Bad Company (1931)

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A psycho mobster falls for his sidekick’s wife, with lethal consequences!
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US / 76 minutes / bw / RKO Pathé Dir: Tay Garnett Pr: Charles R. Rogers Scr: Tom Buckingham, Tay Garnett Story: Put on the Spot (1930) by Jack Lait Cine: Arthur Miller Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Ricardo Cortez, John Garrick, Paul Hurst, Frank Conroy, Harry Carey, Frank McHugh, Kenneth Thomson, Arthur Stone, Emma Dunn, William V. Mong, Edgar Kennedy, Robert Keith.

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It has been claimed that this is the first movie to feature what would later become an iconic cinematic figure in such movies as WHITE HEAT (1949): the psycho gang boss. That boss is played here by Ricardo Cortez, an actor whom one might have assumed to be too bland, too suave, for the role, but in fact he renders it excellently.

Helen King (Twelvetrees) is in love with Steve Carlyle (Garrick), and when he proposes to her aboard the Dalton—the yacht belonging to her brother Markham “Mark” King (Conroy)—she says “Yes!” with all her heart. What she doesn’t know and won’t learn until very much later is that Steve is the protégé of mob leader Goldie Gorio (Cortez). What Steve doesn’t yet know is that King is in actuality the mysterious “Mr. Davis,” the mob boss who has control of the city’s West Side—the East Side is Gorio’s—and that the two bosses have been covertly maneuvering the lovers toward each other:

King: “In the old days, when two powers were at war, the daughter of one royal family was given in marriage to the son of the other. The result was permanent peace.”
Gorio: “So, besides getting the dame you want, Goldie Gorio and, uh, King gets themselves a setup with no interference, hijacking or rough stuff.”
Steve: “That’s great.” [to King] “And you’re willing to hold still for your own sister marrying a hoodlum that’s liable to ‘get his’ any minute?”

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Goldie Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) is full of faux charm.

Steve wants out, so that he and Helen can live a normal life together, but that’s not an option:

Gorio:You’re getting out? There’s only one way out, and you’re too young and beautiful to pick that one.”

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Steve (John Garrick) tells Gorio that he wants out.

Gorio lives in an apartment serviced by a hidden elevator within a hotel called the Golden Arms (was the hotel named for the mobster or did the mobster derive a nickname from the hotel?), whose foyer is permanently under surveillance by two men positioned with machine guns ready to mow down any unwanted interlopers. He has a sort of obsessive indigestion, an ulcer that seems to exist nowhere except in his imagination; the only food he’ll countenance is chowder sprinkled with saltines, and even then he most often turns it away in disgust. He’s tended by an elderly housekeeper called Emma (Dunn) and by a long-suffering butler (Hurst). Gorio has the pleasant habit of throwing his cigarette butts on the carpet and ordering his butler to “Pick it up!”

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Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) and his butler (Paul Hurst).

You’ll immediately recognize Paul Hurst, who plays the butler, from his appearances as the Dimwit Cop Sidekick in any number of PRC comedy thriller/mysteries. Here the dimwittedness is in the service of the other side of the law, but has the same amiable impenetrability. The running gag is that he keeps taking—and losing—bets against Gorio’s most (or only) intelligent sidekick, Crump (Keith, bizarrely uncredited), that the latter can’t win one of those little hand-held games where you have to manipulate a little metal ball up a spiral ramp into a plastic ramp. Crump always wins . . . thanks to adroit deployment of a magnet.

Not only does Gorio want the two lovers to be married, he’s going to pay for the wedding himself, and what a wedding it’s going to be! “A royal wedding,” he muses to himself. “The kind of wedding you’d expect from a big ruler, a guy like . . . a guy like . . .”

His gaze roams around the room, falling on a little desk statue he has of Napoleon, then on a bust of Julius Caesar. He moves almost as if to kiss the latter.

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Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) makes it clear with whom he identifies.

Sure enough, the wedding shindig is like a sort of Donald Trump version of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s ceremony, only the cathedral is bigger and more special, you hear, than Westminster Abbey, there’s a posse of bridesmaids young and old, there’s a blimp flying overhead showering flower petals on the massed thousands—and there’s more, much more than that. There’s no such thing as too much excess when it comes to Gorio’s public display of generosity. The climax, immediately after the preacher says, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” sees the organ break into the Wedding March while choristers pull ribbons to open up a gigantic, flower-covered cloth bell from within which flutters a flock of white doves . . .

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The blimp that circles overhead during the wedding.

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The blushing bride (Helen Twelvetrees).

But at the wedding the seeds of future chaos are sown as Gorio, who’s never seen her before, manifestly falls in lust with Helen, and he’s a man whose motto could be that what he wants he gets. “Till death us do part,” he says to the retreating wedding group, speaking it more as a challenge to future events than as a rumination.

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Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) broods.

The newlyweds honeymoon on King’s yacht, and as you’d expect there’s some overt symbolism to the effect that stormy seas may lie ahead. On their return, they’re showered—more accurately, Helen is showered—by gifts from Gorio, who’s keeping up the facade for the moment of avuncular benefactor. In reality, of course, he’s plotting to set Steve up to be ambushed by US Marshal McBaine (Carey), who’s long been after Gorio. The mobster tricks Crump—who he knows is a stool pigeon working for McBaine—into thinking he, Gorio, is going to make a pickup alone, then sends Steve in his place . . .

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The demise of Crump (Robert Keith).

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Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) spies on the ambush that he assumes will kill Steve.

