13 November 2010 | AlsExGal
A different kind of gangster film...
... at least for early sound. The title character in particular, Thunderbolt, played by George Bancroft, is a rather complex gangster character for a dawn of sound movie. What do you say about a man who'd go to great lengths to kill a fellow he has never met just on general principle but who loves the stray dog that causes him to finally get pinched and put in the death house to the point that when the death house warden grants him a favor, Thunderbolt asks for that same dog to stay in his cell as a pet? Fay Wray, only 21 at the time, plays Ritzy, Thunderbolt's girl, with a sense of world-weariness that is wise beyond her years. When the film opens she's being hassled by the police to give up Thunderbolt's hiding place in some really classic early sound police interrogation scenes. Ironically, she really wants to be free of Thunderbolt, who swears he'll never let her go, especially if there's another guy involved, and there is - bank teller Bob Morgan played by Richard Arlen.
The first third of the film moves about quite a bit with some great jazz age settings, but the last two-thirds is primarily confined to the death house where Thunderbolt awaits his appointment with the chair. There's lots of atmosphere in this one with the death row quartet that keeps getting broken up as one fellow is executed and then restarted as another inmate enters. The death row warden is an interesting fellow, with eccentricity and nervousness balanced by a humane streak to the point that he seems misplaced - he seems like he'd be happier managing the shoe department in some retail store.
The end has a surprise twist to it that makes Thunderbolt rethink his rather complex plan of revenge just as he makes that last walk to the chair. I'm being intentionally vague here so I don't ruin it for you. Watch it for the surprising sophistication of this early sound piece, for the kind of atmosphere you can always count on in a von Sternberg film, and for that general touch of class that you find in the early Paramount talkies.