquette or convention. Even her own father agrees:
“She has an underworld nature. She’s very fond of underworld pictures, always reading detective stories.”
In a long scene, Bailey visits Ruby and they have a falling out. Ruby’s feelings for Bailey are deeper than she previously let on. She’s jealous of his interest in Elaine. She’s bitter and jilted and seems determined to take some sort of action.
Newspaper headlines tell us there’s been a bank robbery: Five-hundred thousand dollars has been stolen.
Bailey meets with Ruby. He knows her brother robbed the bank. He thinks Drury should surrender. He offers to provide the bond.
Bailey and Ruby travel to Drury’s hide-out. Unbeknownst to them, the police follow their taxicab. Drury admits to robbing the bank. Bailey says he’ll arrange the bail. The police never make an appearance.
Bailey takes Elaine to see a dog race. We know from newspaper headlines that some degree of time has passed. It’s also clear that their relationship has deepened. And yet, despite all this, when Elaine bumps into Drury, her lust for him is blatant.
A series of scenes illustrate the growing rift between Bailey and Drury, as well as the budding romance between Drury and Elaine. These scenes culminate in a conversation in which Bailey tells Drury his best option is to skip bail and flee the country.
Drury agrees. He says he’ll send $50,000 to Bailey’s office to cover the bond.
Sometime later, Drury and Elaine pack their bags. The plan is for Elaine to take a train to Montreal, where Drury will eventually meet up with her.
Before he leaves, Drury gives Elaine two briefcases and a set of instructions. The first case contains $300,000 in registered bonds, which cannot be redeemed for cash. These bonds also represent incriminating evidence and therefore need to be destroyed. The second case contains $50,000 cash for Bailey.
The case arrives by courier at Bailey’s office. Instead of fifty-thousand dollars, Bailey finds the useless bonds. Unbeknownst to him, Elaine has switched the packages and fled with the cash.
Bailey thinks that Drury ripped him off. Despite Ruby’s pleas for leniency, he decides to hunt down Drury and collect the insurance money.
But Ruby Darling won’t let her brother take the fall. She calls a meeting with her underworld colleagues and puts a ten thousand dollar bounty on Bailey’s head. She doesn’t want him dead. She wants to put him out of business.
The mobsters make a plan. First, they’ll tell their criminal pals to skip bail. Next, they’ll break into Bailey’s office and steal the contents of his safe. The combination of skipped bails and no free cash will instantly put Bailey out of business.
Two crooks break into Bailey’s office. They blow the safe with dynamite, but the only thing inside is Drury’s stolen bonds.
Policemen stationed nearby hear the explosion. When they investigate the robbery, they find the registered bonds and trace them back to Drury. Bailey becomes a suspect in the bank robbery and gets indicted.
Bailey retaliates by convincing the Mayor to crack down on organized crime. The vice squad begins a set of raids, targeting speakeasies and bawdy houses and unlicensed casinos.
Bleeding money, the mob decides to murder Bailey. They design a bomb that fits inside a billiards ball and plant it in the pool hall next to Bailey’s office.
Meanwhile, Elaine visits Drury in jail. During their conversation, she accidentally admits that it was her who switched the briefcases. Furious, Drury sends her away for good. Then he demands to make a phone call to his sister.
At the pool hall, Bailey starts his game.
Ruby gets her brother’s message and calls the mobsters, begging them to cancel Bailey’s hit. But she’s too late: the bomb has already been planted.
As Bailey’s match progresses, Ruby roars across town in an attempt to save his life. What follows is an exciting sequence in which Ruby races through traffic as Bailey gets closer and closer to finishing his game.
Just as Bailey’s about to strike the sabotaged ball, Ruby’s car crashes into the building, stopping the game and saving his life. Skeptical of her story, Bailey throws the “bomb” out the window and it explodes when it hits the ground.
In the aftermath of Ruby’s car wreck, Elaine arrives at Bailey’s office. She encounters a tearful young woman who claims she’s been mistreated by an unscrupulous casting director. Excited by this “opportunity”, Elaine takes the woman’s paperwork and hurries off toward the building.
In the film’s closing scene, Bailey and Ruby make amends. A joke implies that their relationship has returned to where it started.
Opinion: My Review of ‘Blood Money’ (1933)
Whether by intention or necessity, Blood Money is a tight, compact film. While many of its Pre-Code counterparts move at glacial pace, Blood Money lacks almost any extraneous dialogue or expository footage.