After the shooting of Steve there’s a really quite sophisticated piece of stream-of-consciousness-style montaged cinematography, with shadowy limbs, automatic gun fire, Helen’s anguished face, a curious little figure on a puppet stage, flames, breaking glass, stormy water and more. The sequence seems to presage that at the climax of SCARLET STREET (1945), as Chris, his mind in meltdown, wanders the city’s night streets, haunted by his ghosts and his guilt. It has something of a Hitchcockian feel to it, too.

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Helen (Helen Twelvetrees) is — understandably — part of the montage we see after Steve’s shooting.

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Steve (John Garrick) has already told Helen (Helen Twelvetrees) learns of his gangster ties.

Before setting off for Gorio’s trap, Steve has confessed the nature of his “profession” to Helen. But the even bigger shock to her comes when her big brother does likewise:

“Then all I’ve ever had—my education, luxuries, everything—gangster money. Oh, Mark . . . All right, I’m a gangster’s sister, and I’m a gangster’s wife. I’m going to be the best wife I can to Steve. But he won’t always be a gangster because, with or without your help, I’m going to get him out.”

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Helen (Helen Twelvetrees) tends Steve (John Garrick) in the hospital.

And in due course, after Gorio has massacred her brother and a bunch of his sidekicks, she determines to settle things once and for all, setting off for the Golden Arms Hotel with a derringer in her pocket and vengeance in her heart . . . only for Gorio to turn the tables on her:

“Listen, sister. If you wasn’t such a dumb dame, you’d know you gotta be nice to me before you leave here.”

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Emma (Emma Dunn), the housekeeper, is appalled by the violence that’s about to be let loose . . .

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. . . and Gorio (Ricardo Cortez) is the one who’s about to do the letting loose.

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Markham (Frank Conroy) prepares to meet his doom.

Everything’s ready for the final shootemup, which arrives right on cue. Again there’s a very neat piece of cinematography, as we see Gorio and Helen, still in his secret apartment, reacting to the sounds of gunfire from without. The camera swings from side to side as it keeps first the one, then the other, in center focus, as if we were a frightened child not knowing which of the grown-ups to look at and trying to keep both of them in view.

In Bad Company Twelvetrees, with her perfectly sculpted cap of blonde hair and her wide, evocative eyes, is like a welcome figure from an earlier cinematic era, a refugee from the silents—even though she never in fact appeared in the silents. (Her first movie was one of the earliest talkies, appropriately called The Ghost Talks [1929], now lost.) Although it’s clear she’s the intended star and our sympathies are constantly centered on her, she’s almost upstaged by Cortez as the gangster, whose mixture of attempted suaveness and outright ghastliness is irresistibly fascinating. Here he is, for example, hesitantly supping his chowder at the extravagant homecoming thrash he’s thrown for the returning honeymooners:

“No, Helen, I’m afraid the old stomach just won’t take it no more. Too much high-living, rich food, and just too much dough, I guess. Yeah, but it comes in handy.” [belches] “See there? Gas. More room out than in, though? Ha ha!”

But then he sees that Helen isn’t impressed by his witty repartee, that she has eyes only for Steve, and his affected good humor turns to a snarl: “This party is getting dead. I’m gonna start something . . .” And, the next you know, the dice and the cards are out and the assembled hoodlums and their molls are getting stuck into a major gambling session.

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. . . and, yes, the gangster boss has a whiteish cat.

Jack Lait, whose book Put on the Spot (1930) is cited in the opening credits as the inspiration for this movie, was a journalist, playwright and author best-known in noirish circles for one of the “Confidential” series of books that he wrote with Lee Mortimer, New York: Confidential! (1948); this was very loosely adapted for the screen as NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955) dir Russell Rouse, with a cast including Broderick Crawford, Richard Conte, Marilyn Maxwell, Anne Bancroft, J. Carrol Naish, Onslow Stevens and Mike Mazurki—golly! A 1959 TV series, also called New York Confidential followed. Lait and Mortimer’s later collaboration Chicago: Confidential! (1950) inspired another movie of borderline noirish interest, CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL (1957) dir Robert E. Kent, with Brian Keith, Beverly Garland, Dick Foran, Douglas Kennedy and Elisha Cook Jr.—another great noirish cast! Among Lait’s other movie writing credits is, I see, Home Boner (1939), a comedy short that I have yet to track down. (I tried googling it, but . . .)

With a screenplay that’s generally intelligent (if we ignore the fact that the cops simply lose interest in Steve after he abandons his career in crime) and two splendid central performances, Bad Company is a movie that’s been unjustly neglected. There’s a Spanish DVD with an English-language option (see below), but I’ve no idea of the picture quality; otherwise we’re reliant on fuzzy public domain copies. Even so, it’s well worth enduring the visual blur. In so many ways, not least Garnett’s fluid direction and Miller’s often equally fluid cinematography, Bad Company seems at least a decade ahead of its time.

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On Amazon.com: Bad Company [PAL Format]““

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7 thoughts on “Bad Company (1931)

  1. If the blurriness of a public domain print is worth it, then I’m in. And what a cast!

    I had made it a goal, last summer, to see more of Helen Twelvetrees’ films, then got distracted. This sounds like a good one to get back into her filmography.

    • It’s well worth a watch, and survives the lo-res visuals pretty well. It’s about time someone mounted a Twelvetrees revival so that better prints of her movies became available.

  2. Pingback: Shadow of the Law (1930) | Noirish

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