Only days before Warner premiered The Public Enemy, Paramount Pictures delivered City Streets, a forgotten Pre-Code classic.
Released in April 1931, City Streets starred Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas, with William Boyd, Wynne Gibson and Guy Kibbee in supporting roles.
Conceived by Dashiell Hammett, City Streets was originally titled “After School.” Screenwriters Garret and Marcin eventually modified the story, replacing its teenage protagonists with adults.
Director Rouben Mamoulian used many of the techniques employed in his debut film Applause (1929), infusing City Streets with a visual artistry that was mostly absent from more popular gangster movies of the era.
During the second half of the 1930’s, it was common practice for studios to re-release abridged versions of older Pre-Code movies.
In 1936, a redacted version of City Streets was STILL rejected by censors, who complained the ineptitude of the film’s policemen was impossible to edit out. The absence of a viable re-release may explain its current status as a “forgotten film.”
Table of Contents
‘City Streets’ (1931): Spoiler-Free Synopsis
A naive young couple is drawn into the criminal world of prohibition-era bootlegging. When a lascivious mob leader tries to sever their relationship, Nan and Kid are forced to do some racketeering of their own.
‘City Streets’ (1931): Full Plot Summary
City Streets opens with a montage: heavy trucks rumbling down dark empty roads, pints of freshly poured beer, empty bottles rattling along assembly lines.
The setting is a brewery. Three men wearing suits admire the facility while they wait for someone called the “Big Fella.” The man who runs the brewery takes off his hat. We see from the lining his initials are “R.Z.”
Big Fella Meskal arrives. The atmosphere is tense, but once the money changes hands, we assume they’ve struck a deal. But as RZ walks away, Meskal (Paul Lukas) signals to his henchman. In the next scene, we see RZ’s hat, floating slowly down a river of beer.
We glean from the prologue that Big Fella has (literally and figuratively) pushed a rival mobster out of business. With RZ dead, Big Fella runs the brewery and the racket that goes with it.
The next scene takes us to a circus midway. Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sweeney) meets The Kid (Gary Cooper), a cowboy type who runs the pop-gun target shooting game.
Kid finishes his shift and the pair embark on an impromptu date. They walk through a hall of mirrors. They stop for food and play carnival games. They sit together on the beach at sunset and share a long embrace.
Nan tries convincing Kid to join her stepfather’s racket. Kid refuses, explaining it’s against his principles. When Nan implies she won’t marry him unless he starts earning decent money, Kid gets upset and storms off. They patch things up a moment later, but the scene succeeds in showing us the divide in their relationship.
When Nan gets home from her date, she’s greeted by her stepfather, Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee). We realize cigar smoking Pop Cooley is one of the men from the brewery scene.
We follow Pop to an apartment building. In the hallway, he witnesses an altercation between Big Fella and Blackie (Stanley Fields), a mob lieutenant (and the other man in the film’s opening scene).
Big Fella has been caught with Blackie’s wife, Aggie (Wynne Gibson). Blackie threatens violence and slams the door in Meskal’s face. Offended, Big Fella departs. When he bumps into Pop Cooley in the hallway, he insinuates that he wants Blackie eliminated.
Sensing a golden opportunity, Pop cobbles together a plan. He leaves his cigar in Blackie’s apartment and gets Aggie to keep it burning. Then he phones Nan and tells her to meet him down the street from the club.
Pop and Blackie park their vehicle and walk toward the night club. As they traverse a poorly lit alleyway, Pop shoots Blackie dead.
Pop flees by car, but pulls over to give Nan the murder weapon before rushing back to Blackie’s apartment.
Nan hides the gun inside her coat. She intends on tossing it into the ocean, until she’s followed by a policeman and eventually arrested.
At the station, the cops pressure Nan to flip on her stepfather, threatening prosecution and jail time.
Back at Blackie’s apartment, Pop Cooley is exonerated by his own cigar: the tremendous length of the ash becomes his alibi.
Nan keeps her mouth shut, but the police aren’t bluffing: Nan is convicted on accessory to murder and sent to women’s prison.
At the circus, perhaps the following day, Nan is late for a rendez-vous with Kid. Pop Cooley shows up in her place and breaks the news.
Pop gaslights Kid into joining the racket, telling him its the only way to pay for an expensive lawyer who can broker Nan’s release. Hesitant at first, Kid reluctantly accepts the offer.
The second act is focused on Nan and Kid’s respective character arcs.