The prologue is basically a montage meant to illustrate Bill Bailey’s influence and lifestyle. The excessive use of wipe transitions can almost be forgiven in light of the economical way the film launches into the story.
Many of today’s franchise films begin this way, often with flashbacks to previous installments, or newsreel footage to bring us up to date. As modern viewers, we often take these techniques for granted, forgetting that at some point in the past, an actual person invented them.
Blood Money’s Pre-Code context also provides us with interesting comparisons to films that followed later in the decade. Female sexuality is represented in a manner that would not be permitted just a few years later. The film exudes a casual sexual realism that gets replaced with allusion and symbolism in the post-Code, Classic Film Noir period.
The minimal degree of character development seems quite analogous with Film Noir, as well as classic Pulp and Hardboiled Fiction. We enter these character’s lives somewhere in the middle. They are who they are and they’re unlikely to change. Their fates are sealed.
Although Blood Money lacks depth, style and voice, its characters still operate within a cynical, nihilistic Film Noir world. They show no desire to join”straight” society. They view government, law and justice as corrupt institutions. They rely only on themselves, doing what must be done to survive.
Despite Blood Money’s many Noir connections, the last act feels like watching a summary of a film, not the film itself. It’s almost as though in his effort to build dramatic tension, the director forgot he still needed to explain what’s going on.
As this film was “lost” for over forty years, the chance exists that the digitized version is missing parts of the original footage. But beyond two scenes that seem to appear out of order, there are no logical inconsistencies in the way the plot unfolds.
In other words, Blood Money’s deficiencies are not technical, they are purely dramatic.
With a sixty-five minute run time, Blood Money is closer to a contemporary television episode than a full length feature film.
To be successful, shorter formats require mounting tension, an exciting third act, and a satisfying pay-off. As Ruby races to the pool hall, it seems this rubric is being followed. But the film turns all that energy into a wet fart.
Bailey doesn’t die. Ruby gets to keep on being Ruby. Drury is still stuck in jail. Elaine remains oblivious to the damage she has caused.
Nothing is resolved, no one grows, no one is rewarded or punished. You could even make the argument that Blood Money doesn’t have an ending at all, it simply stops.
If I thought this was done on purpose, I would be quite enamored with the film. But these omissions are clearly accidental. Nothing in the preceding sixty minutes suggests Blood Money intended on subverting traditional notions of story, character or meaning.
Only Bill Bailey’s downfall would have made this flawed film work. Had he paid a price for his transgressions, he would have resembled literary counterparts in the books of James M. Cain, most notably The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943), men who make a living playing games, but who ultimately get played in the end.
Value and Influence
Unlike 1930’s counterparts like Fritz Lang’s M, this is not a film of tremendous quality or influence.
Blood Money‘s real value is as a cinematic artifact. Not only does it document the stylings of the Pre-Code era, it was an archetype for future movies, foreshadowing the emergence of Film Noir.
At first glance, the film seems so simplistic, it’s easy to miss how modern it really is. Consider its portrayal of women.
There are four main characters in this movie. Half of them are women. These women drive and shape the plot, without them, there’s no movie here at all. In the end Ruby Darling is the hero, saving the life of the male protagonist at great risk to her safety and reputation.
Blood Money’s influence on Film Noir is harder to miss. Every character is a criminal. Policemen are reduced to extras. Although the point of view shifts from scene to scene, we are firmly in the criminal underworld for the duration of the film.
While these attributes may seem pedestrian by today’s standards, keep in mind how novel this would have been in 1933. Early gangster movies like The Public Enemy (1931) or Little Caesar (1931) were presented as cautionary tales, they kept the viewer in a position of moral superiority. Blood Money brings the audience down to the level of its characters, saying, “this is our world, take it or leave it.”
Blood Money’s other Film Noir components are numerous. Consider the following:
- As a character, Bill Bailey is absolutely a Film Noir protagonist: neither good or bad, breaking rules that don’t suit him and inventing rules that do.
- Ruby Darling behaves like a crime family matriarch we see in later films like Queen of The Mob (1940), White Heat (1949) or Walk on The Wild Side (1960).
- Although Bailey is a bail bondsman, his activities resemble nothing of the sort. Bailey’s interest in the girl, his discovery of her true identity, his investigation of her crimes, his persistent infatuation despite his own common sense, his eventual demise: this behaviour is absolutely consistent with that of the private detective protagonists that populate Film Noir and Hardboiled Fiction.
