Behind the Green Lights (1935)

US / 69 minutes / bw / Mascot Dir: Christy Cabanne Pr: Nat Levine, Colbert Clark Scr: James Gruen, Colbert Clark Story (supposedly): Behind the Green Lights (1931 memoir) by Captain Cornelius W. Willemse Cine: Ernest Miller, Jack Marta Cast: Norman Foster, Judith Allen, Purnell Pratt, Sidney Blackmer, Theodore von Eltz, Kenneth Thomson, Edward Gargan, Ford Sterling, John Davidson, Jane Meredith, J. Carrol Naish, John Ince.

This movie owes virtually nothing to its stated source, the memoir of NYPD cop Willemse, in which he happily justified the use by the department of techniques such as torture (“the third degree”) to extract confessions from suspects; he argued that this was reasonable procedure because it was only rarely that the innocent suffered. Torquemada used a similar line of reasoning.

The subtext of the movie is that, while 95% of lawyers are just fine, upstanding citizens, the rest are a bunch of shysters. Of one of these NYPD Lieutenant Jim Kennedy (Pratt) tells his lawyer daughter Mary (Allen) at a late stage in the movie, “He’s worse than a murderer, for he springs open the cage that lets these vultures loose on the world.” Unfortunately, the shyster Jim’s talking about is Raymond Cortell (Blackmer), who just happens to be Mary’s boss.

Behind the Green Lights

“I’ll marry you any time,” Mary tells Dave, but they reckon without her shyster boss.

The story seems often to have been written by a 12-year-old. Top-hatted louche Charles T. “Ritzy” Conrad (Thomaon) is brought into the precinct on a drunk and disorderly charge. Gem dealer John C. Owen (von Eltz) arrives on the scene to bail his supposed employee out. As this is happening, Detective Dave Britten (Foster) is, in another part of town, interviewing rich saucy widow Mrs. Gorham (Meredith) about an attempted robbery of her jewelry by a man she picked up, who hit her over the head with a quart whiskey bottle and made his escape. Dave realizes how well the description matches Conrad, a known thief whose m.o. includes the trick of creating a false alibi by getting picked up by the cops on a minor charge.

So far so good, as far as the plotting’s concerned, but this audience euphoria won’t last long. Smarmy shyster Raymond Cortell takes on the defense and appoints his junior employee Mary Kennedy—Lieutenant Jim’s daughter, we recall—to conduct it. She gets the case dismissed on the grounds that the cops described a whiskey bottle as a deadly weapon—”assault with a deadly weapon”, you see—whereas a whiskey bottle, as she “proves” by producing a miniature, can be tiny, no use as a deadly weapon at all. This is enough, apparently, for a hardened NYC judge to throw out the case rather than the lawyer.

Soon after, John C. Owen, the crooked gem dealer we met earlier, murders fellow gem-dealer Rene Charvét for the sake of $200,000’s worth of diamonds, puts the diamonds and the murder gun in a package and mails it to himself, then fakes the scene in pretense that a mysterious intruder robbed both men, killing Charvét but just binding and gagging Owen. The fake is quite childishly lousy: no wonder that smart Detective Dave Gibbon immediately sees what garbage it is, and arrests Owen. What really clinches the matter is that the building’s janitor, part-time wrestler Max Schultz (Sterling), saw Owen mailing the package a half-hour after he was supposed to have been tied up.

Of course, Owen hires Cortell to represent him, and Cortell appoints Mary to front the case in court. Under his guidance, after Dave has retrieved Max from the Connecticut retreat where Cortell sent him, Mary persuades the jury that Max, far from being able to identify Owen mailing a package by moonlight, is so blind that once, trapped in a headlock, he accidentally threw the referee rather than his opponent out of the wrestling ring. She then lies to the court that the moon was new rather than full on the fatal night.

It’s at this point that you start to wonder why everyone present is so stupid as not to bother finding out whether or not the moon really was full that night. We know the jury is stupid, because they don’t realize that being temporarily blinded by a headlock doesn’t mean you’re shortsighted, but can everyone else be similarly so dimwitted? Ah, but we have to remember we’re living in a plot that 12-year-olds write for their amateur dramatics.

Because of her cheating and lying, Mary wins the case. She’s then stupefied—just stupefied, I tell you—to discover that both cop father Jim and cop fiancé Dave want nothing more to do with her. Throughout the movie we’ve been bridling over the way Dave and to a lesser extent Jim have been treating her as an airhead—Dave has been insisting that, when he gets his promotion to Lieutenant, she should give up her silly job and return to being the “sweet little girl I used to know”—but it now becomes ever more evident that in fact she is an airhead. Once again, we’re back in the land of 12-year-old plotting: the story’s writer (Clark, we’d guess) assumes the audience will happily accept any plot point based on the notion that women have the brains of chickens.

It’s only when the released Owen, conducting another jewel robbery in order to pay Cortell’s extortionate bill, puts a bullet through Mary’s father Jim and thereby Jim onto the critical list, that it occurs to Mary that perhaps all’s not well with the new-forged legal partnership of Cortell & Kennedy.

If the gender preconceptions of the story are vile—or hilariously risible, take your choice—so are its inconsistencies. When Owen, like Max Schultz before him, hides out in a Connecticut motel, Dave manages to get from NYC to Westbury, CT, so swiftly that Owen, warned by phone, still hasn’t finished packing his toothbrush. And there are odd instances of a character forgetting earlier elements of the plot of which he himself was a part: interviewed by Cortell, Owen is startled to find that Max Schultz witnessed him mailing the incriminating package, even though earlier Owen was there when Max told Dave Britten exactly this. Yet more surprisingly, Owen seems startled when told by Cortell what the package contained: bearing in mind that Owen was the one who packed it . . .

If the story is pretty poor, the screenplay itself—presumably by Gruen—does its very best to compensate. We’re not talking Shakespeare here, but there are plenty of lines that seem way above the average for ’30s fillers of this kind. The “vultures” remark cited above is one. Similarly, Dave’s effort to get through to Mary that her lying and cheating are not without consequences sounds as if it comes from a far higher quality movie: “You turned a murderer loose. What did that mean to you? Nothing. Not until that murderer turned on you and struck down your own father.”

I can almost hear Bogart speaking that.



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