In prison, a number of incidents leads Nan to realize the mob is just using her, that a life of crime doesn’t pay. She begins to see Kid’s virtues in a whole new light: she truly loves him and she’s glad he’s not a racketeer.
Meanwhile, Kid adopts the persona he thinks Nan prefers. He climbs the mob hierarchy, gaining trust and credibility. He wears fancy clothes and drives fancy cars. He drops his country drawl and develops a cynical tough guy demeanor.
But when the “new” Kid visits her in prison, Nan is horrified, tortured by the knowledge his unwholesome transformation is entirely her fault.
The extent of her psychological distress is expressed through a surreal jail cell dream sequence, in which other people’s voices swirl endlessly inside her head. This expressionistic scene culminates with the seasons changing in the cell block window, telling us another year has passed.
Act three begins with Nan’s release from prison.
Somewhat ominously, Big Fella is among those gathered to welcome her back home. When he announces that he’s throwing her a party, Nan shows little interest in the idea. But under pressure from both Pop and Kid, she eventually agrees.
Big Fella uses the party as a pretense for several lecherous advances. He forces Nan to dance with him, ignoring Blackie’s widow Aggie, his current girlfriend.
When Nan breaks away to have a dance with Kid, Big Fella approaches Pop Cooley and asks for his permission to sleep with her.
Pop is disturbingly enthusiastic about the proposition, but warns that Kid is likely to retaliate.
Big Fella wades onto the dance floor, insisting on another dance with Nan. When Kid objects, both men reach for their guns.
But the very public setting is not conducive to a shoot-out. The tension eases. Kid escorts Nan home. As he exits her apartment building, he spots two armed men hiding in a car.
Kid sneaks up on them and takes away their guns, but the jig is up. Big Fella Meskal wants him dead. The only solution is a midnight showdown.
Terrified of losing Kid, Nan concocts her own plan. She puts on a provocative gown and pays Big Fella a visit—with a tiny gun hidden in her purse.
Kid returns to the party, punching waiters and causing a scene, searching for the Big Fella.
Seconds after Nan arrives, Big Fella is all over her. He finds her gun and doesn’t even care, casting it aside. But Nan fails to account for Aggie, the jilted girlfriend he kicked out of his home just moments earlier.
When Kid can’t find Big Fella at the party, he hops in his car and races across town, heading to Meskal’s residence.
Aggie sneaks back inside and takes Nan’s gun off the chair. She hides between two large doors and waits for the perfect shot. Then she pulls the trigger and shoots Big Fella dead.
Gangster cronies rush toward the murder scene. Since it was her gun that fired the fatal shot, Nan becomes the only suspect. Aggie even re-appears, adding to the chorus of accusers.
Competing mob underlings gather for a meeting. They have a few things to discuss: Who killed Big Fella? Was it a rival syndicate? Was it really Nan? Who will run the racket now that Meskal’s dead?
Kid announces HE will run the mob.
The others go along with the idea, on one condition: they want to take Nan for a drive and throw her off a cliff.
Kid agrees, but says that HE will drive the car. With a trio of goons riding the backseat, Kid collects Nan from her apartment.
Back at Big Fella’s mansion, Aggie’s suitcase is found hidden behind the drapes. It’s evident that Meskal threw her out, that it was her who pulled the trigger. Although it’s become irrelevant to the plot, we know that for duplicitous Aggie, the jig is finally up.
On an empty rural road, Kid races beside a freight train, narrowly missing a deadly collision at a railway crossing. From there, he speeds along a winding cliff side highway, continually accelerating despite the growing risk.
The men in the back get squeamish, begging him to slow down. When Kid refuses, they draw their guns, but his erratic driving makes it impossible for them to shoot.
Nan takes Kid’s pistol and aims it at the goons. They surrender, tossing their weapons out the window. Kid pulls over and tells them it was really Aggie who shot the Big Fella. He also tells them they can walk home.
Free from debt and obligation, Nan and Kid drive off into the California sun.
Opinion: My Review Of ‘City Streets’ (1931)
The first half of City Streets contains a number of Film Noir components. Pop Cooley’s silhouette in the hallway, as well as the shadows on the building wall before Blackie’s murder, are the most obvious visual examples.
Nan’s jailhouse voice-over scene remains the most significant of these instances, an existential crisis not unlike George Taylor’s internal hospital room monologue in the opening scene of Somewhere In The Night (1946).
“Kid” is thus a forerunner to character names like “Driver” in James Sallis’s Drive (2005), Frank in Michael Mann’s Thief, the unnamed protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), and of course, the narrator of the Daphne du Maurier classic, Rebecca (1938).