- As a bail bondsman, in Bailey we see the seeds of characters like Max Cherry from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (1992), later adapted for the screen for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997).
- Elaine Talbart bears a strong resemblance to Colonel Conway’s daughter in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) or about a dozen other female antagonists in Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series.
- Consider these lines, spoken by Talbart’s father: “She has an underworld mania. She’s very fond of underworld pictures, always reading detective stories. I sometimes think that if she hadn’t lived in a splendid environment, she may have been inclined to match her wits with the law.”
- Elaine’s combination of well-bred wholesomeness and free-spirited duplicity is an archetype for characters like Lola Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Kathie Moffat in Out of The Past (1947), or Elsa Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai (1947).
- The love triangle between a bad guy and an even worse guy (a bail bondsman and a bank robber) has nothing much to do with love, it’s more like an infatuation triangle. With some imagination, we can read Blood Money as an early installment in the erotic thriller canon, leading to films like Kill Me Again (1989), Consenting Adults (1992), and China Moon (1992).
Gender Roles And Female Sexuality
The film can certainly be criticized for its shallow, one dimensional characters. And while some may roll their eyes at yet another detective character that becomes infatuated with a femme fatale—pump the brakes for just a minute.
Consider these “cliches” with care.
Unlike their Post-Code counterparts, Ruby and Elaine are not punished for their promiscuity, or for yielding power. Neither are they blamed for the downfall of the male protagonist. They display their sexuality in an open, honest way, without relying on allusion or symbolism. In this respect, Blood Money belongs in the same conversation with early feminist films like Baby Face (1933).
All of the above goes away after 1934. Unmarried women need some kind of reason to be single, they’re either debutantes or spinsters or widows—or simply sluts. Promiscuous woman were portrayed as dark and dangerous, even disturbed. All while unmarried male characters were framed as complicated loners, seductive lotharios, or fun-loving bachelors.
So—the possibility exists that the archetypal femme fatale was simply the result of the constraints imposed by the Code.
Had artists been allowed to depict their characters more freely, we might have ended up with a different brand of female antagonist during the Film Noir period. Perhaps characters with the depth of Mildred Pierce (James M. Cain, 1941) would have been the rule, instead of the exception.
Trends with this degree of cultural resilience cannot simply be dismissed as primitive or patriarchal, they persist because of deeper, often counter-intuitive factors. Before you debate the “why”, first you have to know the “where”’, “who”, and “how”.
Where did these characters come from? Who invented them? How did they evolve over time?
Films like Blood Money can help answer those questions, but not if they’re cancelled or forgotten.
Is ‘Blood Money’ Worth Watching?
Classic films often surprise us by presenting elements that seem eerily relevant to our present moment. We like to think of our historical epoch as unique or distinctive, but even a clumsy film like Blood Money quickly proves us wrong. One might even argue it possesses a political sensibility much closer to the films of today than those that followed later in the decade. Consider these lines:
“The only difference between a liberal and a conservative man is that a liberal recognizes the existence of vice and controls it, while a conservative just turns his back and pretends that it doesn’t exist.”
Despite its flaws, Blood Money indeed deserves a place in the early Film Noir canon.
It shows us Hollywood has always been obsessed with crime and criminality, even before they really knew what they were doing.
It provides us with the primordial “stuff” that eventually became Film Noir.
It illustrates a sexual liberalism that would later be relegated to subtext and innuendo due to the artistic limitations imposed by the Code.
Most importantly, it reminds us that the conventions of storytelling are part of a continuum, beginning as simple ideas that mutate and evolve as each successive artist leaves their mark. Character and genre are constantly in flux, altered by historical constraints, not simply reacting to the issues of the day.
Tropes that begin as new ideas eventually become cliches, until someone in the future makes them new again. This process is the essence of modernism, narrative, and perhaps even language itself.
Those who wish to truly understand this process must first learn to identify its presence. If you’ve got about an hour, a film like Blood Money is a good start.
Director Rowland Brown went on to write Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), the Oscar nominated gangster film starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, later referenced in the 1990 Christmas classic Home Alone.
Australian-born Judith Anderson later starred as Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940).
You can watch Blood Money for free on YouTube.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Somewhere In The Night.
Director: Rowland Brown
Date Created: 2023-09-29 05:23