30 May 2004 | bensonj
GREAT ATMOSPHERIC PRE-CODER, MARRED BY COMEDY RELIEF
A good start: the credits are written in the sand and washed away by waves, with only the sound of the surf. The story starts with Rambeau being met at the bottom of the gangplank in New York by the law, and told to return directly to Havana, do not pass go. When we get back to Havana we find that the film's not about Rambeau, but about 12trees, who is under the thumb of Cortez. In an early scene, Cortez's henchmen stage a fight to draw attention while he surreptitiously kills an enemy by throwing a knife; a well managed, cold blooded murder. Holmes, in one of his best performances, is a sailor on leave who is taken with 12trees, even though she plays her best B-girl routine on him. That's the set-up, and it's really well played out all the way to the end. The plot structure is good, with Cortez getting poetic justice, and with no false moves. The atmosphere is great, particularly in a bravura street set, which a moving camera travels down twice, through crowds of drunks, whores and assorted riffraff. One of these tracking shots has 12trees bouncing along behind Cortez, the perfect image of a floozie following her pimp. The camera is fluid throughout the film, prowling around the huge bar set as well as the streets. And 12trees shows that she can deliver a performance that's a bit different from the put-upon wives of MY WOMAN and NOW I'LL TELL. Although some of the dialogue is a bit primitive, one can well see why this film "has its adherents" (per Halliwell). Unfortunately, all this great stuff is interspersed with a series of simple repeating burlesque blackouts: Gleason losing--and his pal winning--at the one-armed bandit; Summerville and drunks bashing (or not bashing) a hat; Pangborn challenging others to a fight, etc. The mechanical nature of the gags, and their constant reiteration, tends to defeat the suspension of disbelief needed for the serious drama in the foreground. Even so, this one is a pre-Code era must-see.