While connections to subsequent films are numerous, I disagree with the notion that City Streets is somehow similar to The Maltese Falcon.
Critics have a lazy habit of confusing Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, likely because Humphrey Bogart played both characters at different times in his career. It’s also clear the aforementioned critics haven’t bothered to read the books those films were based upon.
While he’s a violent drunk who often bends the rules, Marlowe adheres to a personal code that remains consistent throughout his various adventures. He values truth above profit, often refusing his fee. He has a number of deep friendships that are explored throughout the series, some of whom are cops. His dalliances with women are brief, respectful and reluctant.
Spade, on the other hand, is arguably the villain of The Maltese Falcon. He’s sleeping with his partner’s wife right up until the day the man is murdered. His primary motivation is to retrieve the titular falcon so he can keep it for himself. His physical appearance is often compared to that of Satan. He lacks Marlowe’s sense of humor and sense of common decency. He hates the police and considers them his adversaries.
The reality is that beyond their profession, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe have little in common.
Critics who posit the notion that City Streets and The Maltese Falcon are somehow cinematic cousins have succumbed to a similar mistake.
The world of The Maltese Falcon is a snake pit. Desperate and dreary, its cast of characters are devoid of any redeeming qualities. Although City Streets contains a Film Noir sensibility, those accents do not evolve into a full-blown world. Gary Cooper’s portrayal of The Kid has nothing in common with Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade.
The Kid is capable of love.
Sam Spade is not.
Behind the lens of City Streets, Director Rouben Mamoulian was absolutely ahead of his time. Consider the following:
- The quick tight shots of each gangster’s face in the moments after Blackie’s murder could easily appear in a Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) or Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).
- R.Z.’s hat drifting down the river of beer is quite similar to the expressionistic scenes that represent little Elsie Beckmann’s murder in the first act of Fritz Lang’s M. The same can be said for the seasons changing behind Nan’s jail cell window.
- The exciting driving sequence in the final scenes of City Streets would be at home in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller or perhaps an action movie starring Steve McQueen.
- Understated symbolism, like the cat statuettes in Aggie’s room, Kid’s white hat, or the hall of mirrors at the circus, should not go unappreciated.
- Aggie’s eyes between the doors, just before she pulls the trigger, should have been remembered as one of Film Noir’s most iconic shots—but City Streets came out a DECADE before the start of the Classic Film Noir period!
- Perhaps most importantly, in City Streets, every murder happens off camera. This was not the result of censorship, nor was it because of any code. This restraint proves Mamoulian understood one of cinema’s most important maxims: the audience’s imagination is far more powerful than any moving image.
City Streets’ status as an Early Noir Film comes down to more than just aesthetics. Its first half tells a story that could absolutely hold its own with those released fifteen years later.
The Kid doesn’t join the mob because he covets wealth or power. He’s duped into the decision on account of his concern for Nan, as well as his belief that she prefers to marry someone rich.
In this respect, Kid’s story is consistent with those of characters like Graham Greene’s Holley Martins (The Third Man, 1949) or Joseph Mankiewicz’s George Taylor (Somewhere In The Night, 1946), men who are drawn into a criminal underworld through no fault of their own.
Nan Cooley is a prototypical femme fatale, with a complexity that many female characters lacked in the well known of the 1940’s. In the first half of the film, she’s an enthusiastic participant in her stepfather’s beer racket, with no plans of going straight. After her incarceration, a wiser Nan is willing to do whatever it takes to escape the mob’s grip, even if that means murder. In this respect, her character arc is not dissimilar from that of Lily Powers in Baby Face.
City Streets conveniently resolves itself without Nan (or Kid) needing to kill anybody. While that narrative decision is most certainly vulnerable to criticism, the Film Noir characteristics of the first two acts are unassailable.
Unfortunately, the final act veers wildly off course: the moment Big Fella makes a move on Nan, City Streets becomes a Western.
The rivalry between Big Fella and The Kid invokes a standard Western trope: “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
Kid is the good guy. Big Fella is the bad guy. Kid is virtuous. Big Fella is lecherous. Kid wears a white hat. Big Fella wears a black one.
You get the idea.
As he escorts Nan home from her contentious party, Kid declares the only solution to their problem is a “showdown” with Meskal, an obvious allusion to the standard Western shoot-out trope. As the film concludes, Kid and Nan even ride off into the sunset together.
In other words, what begins as an Early Noir gangster story becomes a Cowboy Western Romance.
Gary Cooper made a name for himself with roles in Western films. The great depression was also re-organizing the country’s geography, an on-going mass migration that re-popularized old ideas about America’s Western Frontier. Perhaps leaning into Cooper’s cinematic cowboy status was an attractive proposition for the studio.
Whether or not the Western shift works within the context of the film is not for me to say, but it’s clear that any notion of City Streets as a fulsome Early Noir evaporates in this strange third act.
A more interesting (and more Film Noir) resolution would have been if Nan had murdered Big Fella and Kid had somehow taken the blame, sacrificing their relationship to guarantee her future safety. Another option would have been if one of them had died to save the other.
With very few exceptions, a story that ends in marriage, actual or implied, is a comedy. While City Streets is more than worthy of your time—it’s simply not quite Noir enough.
By today’s standards, certain viewers are likely to label City Streets as sexist and misogynistic in its portrayal of women.
But sanctimoniously identifying the politically incorrect components of ninety year old films doesn’t qualify as criticism.
At least, not for those of us with brains.
In fact, a close reading of City Streets reveals an incredibly progressive film, in which female characters are the sole drivers of the plot:
- Nan pushes Kid to join the mob. She sets the conditions that govern their relationship, not him.
- Aggie facilitates her husband’s murder, acting in her own interest to elevate her social standing.
- Nan chooses to take the rap for Pop and go to prison. Despite her eventual regrets, it’s not evident that she was initially coerced into doing so.
- Jealous and betrayed, Aggie flat out murders Big Fella—and almost gets away with it.
- It’s Nan who brings the gun to Big Fella’s house. Although she doesn’t pull the trigger, without Nan bravely taking action, he might have lived.
- Protecting Nan is what lands Kid behind the wheel of the car that eventually becomes their getaway vehicle.
In short, there’s no City Streets without Nan and Aggie. Not only are they the film’s most interesting characters, their presence also highlights the mundane nature of their male counterparts.
Kid is a dorky rube, a total bore until the last ten minutes of the film. Pop Cooley is a disgusting pig. Big Fella Meskal may be ruthless in theory, but our experience of him as viewers is more akin to that of watching a creepy waiter or a horny cartoon skunk.
Not unlike Blood Money (1933), in City Streets, women make the movie work.
Interpretation: What’s ‘Baby Face’ Really About?
My take on City Streets is that it functions as a strange rendition of the American Dream.
I don’t mean our consumer-driven conception of the idea: two cars, a house, two kids, a dog, a backyard pool and an annual vacation.
I’m talking about the philosophical basis of the American Dream, the idea that in America you can choose who you want to be and then go off somewhere and become that person.
The Kid starts out as a wannabe cowboy working at a circus. In today’s nomenclature, he’s a “carny.” But by time we reach the second act, he’s become a rich gangster. He wears fur coats and drives expensive cars. He lives above the law. Later, he becomes the mob’s ultimate leader simply by making a verbal announcement!
In the end, Kid drives off into the sunset with a beautiful young woman, presumably to get married and start again somewhere new.
Kid’s story contains examples of upward social mobility, freedom of movement, business dynamism, economic opportunity, and social openness. Citizens can pick up and move to a new place without fear of local prejudice or legal repercussions. In America, anyone can make their dreams come true—even folks who’ve made mistakes.
Although its Western vibes don’t fit with the first hour of the film, this freewheeling ending is well suited to the year of its release.
1931 was a year in which the upheaval of the Great Depression was changing people’s ideas about how and where to live their lives, a year in which many Americans hit the road seeking better opportunities in other States.
As the car accelerates and the credits roll, we almost expect Kid to throw his hat into the sun.
Is ‘City Streets’ (1931) Worth Watching?
While it falls short of masterpiece status, City Streets contains a richness that competing gangster movies sorely lacked. The plot is more complex. The characters grow and change. The composition is well ahead of its time.
Having said that, given its third act turn toward a Western Romance, it’s questionable whether City Streets really qualifies as a gangster film at all.
My suggestion is to watch City Streets in tandem with some other Pre-Code films and decide for yourself.
You can watch City Streets for free on The Internet Archive.
Film legend Gary Cooper won three Academy Awards throughout his forty years in Hollywood.
Sylvia Sydney’s career lasted an incredible 70 years, culminating with her role as Juno in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988).
If you enjoyed this post, check out Little Caesar.
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Date Created: 2023-12-07 20:48